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Publisher : Elsevier - Science Direct (الزویر - ساینس دایرکت)
Journal : Journal of Business Venturing, Volume 24, Issue 5, September 2009, Pages 477–490
Using strain theory to examine the relationship between sources of personal strain and ethical standards, we study how variations in the self-employed's household income, educational level, associational membership, and trust in institutions link to the extent to which they maintain high ethical standards. We test our hypotheses using data from 3716 self-employed persons across 39 countries. The self-employed's ethical standards relate positively to their household income and trust in institutions but negatively to their educational level and associational membership. A supplementary exploratory analysis provides further insights into how broader cultural and institutional contexts in which the self-employed are embedded might influence the relationship between sources of personal strain and ethical standards.
Despite a substantial body of ethics research, relatively few empirical studies examine correlates of the ethical standards of the self-employed (Hannafey, 2003, Longenecker et al., 2006 and Vyakarnam et al., 1997). The growing attention in academia and the business world on ethics, to a great extent, has focused instead on the ethical attitudes of persons employed by others, with a particular focus on managers in large corporations (Christie et al., 2003 and Cullen et al., 2004). However, maintaining ethical standards is a concern for everyone, regardless of their employment status. The presence of ownership and management responsibility in the hands of one person may establish different dynamics from those found among managers who work for someone else's organization (Vyakarnam et al., 1997). In particular, the ethical values and inclinations of individual business owners may have far more direct effects on their companies' actions because of their close involvement with their company's day-to-day practices (Quinn, 1997). Furthermore, given the close link between the individual business owner and company practices, the personal strain that the self-employed may experience in accomplishing their goal of economic success likely reflects more directly on the ethical character of their business activities compared with the case of employed persons whose personal circumstances link more remotely with their companies' activities ( Morris et al., 2002 and Vyakarnam et al., 1997). In essence, this study addresses the following question: How do different sources of strain for the self-employed relate to their ethical standards? We define strain as the frustration the self-employed may experience when they lack the means to accomplish their goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur (Merton, 1938 and Merton, 1968).2 Furthermore, we define ethical standards as the extent to which the self-employed are unwilling to justify behaviors that are generally considered ethically suspect solutions to ethical dilemmas (Cullen et al., 2004). That is, similar to Cullen et al.'s (2004) study of managers' ethical attitudes, we consider a specific step in the self-employed's ethical reasoning processes that precedes their actual behavior, namely, their general belief that ethically suspect behavior cannot be justified or accepted.3 We consider the self-employed those persons who earn a living from their own business, rather than as an employee of another (Robinson and Sexton, 1994), and thus as a group that often lacks access to physical, financial, or intellectual resources (Brush and Chaganti, 1998, Caputo and Dolinsky, 1998, Davidsson and Honig, 2003, Morris and Zahra, 2000 and Robinson and Sexton, 1994). Although extant entrepreneurship literature devotes substantial attention to how limited access to resources may hamper business success (e.g., Brüderl and Preisendorfer, 1998 and Robinson and Sexton, 1994), we know relatively little about how such resource constraints may relate to ethical attitudes. That is, while extant ethics literature relates people's ethical attitudes to various personal characteristics, such as gender (e.g., McCabe et al., 2006), age (Rawwas and Singhapakdi, 1998), religion (e.g., Vitell and Paolillo, 2003), or education (e.g., Rest and Narvaez, 1991), to the best of our knowledge, it does not directly address the specific question of how variations among persons in terms of personal strain may reflect on their ethical standards. For instance, a popular theory in ethics research is Kohlberg's (1981) theory of moral development, which posits that people make different judgments about an ethical issue depending on their level of cognitive moral development. In essence, the theory and its applications (e.g., Bass et al., 1999 and Forte, 2004) argue that persons move in a linear fashion through different stages of moral development, ranging from lower to higher levels of ethical sensitivity, influenced by their life experiences. For example, factors associated with higher levels of ethical sensitivity include exposure to a college education (McNeel, 1994) and the selection-socialization process provided by employing organizations (e.g., Cohen et al., 2001). However, the theory of moral development does not specifically account for how people experience different levels