The ABO Reporter

Insights For Accounting Ethics Research
From Retrospectives On Business Ethics Research

Sara Reiter
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 associations.

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): 447-476.

Victor, B., and J. B. Cullen. 1988. The organizational bases of ethical work climates. Administrative Science Quarterly 33: 101-125.

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