“It’s Just Business”: Understanding How Business Frames Differ from Ethical Frames and the Effect on Unethical Behavior

Abstract

Unfortunately, business is often associated with unethical behavior. While research has offered a number of explanations for why business might encourage unethical behavior, we argue that how a person frames a situation may provide important insight. Drawing on the decision frame literature, the goal of the current research is to identify the differences in cognitive processing associated with two decision frames dominant in the business ethics literature—business and ethical—and, with that knowledge, examine ways to mitigate the detrimental influence of frame on unethical behavior. We first demonstrate the causal link between frame and misrepresentation (Study 1), and then identify several differences in cognitive processing—cost–benefit analyses, concern for others, and construal level—that distinguish business and ethical frames, and investigate their effects on misrepresentation (Study 2). In our final set of studies (Studies 3a–c), we demonstrate that the influence of these frames on misrepresentation can be altered by manipulating these cognitive processes, both mitigating and exacerbating a decision maker’s engagement in misrepresentation. We conclude by summarizing our findings and their potential impact on unethical behavior more broadly.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We included a hypothesis related to concern for self (e.g., that individuals also focused on themselves more in a business frame than an ethical frame) in previous versions of the manuscript. However, we found no support for this hypothesis in the earliest studies conducted for this paper (none of the studies in which we included this variable as a study measure are included in the current manuscript). As we have conducted new studies to address limitations of previous studies, we chose not to include the hypothesis of a relationship between frame and concern for the self in the final manuscript given the lack of effects.

  2. 2.

    We did not include control variables in our analyses. We did, however, conduct additional analyses controlling for moral identity, gender, and age as exploratory analyses given that previous research has demonstrated that these individual characteristics are often associated with unethical behavior (O’Fallon and Butterfield 2005; Shao et al. 2008). Across all studies, moral identity and gender were not significantly related with our dependent variable of interest, magnitude of misrepresentation. Age was significantly associated with misrepresentation only in Study 1, but did not affect the significance of the relationship between decision frame and misrepresentation.

  3. 3.

    In addition to showing the link between externally manipulated frames and their respective cognitive processes, we also have an additional study showing that when people generate their own characterization of decisions made in a given frame, they associate the proposed cognitive processes with each respective frame. For more information about these findings, please contact the first author.

  4. 4.

    We pretested this manipulation in a sample of 100 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants’ responses were content coded by two coders for each of the three cognitive processes argued to be associated with business and ethical frames. A value of 1 represented no discussion of the process and a value of 7 represented the response being dominated by the cognitive process. Findings showed that those who adopted a business frame discussed cost–benefit analyses more than those in an ethical frame, F(1, 96) = 20.94, p < .001. The content coding also revealed that those in an ethical frame discussed more concern for others, F(1, 96) = 18.56, p < .001, and adopted a higher construal level, F(1, 96) = 28.88, p < .001, than those in a business frame. For more information about these findings, please contact the first author.

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Correspondence to McKenzie R. Rees.

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Rees, M.R., Tenbrunsel, A.E. & Diekmann, K.A. “It’s Just Business”: Understanding How Business Frames Differ from Ethical Frames and the Effect on Unethical Behavior. J Bus Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04729-5

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Keywords

  • Ethical decision-making frames
  • Cost–benefit analysis
  • Concern for others
  • Construal level