Accounting Ethics Research
From Retrospectives On Business Ethics Research
School of Management
State University of New York at Binghamton
Two major reviews of the business
ethics literature were published in 2000. Denis Collins (2000) reviews the
first 1,500 articles published in the Journal of Business Ethics. Terry Loe,
Linda Ferrell, and Phylis Mansfield (2000) review empirical studies of ethical
decision making in business. In this essay, I discuss implications for
accounting ethics research from these retrospective looks at the literature.
Collins (2000) categorizes the topics in ethics research as follows: prevalence
of ethical behavior, ethical sensitivities, ethics codes and programs,
corporate social performance and policies, human resource practices and
policies, and professions. Most research in accounting ethics has focused on
the categories of ethical sensitivities and professions. While it seems natural
that accounting researchers would not invest heavily in issues of corporate
social performance or human resource management, it is more puzzling that
accountants have not been more concerned with the prevalence of ethical
behavior or the effects of ethics codes and programs. The issue of how people
behave as part of groups, organizations, or professions has not been studied
adequately-attention has been focused mostly on the effects of individual
philosophical or psychological factors.
Most of the ethical decision-making
research would be classified by Collins (2000) in the category of ethical
sensitivities. Loe et al. (2000) organize their thinking about ethical decision
making using Rest's (1986) four-stage model of recognizing moral issues, making
moral judgments, establishing moral intent, and engaging in moral behavior.
Accounting researchers like to think that we have studied intent when
respondents are asked if they or their peers would do or approve of various
acts. We also like to think that we are close to studying action when we study
intent since intention is a strong precursor to action. However, I think that
Collins may be right-when you ask people to respond to vignettes, you are
probably getting a measure of their ethical sensitivity not their intention or
action. Furthermore, as Collins (2000, 22) notes, "[s]ome topics have
received too much attention, such as the ethical sensitivities of students,
while others have been hardly touched."
Collins (2000) categorizes methodologies as essay, model building, interviews,
case studies, survey research, and data base research. While we may prefer to
think of our work as laboratory experiments, very few of the empirical studies
are really experiments. Most accounting ethics research is really survey
research, even when the survey instruments are administered in a controlled
environment. There has been little model-building activity in accounting and
accounting ethics researchers have been slow to adopt model-building advances
in other disciplines. Even after ten or more years, there is relatively little
research using Jones' (1991) issue contingent framework or Victor and Cullen's
(1988) work on ethical work climates, for example. While there is nothing wrong
with using surveys, a more complete picture of the phenomena is more likely to
emerge when a variety of approaches are used. Accounting ethics researchers
should invest more heavily in interviews and case studies, for example. These
methodologies can help in developing important insights into the role of
context in ethical decision making.
Loe et al. (2000) note that the bulk of ethical decision-making studies in
business ethics address individual level decision making in light of various
moderator variables. The moderators common in the business ethics literature in
order of prevalence in studies are gender, moral philosophy, education, work
experience, culture and climate, codes of ethics, awareness, rewards and
sanctions, and organizational factors. One criticism that applies to both
business ethics and accounting ethics research is that often there is no
adequate theoretical justification for the link between the moderators and the
studied behavior. Then when results of different studies are conflicting, it is
hard to draw conclusions about the nature or importance of the moderating
factors. Additional empirical work makes little contribution without
theoretical insights to help interpret the results. And the studies go on and
on with little progress toward understanding. There has not been, for example,
an adequate theoretical connection between ethical behavior and gender. At the
end of the day, one is left with a jumble of conflicting demographic
Another point to note is that the
range of moderators typically studied in accounting is even narrower than in
business ethics. Aside for demographic characteristics of the samples, moral
philosophy (with an even more narrow focus on cognitive moral development) is
the main moderator in accounting studies. Again, I would argue that a number of
nonindividual factors such as work experience, ethical culture and climate,
rewards and sanctions, and organizational factors deserve a lot more study. One
of the principal conclusions of ethics decision-making research is that context
matters, and for workplace decisions, peer and organizational influences may be
much more important than individual psychological factors. Recent developments
in business ethics literature may help integrate organizational factors into
ethical decision-making models. For example, Jones and Ryan (1997, 1999) model
the effects of organizational forces on individual morality through a construct
they call "moral approbation." Trevino et al. (1998) develop
instruments to gauge the strength of ethical climate influence.
Several of Collins'(2000) conclusions are also relevant criticisms of
accounting ethics research. Collins decries the lack of critical focus on
business practices in business ethics research. Accounting research is even
less critical of the environment surrounding accounting ethics decision making.
Turning a critical perspective on business is an important moral obligation of
academicians. Also of particular relevance to accounting ethics research is
Collins' lament on the lack of a "continuous conversation that builds on
essays and research previously published." Collins (2000, 22) notes that
"[a]s a community of scholars we should refine, critique, and advance each
other's work, rather than repeating or ignoring it." Accounting
researchers often seem oblivious to work in other business ethics fields, but
they also are often oblivious to previous work in accounting ethics.
Ironically, as electronic databases have become more prevalent, the quality of
literature reviews has, in my opinion, sunk abysmally.
Collins, D. 2000. The
quest to improve the human condition: The first 1,500 articles published in
Journal of Business Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics 26: 1-73.
Jones, T. 1991. Ethical decision
making by individuals in organizations: An issue-contingent model. Academy
of Management Review 16 (2): 366-395.
Jones, T. M., and L.V. Ryan. 1997.
The link between ethical judgment and action in organizations: A moral
approbation approach. Organization Science 8 (6): 663-680.
---. 1998. The effect of
organizational forces on individual morality: Judgment, moral approbation, and
behavior. Business Ethics Quarterly 8 (3): 431-445.
Loe, T., L. Ferrell, and P.
Mansfield. 2000. A review of empirical studies assessing ethical decision
making in business. Journal of Business Ethics 25: 185-204.
Rest, J. 1986. Moral Development:
Advances in Research and Theory. New York, NY: Praeger.
Trevino, L. K., K. D. Butterfield,
and D. L. McCabe. 1998. The ethical context in organizations: Influences on
employee attitudes and behaviors. Business Ethics Quarterly 8 (3):
Victor, B., and J. B. Cullen. 1988.
The organizational bases of ethical work climates. Administrative Science
Quarterly 33: 101-125.