Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 112, Issue 3, pp 497–514 | Cite as

Using Social Identity Theory to Predict Managers’ Emphases on Ethical and Legal Values in Judging Business Issues



The need to fill three gaps in ethics research in a business context sparked the current study. First, the distinction between the concepts of “ethical” and “legal” needs to be incorporated into theory building and empiricism. Second, a unifying theory is needed that can explain the variables that influence managers to emphasize ethics and legality in their judgments. Third, empirical evidence is needed to confirm the predictive power of the unifying theory, the discernable influence of personal and organizational variables, and the importance of the issue to the managers in determining their emphasis on the ethical and legal values of their judgments. Focused on these needs, the current research combines social identity theory with empirical findings from business ethics research. This theory building initiative framed hypothesis-driven research to investigate the influences on managers’ emphasis on ethical and legal values in making business judgments. An empirical research study was conducted involving 252 practicing managers who judged 12 newsworthy business events. Data was collected on the managers’ individual factors, on the groups that influence their judgments, and on the importance that the managers place on ethics and legality in judging the 12 scenarios. The research findings contribute to theory development (1) By successfully utilizing a blended extension of social identity and issue-contingent theories to understand managers’ judgments, and (2) By providing evidence on the relationships between the perceived importance of an issue and the emphases managers place on ethical and legal values in their judgments. The analysis of the data was extended to provide insights on the needs of employers to tailor management training on legal and ethical decision-making. The participating managers were clustered according to their emphases on Ethical Importance and Legal Importance in judging business situations. Analysis of Variance was then combined with Scheffé Multiple Comparison Tests to assess whether the factors derived from a blended extension of social identity and issue-contingent theories were significantly different across the clusters. The product of this analysis is unique sets of attributes that describe each cluster of managers, and provide an empirical basis for determining training priorities. Finally, the carefully constructed and thoroughly tested 12 research scenarios that form the core of the survey instrument enable their redeployment in subsequent research and their use by practicing executives who wish to compare data provided by their managers to results from the study participants.


Social identity theory Issue-contingent theories of identity Organizational variables Influencing judgment Ethics Legality Scenario development Cluster analysis 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Management and Operations, Villanova School of BusinessVillanova UniversityVillanovaUSA

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