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Ethics and culture

In a time of globalisation and interdependence between countries, there is much discussion of international ethics in the modern business environment. To date, there is no universally agreed upon definition (Memery, Megicks & Williams, 2005), but Francesco and Gold (2005, p. 48) attempt to define ethics as follows:

"Moral standards, not governed by law, that focus on the human consequences of actions."

They suggest that ethics are a product of a society's culture and that people often take ethics for granted. As a result, when two or more countries interact, they find that their ethics and understanding of social responsibility differ.

Varner and Beamer (2011) summarise the different schools of thought in Western, East Asian and Islamic cultures as follows.

Western thought

"Knowledge to do the good will lead to the good, and there is a rational way to getting there."

Those originating in Western cultures have strong opinions on what is right and wrong. As a result, they tend to look at ethics as concerning either/or concepts: although grey areas are recognised, ethical standards are usually seen as absolute and objective.

East Asian thought

"A reality is a holistic unity that encompasses all aspects of reality." "The virtuous is not absolute and everything depends on the balance in the universe."

In East Asian philosophies, people recognise an obligation to be virtuous, but they do not see reality as an either/or proposition. Rather, it depends on who you are dealing with, what the pressing issues are, why certain things occurred in that particular situation, and so on. This may be regarded by Western values as 'double standards'.

Islamic thought

"Allah guides us for all actions."

In an Islamic culture, decisions on what is ethical and unethical are determined by religion. Allah provides appropriate guidance for all actions. The virtuous HR manager acts based on religious principles. This is interpreted by Westerners as old-fashioned and fundamentalist. However, to understand Islamic views on ethics, it is necessary to recognise the role of religion in shaping ethical thought. In cross-cultural situations, it is essential to remember that different cultures have different views of what is ethical. Therefore, what is considered ethical behaviour depends at least to some extent on cultural priorities and philosophical viewpoints.

Activity: Is tipping corruption?

Tipping is a common custom, in many countries required in the hospitality industry (and others). Tipping rules vary greatly - by country, region, and scenario (Murphy, 2015). On the other hand, bribery is widely considered unethical, and is illegal in many countries, including the UK.

So, in many countries, tipping is encouraged but bribery is criminalised. Interestingly, a study suggests that there is a thin line between these two practices.

Read the article below and note your thoughts on the following points:
1. Is tipping a custom in your culture?
2. Do you offer money or gift to others with a hope that the receiver will return a favour to you in certain situations?
3. If your answers for questions 1 and 2 differ, what are the differences between tipping and gift-giving?

Nisen, M. (2012). The Line Between a Tip and a Bribe is Actually Quite Blurry. [Online]. Accessed: 12 December 2018.

When you have noted your answers, select "Check answer" below to reveal the answer.

You may be used to tipping but not giving gifts to your business clients, or the other way around (meaning gift-giving is a norm, but tipping is not). You may be so used to these customs that you have never questioned it. You may have some experience of being surprised by a refusal of your tip by a service provider (or your customer not giving you a tip after a service), or of feeling uncomfortable when your business partner brought a substantial gift or cash in an envelope.

As we have seen in this section, there are different views and values around the world, depending on religion, social and legal systems, and national or ethnic cultures. What is 'right' in your culture may be regarded as 'wrong' or even 'taboo' in others.

Quite often, cultural norms do not make obvious sense - if tipping to show appreciation for a service provided is expected, why not give money to business partners to promote good professional relationships?

To avoid embarrassment or offence, building knowledge of culture is very useful; but more importantly, it is always helpful to keep your mind open when encountering people from other cultures.