There is a clear, resounding message that is continually and unceasingly told, conveyed, yelled, and shouted at business students while they are in business school: Behave ethically in business, otherwise you will end up behind bars.
While this is not necessarily an untrue phenomenon, there is more to behaving ethically than avoiding getting caught. Avoiding getting caught implies you have done something wrong and therefore feel the need to conceal something.
But the message has an oddly clear structure with clear consequences: a warning, then reminder that breaking ethical principles has a high degree of likelihood of landing you behind bars. There is nothing about how ethics, a system of morals, is something that should be maintained even if the law were null and void, no matter what those ethics are for you. The only negative consequences that are mentioned are the explicit penalties of the law.
This begs the question, ‘why?’ Why are the only penalties mentioned are those that will go on your criminal record?
Perhaps it is because those penalties are the only things holding business people back. They are the only things that provide a buffer between them and total corruption. There is a reason laws must be continually and frequently added and adjusted. Legislatures are running year-round and around the clock, and much of the material they deal with involves some protection against white collar crime.
The incongruity is not without cause. There are two reasons for it, though they both trace back to the same source: ethics have become relative, and quite simply, it can be more profitable to have a balance of ethical and unethical practices.
Ethics imply a system of morals. What happens when someone has a different set of morals than the next person? This is not to say both are equally valid, because they probably are not. The willingness to call something moral or immoral is dropping faster than U.S. debt is climbing. No one wants to call something wrong or right for fear they will be ostracized by those who disagree. This comes into conflict with the law, which has inferentially established right and wrong for us. Even if you do not think insider trading is unethical, the SEC says otherwise.
Secondly, unethical principles often yield a better return than ethical ones. The key is balance: If a company is perceived as unethical, people will stop investing in it and buying from it. If it is perceived as neutral or ethical, either nothing or a positive effect will result. As long as companies can stave off the perception of corruption, there is much to be gained from fudging numbers and bending the truth if one can get away with it.
The key, if you remember, is not to get caught. As long as no one knows, it is not wrong. Why? It is easier to not rock the boat than it is to point out an error.