The ethical nature of a business can be broken down into three categories: the legitimate businesses, the criminal enterprise, and those that operate in the gray areas between the two. Those who would lean toward the latter two categories risk allowing deception to become a way of life. Going down this path can ultimately ruin a business as occasional temptations subtly transform a business into a criminal enterprise.
Although a business may appear to be successful and prosperous, there are harmful ramifications when behaving unethically. One might appear to be a successful contractor, when in fact that person's focus is on cheating the customer. That may result in more income, but the associated negatives include damaged health, client hassles, and legal actions, not to mention a highly undesirable reputation within the local community. Likewise, a business activity can be reputable, disreputable, or shady. Some actions are predatory, while others are outright criminal.
Some activities that seem unethical, such as a grocer selling low-quality vegetables while creating high-quality expectations, are customarily acceptable practices. This brings to light the fact that there are standards of the industry in all business categories that mitigate the ethicality of a sales tactic. Part of the ethical evaluation of an action might be whether it is a "professional" or "unprofessional" one.
Broadly speaking, ethical issues in business include the rights and duties between a company and its employees, suppliers, customers, and neighbors, and its fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. Issues concerning relations between different companies include hostile take overs and industrial espionage. Related issues include corporate governance; corporate social entrepreneurship; political contributions; legal issues, such as the ethical debate over introducing a crime of corporate manslaughter; and the marketing of corporations' ethics policies.
While business ethics emerged as a field in the 1970s, international business ethics did not emerge until the late 1990s, looking back on the international developments of that decade. Many new, practical issues arose out of the international context of business. Theoretical issues, such as cultural relativity of ethical values receive more emphasis in this field. Other, older issues can be grouped here as well. Issues and subfields include:
- The search for universal values as a basis for international commercial behavior.
- Comparison of business ethical traditions in different countries, with comparisons made on the basis of their respective GDP and corruption rankings.
- Comparison of business ethical traditions from various religious perspectives.
- Ethical issues arising out of international business transactions (e.g., bioprospecting and biopiracy in the pharmaceutical industry, the fair trade movement, transfer pricing).
- Issues, such as globalization and cultural imperialism.
- Varying global standards (e.g., the use of child labor).
- The way in which multinationals take advantage of international differences, such as outsourcing production (e.g., clothes) and services (e.g., call centers) to low-wage countries.
- The permissibility of international commerce with embargoed states.