The Individual Approach to Ethics

How can you make sure that you do the right thing in the business world? How should you respond to the kinds of challenges that you’ll be facing? Because your actions in the business world will be strongly influenced by your moral character, let’s begin by assessing your current moral condition. Which of the following best applies to you (select one)?

I’m always ethical.

I’m mostly ethical.

I’m somewhat ethical.

I’m seldom ethical.

I’m never ethical.

Now that you’ve placed yourself in one of these categories, here are some general observations. Few people put themselves below the second category. Most of us are ethical most of the time, and most people assign themselves to category number two— “I’m mostly ethical.” Why don’t more people claim that they’re always ethical?

Apparently, most people realize that being ethical all the time takes a great deal of moral energy. If you placed yourself in category number two, ask yourself this question: How can I change my behaviour so that I can move up a notch? The answer to this question may be simple. Just ask yourself an easier question: How would I like to be treated in a given situation? [1]

Unfortunately, practising this philosophy might be easier in your personal life than in the business world. Ethical challenges arise in business because companies, especially large ones, have multiple stakeholders who sometimes make competing demands. Making decisions that affect multiple stakeholders isn’t easy even for seasoned managers; and for new entrants to the business world, the task can be extremely daunting. You can, however, get a head start in learning how to make ethical decisions by looking at two types of challenges that you’ll encounter in the business world: ethical dilemmas and ethical decisions.

Case Study: How a Bottle Cap Restored a Reputation (Temporarily)

Addressing Ethical Dilemmas

An ethical dilemma is a morally problematic situation: you must choose between two or more acceptable but often opposing alternatives that are important to different groups.  Experts often frame this type of situation as a “right-versus-right” decision. It’s the sort of decision that Johnson & Johnson (known as J&J) CEO James Burke had to make in 1982. [2] On September 30, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Chicago died after her parents gave her Extra-Strength Tylenol. That same morning, twenty-seven-year-old Adam Janus, also of Chicago, died after taking Tylenol for minor chest pain. That night, when family members came to console his parents, Adam’s brother and his wife took Tylenol from the same bottle and died within forty-eight hours. Over the next two weeks, four more people in Chicago died after taking Tylenol. The actual connection between Tylenol and the series of deaths wasn’t made until an off-duty fireman realized from news reports that every victim had taken Tylenol. As consumers panicked, J&J pulled Tylenol off Chicago-area retail shelves. Researchers discovered Tylenol capsules containing large amounts of deadly cyanide. Because the poisoned bottles came from batches originating at different J&J plants, investigators determined that the tampering had occurred after the product had been shipped. [3]

So J&J wasn’t at fault. But CEO Burke was still faced with an extremely serious dilemma: Was it possible to respond to the tampering cases without destroying the reputation of a highly profitable brand?

Burke had two options:

  1. He could recall only the lots of Extra-Strength Tylenol that were found to be tainted with cyanide. In 1991, Perrier executives recalled only tainted product when they discovered that cases of their bottled water had been poisoned with benzine. This option favoured J&J financially but possibly put more people at risk.
  2. Burke could order a nationwide recall—of all bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol. This option would reverse the priority of the stakeholders, putting the safety of the public above stakeholders’ financial interests.
Two bottles of Tylenol, side by side, showcasing the new, tamper-proof one on the right
Source: CNBC

Burke opted to recall all 31 million bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol on the market. The cost to J&J was $100 million, but public reaction was quite positive. Less than six weeks after the crisis began, Tylenol capsules were reintroduced in new tamper-resistant bottles, and by responding quickly and appropriately, J&J was eventually able to restore the Tylenol brand to its previous market position. When Burke was applauded for moral courage, he replied that he’d simply adhered to the long-standing J&J credo that put the interests of customers above those of other stakeholders. His only regret was that the perpetrator was never caught. [4]


If you’re wondering what your thought process should be if you’re confronted with an ethical dilemma, you might wish to remember the mental steps listed here—which happen to be the steps that James Burke took in addressing the Tylenol crisis:

