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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Business Ethics

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics explores ethical issues in corporate governance, global business, leadership, executive compensation, and other areas of business ethics.


Trends in Business Ethics

Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, discusses human rights concerns, representation of diverse stakeholders, and metrics for a business' environment, sustainability, and governance practices.

Commentary on Business Ethics

Workplace Diversity and Inclusion

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of the education technology company DreamBox, speaks about approaching diversity and inclusion as one might approach software development: through the use of an agile methodology.

An Interview with Theranos Whistleblower Tyler Shultz

Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics, has a conversation with Tyler Shultz, Theranos whistleblower, during an event held at Santa Clara University in 2018.

What Is Business Ethics?

By Kirk O. Hanson, former executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics in general is the study of standards of behavior that promote human welfare and what is often called “the good.”  Business ethics is the study of those standards of business behavior that do the same thing—promote human welfare and the good.

Ethics can really be thought about at three levels: how we act as individuals; how our organizations act; and how we structure our society. Similarly, business ethics can be thought about at those same levels.

At the individual level, we actually can predict what kind of ethical issues we will face in our business careers; a set of unavoidable ethical dilemmas comes with the territory. Once we’ve identified those unavoidable ethical dilemmas, we can prepare for them and deal with them much more effectively.

One way of identifying the unavoidable dilemmas in a particular role is to think about the obligations of the role.  If you're a salesperson, you can ask yourself, for example, “What do I owe to the individual person I'm trying to sell to?”  There are all kinds of predictable dilemmas: When I know something that the customer doesn’t, when do I owe that information to the customer?  If the customer assumes things that aren't true, do I have an obligation to correct that interpretation?  If I know something about their competitor, under what circumstances can I share information about the products their competitor has purchased, or is that confidential?” You can also ask yourself what you owe to the rest of the organization?  To your fellow salespeople?  When does your behavior begin to negatively affect them? What in your behavior might limits their opportunities because you create a bad reputation or get engaged in a set of bad relationships with customers? 

Business ethics also operates at the organizational level through how we structure our organizations and therefore the way those organizations direct, guide, and incent people to act.  It’s the responsibility of the company to define its values, which are how the corporation wants its employees to behave in all the kinds of interactions. An employee can always refer back to those values and ask, “Okay, is this is how we want to treat our employees? Is this how we want to treat our customers?  Does this action I propose reflect the company’s values?”

Finally, business ethics is influenced by how we structure our business society—how we incorporate organizations to participate in commerce, the laws and regulations which bind business organizations.

Obviously, ethics is important for a wide variety of reasons. It creates value through our cooperation, through our seeking together what serves human welfare. That certainly goes for our businesses.  Without a shared sense of what good behavior means, there would be no ability to cooperate, no ability to trust others to act in our interest and not against us.  If ethics was not present, it would be a very cold and cruel world.

Navigate here to Meet the Council Business and Leadership Ethics Council
Business and Leadership Ethics Council

As ethical issues in business and leadership are increasingly relevant to today’s climate this team of professionals from public, private, and nonprofit sectors collaborates with the Ethics Center to identify and prioritize complex issues.

Navigate here to Meet the Council Business and Leadership Ethics Council Meet the Council
Navigate here to Learn More Culture Self-Assessment Practice
Culture Self-Assessment Practice

Culture Self-Assessment Practice is a set of free materials that recommends approaches to evaluating culture for ethics within companies and other types of organizations. The materials are primarily for members of an organization’s leadership team, including human resources and legal, but designed to engage a cross-section of leaders from various disciplines.

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Navigate here to Learn More Business Ethics Internships
Business Ethics Internships

Santa Clara University students are placed in ethics and compliance positions at major companies in Silicon Valley, including Cisco Systems and Intel.

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Navigate here to Learn More Workplace Diversity Dialogues
Workplace Diversity Dialogues

Diversity and inclusion problems in Silicon Valley organizations are solvable if the issues are considered as ethical dilemmas. Find resources, articles, videos, and blog posts about diversity and inclusion here.

Navigate here to Learn More Workplace Diversity DialoguesLearn More