Moral Development in Business

Moral business leaders aren't in the clouds--they're on top of economics.
Moral business leaders aren't in the clouds--they're on top of economics. (Image: business 2 image by Nathalie P from

Businesspeople use the word "professionalism" often, usually defining it in terms of qualities, such as "trustworthy" or "on time." All the terms used in defining professionalism are a reflection of specific moral sets and ideals, so business and morality are extremely intertwined. However, businesspeople do not always have the moral sense that the company wants. Instead, businesspeople develop their business morality over time. The ability to do this impacts whether the business succeeds or fails.


Richard Mullen, Professor Emeritus of Wheeling Jesuit University, asserts that moral development arises from crises. These problems are situations in which an individual has to learn or decide what is right or wrong. In the business world, a crisis might be lack of adequate pay or discrimination. Moral development is needed when the reaction to these crises is negative. High workplace tension, employee stealing and fraud, resistance to management, and legal issues thus all signal that there are crises and room for moral growth within the business.


Mullin hypothesizes that business leaders can help employees to grow morally and that doing so is crucial to business management. He also claims that people may operate at a lower level of moral development in the workplace than they do in their personal life, which may show that people are not immoral but simply need guidance on how to bring their personal moral level into the workplace. Mullin's hypothesis takes into account the authoritative position of members of management and assumes that modeling moral behavior and actions fosters moral development in others.


Moral development is crucial in business because businesses serve as a model for society and vice versa. To this end, a company's moral reputation not only determines what kind of customers or clients the company attracts, but also perpetuates or eliminates moral issues outside of the workplace. Additionally moral development influences the atmosphere of the workplace, which has an influence on productivity, and subsequently, business profit.


Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard's Center for Moral Education identified six distinct stages of moral development. These include punishment and obedience, instrumental exchange, interpersonal conformity, law and order, prior rights and social contract and universal ethical principles. Examples of these stages applied to business might be:

1) people submitting to a workplace bully 2) offering/taking bribes to get different actions/results 3) everyone in the business doing what is popular even if it goes against policy 4) demands for fair treatment of all employees and adherence to policy 5) coming up with new ideas individually that conflict with policy based on logical thought 6) management holding open door meetings in which all employees may address issues

Ethics Training

When management sees a lack of moral development among employees, they may resort to ethics training to solve the issue. Ethics training teaches what the business wants, showing what is morally acceptable and unacceptable within the company. It outlines the ramifications for unacceptable behavior and gives tools the employees may use to change.

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