of personal strain across the different stages of their moral development. Thus, though ethics literature considers factors potentially associated with people's ethical attitudes, it does not address the question of how variations among persons in terms of personal strain may reflect on their ethical standards. This oversight is particularly troublesome for the context of the self-employed, considering that self-employed persons, as we noted previously, commonly confront severe constraints in their day-to-day activities (e.g., Robinson and Sexton, 1994). Accordingly, we contribute to the literature by proposing strain theory as a framework appropriate for examining the link between different sources of personal strain for the self-employed, or the lack thereof, and their ethical standards. According to strain theory, most people desire to achieve success, but the strain or frustration they may experience causes them to consider different means as appropriate for obtaining those goals (Merton, 1968). More specifically, those with limited resources are more likely to accept means that violate existing societal norms or laws, because they feel that society offers few options and opportunities to advance their position in it (Agnew, 1992 and Merton, 1968). In other words, differential opportunity structures in society may lead to strain or frustration among people who are unable to achieve their aspirations by conventional means, and subsequently, those persons may seek to relieve this strain by accepting deviant means to achieve their desired ends. As outlined subsequently in the theory and hypotheses section, strain theory provides the conceptual basis for the selection of specific variables associated with possible sources of personal strain for the self-employed. More specifically, we argue that self-employed persons may experience strain to the extent that their personal circumstances—as reflected in their household income, educational background, and relationships with others—offer reduced opportunities for success (Agnew, 1992, Cullen, 1983 and Merton, 1968), which in turn reflect on their ethical standards. The rest of this article aims to accomplish two objectives. The first and primary objective is to apply strain theory to the study of the self-employed's ethical standards. To this end, we provide more details about the premises underlying strain theory, develop specific hypotheses relating possible sources of strain to the self-employed's ethical standards, and formally test these hypotheses and discuss the corresponding results. As a secondary goal, we explore how the broader (country) context in which the self-employed are embedded may influence the relationships between the sources of personal strain and ethical standards. Such an exploratory approach to the role of the broader context seems appropriate, given the lack of prior conceptual work with respect to how country-level factors interact with the self-employed's personal strain in shaping their ethical standards (Du Toit et al., 1986).
نتیجه گیری انگلیسی
8.1. Implications This study has several implications for practice. First, the lack of a straightforward, positive relationship between education and ethical standards calls for a greater emphasis on the importance of business ethics in higher education curricula. We thus concur with others who have called on policymakers to take a more proactive approach to ensure that ethics represent a central part of any formal education (Aiken, 2004 and Mulligan, 1987). Such an approach should mean that more exposure to education creates a greater awareness of and sensitivity to business ethics and therefore decreases the likelihood that the future self-employed, and others, accept the use of questionable actions to accomplish personal goals. In addition, our exploratory analysis suggests that devoting attention to ethical issues in higher education might be particularly useful in countries characterized by high levels of uncertainty (Fig. 1a), perhaps because the highly educated in these countries are more likely to rationalize unethical behavior as a means to reduce ambiguity and therefore are more prone to maintain lower ethical standards. Second, our study suggests that though it is reasonable to believe that associations may decrease the self-employed's personal strain and therefore enhance their belief that a person can achieve personal goals without having to rely on unethical means, our exploratory analysis also indicates that this functional role of associations only holds in countries characterized by low uncertainty avoidance (Fig. 1b) and high government involvement (Fig. 2a). For instance, associational membership and government involvement might function as substitutes with respect to how the self-employed deal with personal strain. 