Business ethics is one of the most important, yet perhaps most misunderstood, concerns in the world of business today ( Ferell, Fraedrich & Ferell 2002, p.4) . The term ethics has been defined in many ways. Taylor defines ethics as "inquiry into the nature and grounds of the mortality where the term mortality is taken to mean moral judgements, standards and rules of conduct" (Taylor 1975, p.1). It is also known as the study of human conduct on the basis of what is right or wrong.
In this assignment, terms like business ethics, social responsibility and responsibilities of businesses will be defined and discussed. Mainly a work situation, at my present employment which posed an ethical dilemma, will be described. It will also include the options which were available, preferred option, reasons for and against the preferred option. Finally the solution to the situation will be restated by relating it to one of the classical ethical theory.
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Although businesses must make a profit to ensure survival, efforts must be made in order to balance the desire for profit against the needs and desires of society. This concept gives rise to the term called business ethics. In simple words, it can be said that business ethics is the study or the process of principles and standards that guide the expected behaviour in the business world (Ferell, Fraedrich & Ferell 2002, p.6).
Often concepts of ethics and social responsibility are confused with each other, although each has a distinct meaning. Social responsibility is the obligations business assumes towards society. Being socially responsible means carrying out business in a way which will maximise the positive effects and minimise the negative effects on the society.
In fact, businesses have few more responsibilities. Economic responsibility requires a business to produce goods and services to meet the needs and wants at a price that can encourage the business and satisfy its obligations to its investors. It emphasises on the fair distribution of resources for both goods and services within society. For example: If Tesco sells a walkers crisp for 30 pence and on the other hand Harrods at Knightsbridge sells the same walkers crisp for 1 pound. Let us suppose Tesco serves 100 and Harrods serves 30 customers which buy crisps. Even though the contribution to the economy in terms of sales revenue by both companies was exact same, Tesco will be considered more economically responsible since it serves a larger part of the society and follows fair distribution (Walser 2003).
Legal responsibility requires a business and its employees to obey local, state and federal law at a minimum. Civil law is concerned with rights and duties of a business and an individual. Criminal law prohibits certain actions and imposes punishment otherwise. Ethical responsibility requires a business to carry out its business activities in a manner which is expected of it by society even though it is not codified in law. It looks at the societal perspective.
Final one is philanthropic responsibility. It requires a business to show its desire to give back to society. This might include donating money to charity organisations, financing community projects, setting up voluntary workshops etc. Nowadays, most businesses often use philanthropic responsibility as a part of their strong business strategy. For example : Mc Donald's puts a notice on its charity collection box of how much money was donated to charities through that box and also thanks its customers for their contribution ( Walser 2003).
Brief Job Description
I work for Sainsbury's in Streatham Common. My position is store assistant in the bakery department. My duties involve serving customers at the counter, answering their queries, slicing the bread for them and providing them any kind of assistance they might require.
Situation / Dilemma
We sell bread, doughnuts, cakes, danish, french-sticks, cookies, muffins etc. in the bakery. Most of the products we sell are freshly made within the bakery in our store. But we also get some products as frozen from the suppliers which we then defrost before they are put on the shelves. Two examples of such products which we sell are: muffins and gateau (a big round cake). Muffins are sold as two in a box, and it clearly states "previously frozen" on the product label. Similarly we sell gateau as one in a round packaging but do not tell the customers that it was previously frozen in any way.
Few weeks ago, I dealt with a customer on a saturday while I was doing my shift at work. She was a lady in her late 30's. It was going to be her son's birthday on the following Tuesday. She placed an order for a gateau cake to be collected on Tuesday around midday under the impression that it would be made for her as fresh in our bakery on Tuesday morning itself. But the matter of the fact was that it was not going to be made as fresh, we would have had de frosted the frozen cake and sold it to her without telling her that the cake was previously frozen.
* I could tell the lady customer the hiding truth that the cake would not be made in the bakery as fresh but instead it would simply be defrosted from frozen state.
* I could just act as if it didn't matter whether it was made fresh or defrosted. I could take her order and made sure that it was ready for the collection on Tuesday by her.
* I could take the order, process it and then stick a label on the packaging saying "previously frozen".
I chose option 1 and the lady still placed the order. But she made a point out to my manager that we should state clearly that the cake was previously frozen.
Reasons for Option Taken
I made sure that I was not lying to the customer even indirectly (by not telling her the truth). My conscience was clean. I felt satisfaction of telling the truth. The lady customer also appreciated the fact that I told her the truth and gave a choice to make up her mind whether she wants to go ahead with the order or not.
Reasons against Option Taken
I did not necessarily had to tell her the whole story about the cake being defrosted from frozen because of the fact that it would still have been fresh and moreover she would never had found out the truth anyway. Another reason is that if the Sainsbury's is not stating that it was previously frozen why should have I bothered? At the end of the day I was not the bakery manager or store manager and it is not my problem either. I also think my manager would have had probably appreciated if I had not told her the truth since it did not make him look very good in front of the customer.
Disproving the Reasons Offered Against the Option Taken
If I did not tell the customer the whole story about the cake being defrosted, it would mean that I was not providing her with information she was entitled to know as a customer. Secondly, just because Sainsbury's was not acting responsible enough by not stating the cake was previously frozen, I did not have to act in an irresponsible way too but instead I should have rectified the mistake and brought this issue to my manager's attention. Thirdly, if I was to tell the customer the truth and she was to confront my manager. My manager should have viewed it as positive feedback from the employee as well as customer.
Restating the Solution
I made the right choice by telling customer the true fact about the cake. It was right thing to do according to me because it would have had meant being unfair to her otherwise by hiding the truth even though it was over a simple and small matter but this action most probably and hopefully left a very good impression on the customer to make her another loyal customer to Sainsbury's due to their honesty and fairness. This argument behind my act relates perfectly with the element of fairness of the virtue of ethics theory of ethics. The theory of virtue of ethics says "The disposition based on a desire to deal with the perceived injustices to others. Fairness often relates to doing the right thing with respect to small matters to cultivate a long-term business relationship" (Maitland 1997, p.97).
Relationship between the ethical dilemma and the theoretical concepts:
A moral virtue represents an acquired disposition that is valued as a part of an individual's character. A person who has a character trait of being honest will be disposed to tell the truth because it is considered to be right and comfortable. This individual will try to always tell the truth because of its importance in human communication. A virtue is considered praiseworthy because it is an achievement that an individual develops through practice and commitment.
The elements of virtue important to business are trust, self-control, empathy, fairness, and truthfulness. Attributes in contrast to virtue would include lying, cheating, fraud and corruption (Ferell, Fraedrich & Ferell 2002, p.64).
This ethical dilemma can be related to the concept of virtue of ethics. Elements involved were being truthful to the customer about the cake; fairness was shown by telling the customer truth. By telling customer the truth, an element of trust was gained by customer towards me. I empathised by telling customer the truth because that is what I would have had expected of an employee at Sainsbury's myself.
After hearing about this ethical dilemma, some individuals might say I was being over ethical and what I did was beyond the requirement by my job or the society I live in. Some might even also say that virtue is an unattainable goal and it is not reasonable to be obliged to live up to its standards. But for the believers of ethics and to those who espouse virtue ethics, this argument is meaningless because they believe in the universal reality of the elements of virtue (Ferell, Fraedrich & Ferell 2002, p.64).
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