  1. Define the problem: How to respond to the tampering case without destroying the reputation of the Tylenol brand.
  2. Identify feasible options: (1) Recall only the lots of Tylenol that were found to be tainted or (2) order a nationwide recall of all bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol.
  3. Assess the effect of each option on stakeholders: Option 1 (recalling only the tainted lots of Tylenol) is cheaper but puts more people at risk. Option 2 (recalling all bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol) puts the safety of the public above stakeholders’ financial interests.
  4. Establish criteria for determining the most appropriate action: Adhere to the J&J credo, which puts the interests of customers above those of other stakeholders.
  5. Select the best option based on the established criteria: In 1982, Option 2 was selected, and a nationwide recall of all bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol was conducted.

Making Ethical Decisions

In contrast to the “right-versus-right” problem posed by an ethical dilemma, an ethical decision entails a “right-versus-wrong” decision—one in which there is clearly a right (ethical) choice and a wrong (unethical or illegal) choice. When you make a decision that’s unmistakably unethical or illegal, you’ve committed an ethical lapse. If you’re presented with this type of choice, asking yourself the following questions and increase your odds of making an ethical decision.

Is the action illegal?

Is it unfair to some stakeholders?

If I do it, will I feel badly about it?

Will I be ashamed to tell my family friends, coworkers, or boss?

Will I be embarrassed if my action is written up in the newspaper?

Here use the five-question process for ethical decision-making in Chapter 3 to determine if Trudeau made an ethical choice in his decision to vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island. You response is anonymous and will be added to responses from other institutions using this textbook chapter.

If you answer yes to any one of these five questions when considering an ethical dilemma, odds are that you’re about to do something you shouldn’t.

Revisiting Johnson & Johnson

As discussed earlier, Johnson & Johnson received tremendous praise for the actions taken by its CEO, James Burke, in response to the 1982 Tylenol catastrophe. However, things change. To learn how a company can destroy its good reputation, let’s fast forward to 2008 and revisit J&J and its credo, which states, “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.” [5] How could a company whose employees believed so strongly in its credo find itself under criminal and congressional investigation for a series of recalls due to defective products? [6] In a three-year period, the company recalled twenty-four products, including Children’s, Infants’ and Adults’ Tylenol, Motrin, and Benadryl; [7] 1-Day Acuvue TruEye contact lenses sold outside the U.S.; [8] and hip replacements. [9]

Unlike the Tylenol recall, no one had died from the defective products, but customers were certainly upset to find they had purchased over-the-counter medicines for themselves and their children that were potentially contaminated with dark particles or tiny specks of metal; [10] contact lenses that contained a type of acid that caused stinging or pain when inserted in the eye; [11] and defective hip implants that required patients to undergo a second hip replacement. [12]

Who bears the responsibility for these image-damaging blunders? Two individuals who were at least partially responsible were William Weldon, CEO, and Colleen Goggins, Worldwide Chairman of J&J’s Consumer Group. Weldon has been criticized for being largely invisible and publicly absent during the recalls. [13] Additionally, he admitted that he did not understand the consumer division where many of the quality control problems originated. [14] Goggins was in charge of the factories that produced many of the recalled products. She was heavily criticized by fellow employees for her excessive cost-cutting measures and her propensity to replace experienced scientists with new hires. [15] In addition, she was implicated in scheme to avoid publicly disclosing another J&J recall of a defective product.

After learning that J&J had released packets of Motrin that did not dissolve correctly, the company hired contractors to go into convenience stores and secretly buy up every pack of Motrin on the shelves. The instructions given to the contractors were the following: “You should simply ‘act’ like a regular customer while making these purchases. THERE MUST BE NO MENTION OF THIS BEING A RECALL OF THE PRODUCT!” [16] In May 2010, when Goggins appeared before a congressional committee investigating the “phantom recall,” she testified that she was not aware of the behaviour of the contractors [17] and that she had “no knowledge of instructions to contractors involved in the phantom recall to not tell store employees what they were doing.” In her September 2010 testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she acknowledged that the company in fact wrote those very instructions.

