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Ethical Attitudes More Tolerant if Scenario Already Experienced

Oct. 11, 2002

Business people who have already experienced an ethical dilemma have a much more tolerant view of questionable ethical behavior when confronted with similar situations.

Professors at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business say the results of a recent study show significantly different judgments of ethical business behavior, based upon respondents' previous experiences.

"Respondents apparently adopt a higher ethical standard when judging hypothetical situations and a lower ethical standard when they have been personally involved in actual situations," says Dr. William Weeks, professor of marketing.  "Taking a strong ethical stance may be easy enough when nothing is at stake, but adhering to a high ethical standard may be more difficult when the welfare of the company, its employees and the individual are at risk."

Business professionals across the United States were surveyed in the study.  Respondents were presented with 19 ethical vignettes.  Those involving significantly different responses based upon experience included:

  • padding of an expense account,

  • violation of environmental pollution standards,

  • recommending a stock which the broker did not consider a good investment,

  • misrepresentation of earned income for tax purposes,

  • bribery of a foreign government official,

  • hiring the employee of a competitor in order to gain information about a scientific discovery of the competitor,

  • sending expensive Christmas gifts to clients to influence their decisions,

  • showing partiality in promotion practices,

  • concealing embarrassing facts in financial reporting,

  • changing color of product and marketing as "new and improved," and

  • CPA proposing fee based on savings achieved in tax work.

"According to the results of this study," states Dr. Joseph McKinney, professor of economics and Ben Williams Professor of International Economics, "it can be argued that managers need to take note of the desensitizing effect that one's past experience to ethically challenging situations can have on ethical judgment and be intentional in counteracting this phenomenon."

For the complete article detailing the findings of this research, visit Baylor's business web site at

For more information, the researchers can be contacted directly:

Dr. Justin Longenecker, 254-710-4258 or

Dr. Joseph McKinney, 254-710-6141 or

Dr. Carlos Moore, 254-710-6176 or

Dr. William Weeks, 254-710-4245 or


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