Business ethics refers to the values and principles that guide the actions of businesses and their stakeholders.

What is a profession?

Profession refers to a type of work that requires advanced education and specialised training. A profession is typically characterised by a high level of expertise, a code of ethics, and a commitment to continuing education.

What is professionalism?

 Professionalism refers to the qualities and behaviours that are associated with being a professional. This includes being reliable, competent, ethical, and accountable.

Reactive professionals respond to problems or challenges as they arise, while proactive professionals anticipate and prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

The public interest refers to the common good and the welfare of the general public. It is the responsibility of professionals to prioritise the public interest over their own self-interest or the interests of their organisation.

Attributes of a responsible leader include integrity, honesty, accountability, and a commitment to the common good.

Public interest

Accountants have a role and influence on the public interest because they are responsible for ensuring that financial information is accurate and transparent. This helps to build trust and confidence in the financial system, which is essential for the smooth functioning of the economy.

Corporate code of ethics

A corporate code of ethics is a set of principles that guide the behaviour of an organisation and its employees. Business ethics refers to the values and principles that guide the actions of businesses and their stakeholders. It is important for businesses to consider the ethical implications of their decisions, as these can affect stakeholders such as customers, employees, shareholders, and the community.

Business ethics & a professional code

A professional code of ethics (business ethics) is a set of guidelines that outline the values and principles that should guide the behaviour of professionals in their work. The specific contents of a professional code of ethics will vary depending on the profession, but common elements may include a commitment to honesty, integrity, and objectivity; a respect for the law and for the rights of others; a responsibility to maintain confidentiality; and a responsibility to act in the best interests of clients or the public.

The fundamental business ethics and principles that are typically reflected in professional codes of ethics include:

  • Respect for the autonomy and dignity of individuals
  • Non-maleficence (doing no harm)
  • Beneficence (doing good)
  • Justice (treating people fairly)
  • Fidelity (being faithful and loyal)

Corporate and professional codes of ethics can have both benefits and drawbacks. Some of the benefits include:

  • Providing guidance for professionals and organisations on how to behave ethically
  • Building trust and confidence in the profession or organisation
  • Enhancing the reputation of the profession or organisation
  • Protecting the rights and interests of clients or the public

Some of the drawbacks of corporate and professional codes of ethics may include:

  • Complexity and confusion about what is expected or required
  • Lack of enforcement or accountability for violating the code
  • Potential for conflicts of interest or self-serving behaviour
  • Limited flexibility to address unique or complex situations

Overall, it is important for professionals and organisations to have a clear and well-defined code of ethics in order to ensure that they are acting in an ethical and responsible manner.

Ethical threats & safeguards

Threats to business ethics refer to situations that may compromise the integrity or objectivity of a professional or an organisation. These threats can come from a variety of sources, including the profession, the work environment, and the individual.

Some examples of threats to business ethics from a profession include conflicts of interest, pressure to compromise standards or values, and inadequate training or supervision.

Work environments can also pose ethical threats, such as a culture of misconduct or a lack of transparency.

At an individual level, ethical threats may arise from personal biases, a lack of self-awareness, or a desire for personal gain.

Safeguards are measures that are put in place to protect against ethical threats. These can include codes of ethics, training and education, supervision and oversight, and policies and procedures.

Bribery and corruption refer to the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value in order to influence the actions of another person. Bribery and corruption can occur at both the individual and organisational level, and they can have serious consequences for businesses and societies.

The UK Bribery Act 2010 established four offenses related to bribery:

  • Offering, promising, or giving a bribe
  • Requesting, agreeing to receive, or accepting a bribe
  • Bribing a foreign public official
  • Failure by a commercial organisation to prevent bribery (a corporate offense)

Under the Act, it is illegal to bribe someone in order to obtain or retain business, or to gain any other improper advantage. The Act applies to both individuals and organisations and applies to conduct both inside and outside the UK.

Ethical conflict

Conflict in business ethics refers to a situation in which two or more ethical values or principles are in conflict, making it difficult to determine the right course of action. Ethical conflicts can arise in a variety of contexts, including personal relationships, professional settings, and organisations.

There are several factors to take into account when dealing with ethical conflicts. These may include:

  • The values and principles at stake
  • The potential consequences of different courses of action
  • The interests of the parties involved
  • Any relevant laws or regulations
  • Any professional or organisational codes of ethics

Issue-related factors are specific to the situation at hand and may include things like the nature of the problem, the people involved, and the available options for addressing the conflict.

Context-related factors refer to the broader context in which the ethical conflict is occurring, including things like the culture, values, and norms of the organisation or community.

The ability to make ethical decisions depends on both issue-related and context-related factors. By considering these factors, individuals and organisations can make more informed and ethical decisions in the face of ethical conflicts.

Moral intensity refers to the strength or importance of an ethical issue or dilemma. Factors that affect moral intensity include:

  • The magnitude of the consequences: The more significant the consequences of a decision, the higher the moral intensity.
  • The probability of harm: The more likely it is that harm will result from a decision, the higher the moral intensity.
  • The distribution of the harm: The more unevenly the harm is distributed, the higher the moral intensity.
  • The proximity of the harm: The closer the harm is in time or space, the higher the moral intensity.
  • The social consensus: The more widespread the agreement about the ethical nature of an issue, the higher the moral intensity.
  • The personal values of the decision-maker: Personal values and beliefs can also affect moral intensity.

Context-related factors are elements of the broader context in which an ethical dilemma occurs. These may include the culture, values, and norms of the organisation or community, as well as any relevant laws or regulations.

Key contextual factors are those that have a particularly strong impact on the ethical decision-making process. These may include:

  • Power dynamics: The relative power of different parties can influence ethical decision-making.
  • Personal relationships: Personal relationships, such as friendships or loyalty, can also affect ethical decision-making.
  • Conflicts of interest: Conflicts of interest, such as financial or personal gain, can impact the objectivity of ethical decision-making.

By considering both the specific factors that affect moral intensity and the broader context in which an ethical dilemma occurs, individuals and organisations can make more informed and ethical decisions.

Business ethics is embedded into corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR involves the incorporation of ethical values into business decision-making and operations in order to consider the impacts of a business on society and the environment


This content can be used as part of the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) module for the Association of Chartered & Certified Accountants (ACCA) examination.
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