Refusing to Rationalize

Despite all the good arguments in favour of doing the right thing, why do many reasonable people act unethically (at least at times)? Why do good people make bad choices? According to one study, there are four common rationalizations (excuses) for justifying misconduct: [18]

My behaviour isn’t really illegal or immoral. Rationalizers try to convince themselves that an action is OK if it isn’t downright illegal or blatantly immoral. They tend to operate in a gray area where there’s no clear evidence that the action is wrong.

My action is in everyone’s best interests. Some rationalizers tell themselves: “I know I lied to make the deal, but it’ll bring in a lot of business and pay a lot of bills.” They convince themselves that they’re expected to act in a certain way. [19]

No one will find out what I’ve done. Here, the self-questioning comes down to “If I didn’t get caught, did I really do it?” The answer is yes. There’s a simple way to avoid succumbing to this rationalization: always act as if you’re being watched.

The company will condone my action and protect me. This justification rests on a fallacy.

If you find yourself having to rationalize a decision, it’s probably a bad one.

What to Do When the Light Turns Yellow

Like our five questions, some ethical problems are fairly straightforward. Others, unfortunately, are more complicated, but it will help to think of our five-question test as a set of signals that will warn you that you’re facing a particularly tough decision— that you should think carefully about it and perhaps consult someone else. The situation is like approaching a traffic light. Red and green lights are easy; you know what they mean and exactly what to do. Yellow lights are trickier. Before you decide which pedal to hit, try posing our five questions. If you get a single yes, you’ll almost surely be better off hitting the brake. [20]

Chapter Video

Foxconn is a major supplier to Apple. All of its factories are in China and Taiwan, although it recently announced building a new one in the United States. Working conditions are much different than in a typical US or Canadian factory. As you watch the video, think about what responsibilities Apple has in this situation. They don’t own Foxconn or its factories, yet their reputation can be nevertheless impacted.

Key Takeaways

  • Business ethics is the application of ethical behaviour in a business context. Ethical (trustworthy) companies are better able to attract and keep customers, talented employees, and capital.
  • Acting ethically in business means more than just obeying laws and regulations. It also means being honest, doing no harm to others, competing fairly, and declining to put your own interests above those of your employer and coworkers.
  • In the business world, you’ll encounter conflicts of interest: situations in which you’ll have to choose between taking action that promotes your personal interest and action that favours the interest of others.
  • Corporate social responsibility refers to the approach that an organization takes in balancing its responsibilities toward different stakeholders (owners, employees, customers, and the communities in which they conduct business) when making legal, economic, ethical, and social decisions.
  • Managers have several responsibilities: to increase the value of owners’ investments through profitable operations, to provide owners and other stakeholders with accurate, reliable financial information, to safeguard the company’s assets, and to handle its funds in a trustworthy manner.
  • Companies have a responsibility to pay appropriate wages and benefits, treat all workers fairly, and provide equal opportunities for all employees. In addition, they must guard workers’ safety and health and to provide them with a work environment that’s free from sexual harassment.
  • Consumers have certain legal rights: to use safe products, to be informed about products, to choose what to buy, and to be heard. Sellers must comply with these requirements.
  • Business people face two types of ethical challenges: ethical dilemmas and ethical decisions.
  • An ethical dilemma is a morally problematic situation in which you must choose competing and often conflicting options which do not satisfy all stakeholders.
  • An ethical decision is one in which there’s a right (ethical) choice and a wrong (unethical or downright illegal) choice.

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  14. Perrone, M. (2011). J&J CEO Gets 3% Raise, but Bonus Is Cut. USA Today. Retrieved from:
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  17. Johnson and Johnson. (2010). Testimony of Ms. Colleen A. Goggins, Worldwide Chairman, Consumer Group, Johnson & Johnson, before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives.
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