Research with Staying Power
Twenty-two years ago, a Baylor professor named Justin Longenecker delved into ethical attitudes using a survey that he created with two colleagues. The first article from their research was published in 1988.
Most recently, Tisha Emerson, a young professor who has been at Baylor since 2000 used the Longenecker survey once again. From her data, she and a research partner have published four papers and submitted a fifth for review. A sixth manuscript, not yet finished, has been tentatively accepted as a chapter in a book.
Although Longenecker died in 2005, researchers already have more plans for the data he began gathering more than 20 years ago. The staying power of his original work reveals as much about the man as it does about the topic, his colleagues say.
"He was our first Chavanne professor of business ethics," said Joe McKinney, the Ben Williams Professor of International Economics. "He was a highly regarded professor and one of great integrity. He was a natural for the first Chavanne."
A great strength of the survey, which McKinney and Carlos Moore, who recently passed away, helped design, is that it still has legs today. Tisha Emerson, the Baylor professor who most recently used it, said an article she wrote last year contained two vignettes from the original survey: insider trading and using accounting techniques to conceal something from public scrutiny.
The survey has 18 vignettes that describe such activities as expense account padding and shorting the IRS, and ask survey takers how they feel about each action. The ratings are "never acceptable, sometimes acceptable and always acceptable." Beneath that is the question: "Have you ever faced or observed this type of situation?" as well as a space for comments.
McKinney said Longenecker was motivated by his interest in business ethics and by the relationship between ethical attitudes and religious belief. Although the researchers did not find much interest among journals in publishing articles related to the religious aspects of the subject in earlier years, that changed in 2004 when the Journal of Business Ethics signed on.
"There was not much interest (earlier) in the subject, but (Longenecker) kept returning to that," McKinney said. "It was published before he died." Moore noted in an interview before his passing that his friend did not push his personal religious beliefs, but "you could see them."
Both McKinney and Moore spoke of their longtime friendship with Longenecker, and how he honored them by requesting their participation on the survey. Emerson noted his generosity and kindness to her.
"Some would not be willing to help you, certainly not by giving up the data," she said. "I didn't get to know him as well as I'd have liked to, but I do feel fortunate that I got to know him a little bit."
McKinney signed on to help with the survey even though he had no background in business ethics and no strong interest in research on the subject. "I jumped at the opportunity because I thought so highly of him."
Moore, the recent Edwin W. Streetman Professor of Marketing, contributed both on the front end, helping to construct the vignettes, and on the back end, by serving as the statistician and putting the data into computer programs.
"It took a while to put together so as not to be biased," said Moore, who was at Baylor since 1969. "We focused on different areas – marketing, HR and finance-to take a broad measure. A lot of the questions are gray. We did that intentionally."
Moore and McKinney, who came to Baylor in 1976, conducted the survey with Longenecker three different times with eight-year intervals in between.
"We had a large database," McKinney said. "We sent it out to 10,000 business professionals. But because it was a sensitive topic, the response rate was not great. The lowest was about 12 percent and the highest, 19 percent." They did get more than 1,000 responses, he said. "We can get some good statistical results from that."
Apparently others can, too. When McKinney presented a paper at a conference in Hong Kong in fall 2006, he noticed that a researcher from Hong Kong Baptist had used part of the survey in her own research. "Some people ask permission to use it and others don't. It's out there and people certainly can use it," McKinney said. "It's not copyrighted."
Some of the studies make comparisons. Between 1985 and 2001, the researchers found improvement in the ethical climate, which McKinney believes is cyclical.
Other findings: "In the article from the first survey, we noticed that younger respondents took a more permissive attitude than older ones. We wondered if this signaled some kind of decline in ethical standards. More recent surveys found a continued difference between older and younger professionals, but a continued improvement in the ethical climate. Apparently people mature in their outlook of ethical issues. We were encouraged by that," McKinney added. "We called it wrong. It was not a moral decline but a maturity issue. That will probably be the subject of a new article."
Moore noted that a recent article focused on the state of ethics at companies with a code of ethics and those that did not. "Those with codes of ethics responded in a more ethical way," he said.
Although Longenecker's contributions to the study of ethics are vital, both Moore and McKinney noted that his reputation stretched far beyond ethics. He was a member of the United States Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) and was president of the International Council of Small Business, which is affiliated with the USASBE. The organization names outstanding people fellows, said Moore, and honored Longenecker by renaming its honorees the Justin Longenecker Fellows.
Longnecker's book, Small Business Management, written with Dr. H.M. Broom, was first published in 1961. Over the years, Longenecker invited others to collaborate. "The 14th edition is out," said Moore, displaying the copy on his desk, with Moore, William Petty and Les Palich sharing authorship
with Longenecker. Interestingly, the second chapter in the original edition offered a discussion of business ethics.
"Social responsibility was integrated into everything he did," Moore said.
Emerson, who like McKinney is an economist, said her study of ethics marked the first time for her to do work in the area of ethics. She did it because she wants to do work consistent with the mission of the business school and the University.
"It was also too good to pass up with Justin, Joe and Carlos here," she said.
Her research, which used both the historical data and new questions, shows that age and gender are always important in ethics. Females tend to find questionable behavior wrong more often than men, as do older people, she said.
And like McKinney, she and Steve Conroy, her research partner, found a cyclical swing in ethical attitudes that seems to depend on what's occurring at the time the survey is taken.
"We continued to collect data as the ImClone and Martha Stewart stories broke," Emerson said. "People were less and less accepting of questionable situations described in the vignettes."
Such surveys contribute to the understanding of ethical attitudes, Emerson
said. They also help professors prepare students better.
"We have the opportunity to help us better teach students and the way they look at things so we can avoid the next Enron."
McKinney said he's found the ethics surveys interesting enough to continue working in that area.
"I would not be surprised if people use the survey for years to come," he said.