8.2. Limitations and future research We acknowledge that our study contains some limitations. First, we assess the self-employed's ethical standards by measuring their beliefs about whether certain unethical behaviors are justifiable. Therefore, our dependent variable does not capture the self-employed's actual behavior but rather their attitudes. Although prior research indicates that people's ethical attitudes and behavior are often closely related, this link is not automatic, because a person could believe certain questionable behavior is acceptable but still not engage in that behavior him- or herself (Trevino, 1992). Therefore, and consistent with similar claims made by Ghoshal and Moran (1996), additional research should consider ethical attitudes of the self-employed and their behavior to explore how each may experience differential influences of individual and situational factors. Furthermore, our assessment of the self-employed's ethical attitudes captures their assessments of the acceptability of certain unethical behaviors in general terms, without distinguishing explicitly whether the behavior would be exhibited by others or the respondents themselves. Additional research therefore should examine whether the criteria the self-employed use to assess unethical practices differ when applied to themselves versus others. Second, our independent variables may not cover all possible sources of strain for the self-employed. For example, though we use household income as an indicator of (a lack of) financial wealth, we do not capture access to alternative sources of finance, such as business angel funds or loan guarantees (Verheul and Thurik, 2001). Also, we use the self-employed's educational level to capture their (lack of) intellectual strain, but prior business experience also may be an important means for reducing personal strain (Robinson and Sexton, 1994). Third, our exploratory approach to examining the role of country-level factors does not provide conclusive answers about how these factors interfere with sources of personal strain for the self-employed and their ethical standards. Although our choice of an exploratory approach results from the lack of prior conceptual work that relates country-level characteristics to the self-employed's personal circumstances and ethical attitudes, additional research would benefit from employing more confirmatory techniques to examine the interactions between individual and country-level factors. One methodological approach that might be useful in this respect is hierarchical linear modeling, which, unlike classic regression analysis, can examine relationships between variables measured at different levels of analysis. Similarly, further research would benefit from examining country-level variables other than those presented herein, including cultural (e.g., individualism) or institutional (e.g., government protection of intellectual property) variables. Finally, our study focuses on the ethical standards of the self-employed, which we define as any person who earns a livelihood directly from his or her own business rather than as an employee of another. We make this choice expressly because the self-employed include persons who often confront personal strain as a result of their personal circumstances and therefore may form unique attitudes about whether unethical behavior is acceptable. However, this focus on the self-employed may have led us to overlook factors relevant to entrepreneurship, other than those we include herein, that could be relevant for understanding ethical standards, such as growth orientation or the characteristics of ventures (e.g., firm size, firm age). Further research should explore possible interaction effects between our study's independent variables and other variables that discriminate among different types of entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial ventures. It could be interesting, for instance, to examine whether persons who are in the process of setting up a new venture react differently to personal strain than do their more experienced counterparts. As they experience the trials, errors, and successes related to creating and running a venture, the link between strain and ethical standards may change over time. For instance, seasoned entrepreneurs who have prevailed over adversity may become more immune to the temptation of maintaining lower ethical standards, even when confronted with new challenges that present themselves in their venture's growth trajectory. 8.3. Concluding remarks In this study, we investigate an important area related to entrepreneurship and ethics and thereby shed light on the complex relationships between sources of personal strain and ethical standards among the self-employed. Our findings note that such relationships are not as intuitive as might have been anticipated. For example, the results with regard to the relationship between the self-employed's education level and ethical attitudes may indicate that prevalent educational institutions sometimes overemphasize the importance of economic gains as a desirable outcome, at the expense of ethical considerations. Furthermore, our study points to the role of the broader cultural and institutional context in determining how the self-employed's access to resources, or lack thereof, affects their ethical attitudes. For instance, the preliminary finding that the level of government involvement shapes the relationship between sources of personal strain and ethical attitudes may point to the greater need for sound government action to limit possible unethical behavior, especially in the context of the self-employed. Research should further investigate how these broader environmental factors interfere with the prevalence of ethical attitudes and behaviors among the self-employed and how the development of ethically sound business practices could be promoted.