How to Understand Business Ethics

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We act ethically for the same reasons we stop at red lights; it keeps everyone safe.
We act ethically for the same reasons we stop at red lights; it keeps everyone safe. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Business ethics is knowing right from wrong in the workplace setting. It concerns the effects of products and the needs of people who have an interest in the company (called stakeholders). Business ethics also focuses on the well-being of everyone because of the power over society that modern businesses hold. Business ethics can be difficult to understand because there are many schools of thought that list different ways to be ethical. In attempting to understand business ethics, it’s best to start with universal ethics and then move on to more specific ethical philosophies.

Consider why you should be ethical. Sometimes it’s easier and more lucrative to act unethically in business. So why act ethically? For the same reasons you stop at red lights when driving, even when no one else seems to be on the road. Following the rules makes doing business safer for everyone, including yourself. However, often being ethical goes beyond established rules and laws.

Learn the ethics "rules of the road." While it is true that some of ethics are grey areas and several philosophies prescribe different solutions to ethical problems, there are some basic ethical ideas. Some of these ideas include not hurting anyone (physically or emotionally), telling the truth, acting fairly, contributing to society and refraining from prejudice.

Practice ethical actions. Often, the best way to understand an idea is to put into action. This is especially true in the case of ethics. Actions can be unethical, neutral or ethical and it’s best to stick to neutral and ethical actions. Before you take a business action, consider if the action is ethical. Thinking through the consequences of actions is the hallmark of an ethical businessperson.

Find out the origin of mistakes in business ethics. Ethics is not the “good people” versus the “bad people”, it’s ethical actions versus unethical actions. To understand ethics, you must understand what causes people to take unethical actions. It’s true that some people act unethically for both personal gain and because they don’t care about the impact of their actions. However, more often unethical actions come from employees who are confused, fatigued or stressed.

Make an ethics management plan. Ethics management planning helps reduce the number of ethics issues that result from being ill-informed or under pressure. The plan could be as simple as spending a few hours a day reviewing your decisions or as complex as a formal code of ethics. What’s important is having a plan in place that helps you understand complex ethics issues as they arise.

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