Most authorities agree that there is room for improvement in business ethics. One of the most problematic questions raised in relation to business ethics is whether or not businesses can become more ethical in the real world. The majority opinion on this issue suggests that government, trade associations, and individual firms can indeed establish acceptable levels of ethical behavior.
The government can do so by legislating more stringent regulations. But, rules require enforcement and when in many cases there is evidence of lack of enforcement even the ethical businessperson will tend to “slip something by” without getting caught. Increased regulation may help, but it surely cannot solve the entire business ethics problems.
Trade associations can and often do provide ethical guidelines for their members. These organizations within particular industries are in an excellent position to exert pressures on members that stoop to questionable business practices. However, enforcement and authority vary from association to association. Moreover, exactly because trade associations exist for the benefit of their members, harsh measures may be self-defeating.
Employees can more easily determine and adopt acceptable behavior when companies provide them with a “code of ethics.” Such codes are perhaps the most effective way to encourage ethical behavior. A code of ethics is a written guide to acceptable and ethical behavior that outlines uniform policies, standards and punishments for violations. Because employees know what is expected of them and what will happen if they violate the rules, a code of ethics goes a long way towards encouraging ethical behavior. However, codes cannot possibly cover every situation. Companies must also create an environment in which employees recognize the importance of complying with the written code. Managers must provide direction by fostering communication, actively modeling and encouraging ethical decision making, apart from investing in training employees to make ethical decisions.
Sometimes, even employees who want to act ethically may find it difficult to do so. Unethical practices can become ingrained in an organization. Employees with high personal ethics may then take a controversial step called “whistle blowing.” Whistle blowing is informing the press or government officials about unethical practices in an organization. Whistle blowing could have averted disaster and prevented needless deaths in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, for example. How could employees have known about life-threatening problems and let them pass? Whistle blowing on the other hand, can have serious repercussions for employees; those who make waves sometimes lose their jobs.