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The way religion impacts business ethics

The way religion impacts business ethics is a matter of heightened interest. This paper is a critical review of the article by Longenecker, McKinney and Moore (2004) "Religious Intensity, Evangelical Christianity, and Business Ethics: An Empirical Study."The paper provides a detailed overview of the major issues raised by the authors, their significance and implications for business. The viewpoints and problems ignored by the researchers are also discussed. The paper shapes a common understanding of the relationship between religion and ethics and suggests that spirituality, not religion, could become a perfect instrument of ethical decision making in organizations.

Keywords: religion, ethics, Longenecker et al., spirituality, organizations.

Critical Review

Main Issues

The problem of business ethics and implications for organizational performance remains a popular topic in scholarly literature. That businesses must be ethical cannot be denied. Ethics has been recognized as an essential source of businesses' a competitive advantage. Yet, even more controversial are the existing models of ethics adopted by businesses. It has become quite popular to apply religion as a possible instrument of ethical development within organizations. More researchers seek to explore the relevance of religiosity and religious commitments to ethical behaviors in the workplace. In this study, Longenecker, McKinney and Moore (2004) also explored this problem and tried to define whether and how religious commitments could impact employees' ethical judgments.


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It should be noted that the problem of religiosity and its implications for ethical performance in the workplace are not new. On one hand, religious studies are believed to provide solid prescriptions as to the most appropriate moral and ethical behaviors within organizations and beyond (Longenecker et al., 2004). As a result, it is possible to assume that religion will invariably impact workers' and leaders' moral judgments made in the organizational setting. On the other hand, Longenecker et al. (2004) point to this issue, theoretical and practical assumptions do not always coincide. Until present, the body of empirical research into religion and its possible impacts on business ethic has been quite scarce. To a large extent, this study of Longenecker et al. (2004) is a relevant attempt to close the existing gap in the empirical literature, while also providing reassuring guidance for businesses that want to become more ethical.

In relation to business ethics and religion, Longenecker et al. (2004) also raise a number of supporting issues. First, it is the issue of the existing research focus and its potential contribution to the study of religiosity and its impacts on ethical judgment. Like Longenecker et al. (2004), other researchers agree that religion is seldom discussed in the context of organizational ethics (Ali & Gibbs, 1998). Still, the study of religious principles has profound implications for understanding the nature of contemporary business ethics and identifying possible areas for ethical improvement in organizations. The role of religion and its relation to ethics are particularly relevant in the western business tradition, where the centrality of religious and moral principles is continuously reinforced through media and popular culture (Ali & Gibbs, 1998). It is not uncommon to use religious norms and principles, whenever the ethical needs of the organization have to be met (Ali & Gibbs, 1998). Nonetheless, many researchers remain either unaware of disinterested in the impacts, which religious commitment could have on organizations' ethical practices.

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The issues discussed by Longenecker et al. (2004) in their article are also related to the hypothetical, conceptual, and real differences between ethics and religion. It is interesting to note that Longenecker et al. (2004) does not try to use the concepts of ethics and religion interchangeably. In his article, the issue of religiosity and its impacts on business ethics comes out as a relationship between the two entities that are different but, nevertheless, closely related. According to Parboteeah, Hoegl and Cullen (2008) both religion and ethics can be considered as multidimensional constructs, but while religion usually has a cognitive, an affective and a behavioral component, the ethics construct tends to be devoid of the most affective elements. In religion and ethics, the cognitive component refers to the objective knowledge of the religious and ethical practices (Parboteeah et al., 2008). The cognitive element is closely associated with ideology and can serve as a reliable indicator of one's religiosity (Parboteeah et al., 2008). The behavioral element is the way individuals behave to show their religiosity and commitment to ethics. In religion, the behavioral component can manifest through participation in religious and church activities while in ethics, the behavioral element will grow from the individual ability to follow organizations' ethical and moral prescriptions (Parboteeah et al., 2008). However, while religion is also associated with emotions and affection, ethics leaves little room to affective moods. On the contrary, ethical persons are those, who can make moral decisions based on the obvious moral and ethical norms, regardless of what exactly they feel towards each of them. In many instances, ethics resembles law, which demands full compliance regardless of the circumstances. At the same time, ethics leaves sufficient freedom of action and decision making, and what seems ethical and appropriate in one situation may appear to be absolutely inappropriate in another.

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Finally, the article by Longenecker et al. (2004) and the issue of religion and ethics in organizations imply that the earlier researchers have largely failed to develop a single compelling argument in favor or against religion in organizational ethics. Parboteeah et al. (2008) list a whole range of misconceptions and shortcomings found in the earlier studies. For instance, Parboteeah et al. (2008) confirm that the earlier researchers did not find any factual difference in how religious and non-religious workers rate cheating and dishonesty. Parboteeah et al. (2008) claim that the earlier analyses of religion and business ethics display a number of problems. First, earlier studies treated religion as a multidimensional construct, which is conceptualized either as church attendance or being a member of religious affiliations (Parboteeah et al., 2008). Second, many earlier studies considered the effects of religious values on ethics in terms of one specific religion (Parboteeah et al., 2008). Longenecker et al. (2004) address this shortcoming, by raising the issue of religiosity in general, without any specific reference to any of the currently existing religions.


Longenecker et al. (2004) write that earlier studies have failed to estimate the way religious values may change ethical attitudes and behaviors in organizational settings. As a result, the purpose of their study was to "address this issue and present findings on the extent to which religious and non-religious individuals differ in their ethical sensitivity" (Longenecker et al., 2004, p.373). In other words, the researchers sought to avoid misleading generalizations and address the limitations presented by the earlier studies. This is why their purpose was not to describe but empirically investigate the way business professionals and managers in the United States made their decisions based (or not based) on religion.

The relevance of the research idea and purpose is justified, not by the fact that the earlier researchers ignored the topic, and not even by the fact that researchers avoided empirical methods, but by the fact that the empirical methods used in the earlier studies had a number of serious limitations. Longenecker et al. (2004) list the most common pitfalls. First, the methods and approaches used by the earlier researchers differed considerably across studies (Longenecker et al., 2004). As a result, the general picture of religious commitment and its influence on business decision-making is very confusing. Second, some researchers explored student populations, which made the generalizability of their results particularly problematic (Longenecker et al., 2004). Third, not all empirical projects had the sample large enough to make valid conclusions (Longenecker et al., 2004). The purpose of the study brings together the most essential findings made by other researchers and, at the same time, has the potential to address many problems inherent in the earlier designs. Longenecker et al. (2004) specify the purpose their study, based on what is already known and unknown about the role of religion in business ethics. This is one of the chief reasons why it sounds so interesting and compelling.

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Information Used in the Paper

One of the key benefits of the study by Longenecker et al. (2004) is that the researchers bring together the best evidence from the earlier studies and critically appraise its validity and applicability in business settings. Another benefit is that, unlike other researchers, Longenecker et al. (2004) do not limit themselves in peer-reviewed scholarly sources. As mentioned earlier, in the Western world and the U.S., in particular, value of religion and religiosity is being continuously reinforced through media and popular culture (Ali & Gibbs, 1998). This is probably why the researchers incorporate elements of popular media analysis and use magazines as additional sources of information.

In Longenecker et al. (2004), empirical business research shapes the basis for the development of the central argument. The researchers review a number of journals and journal articles which, in their view, have begun to include the issue of religion in their subject matter (Longenecker et al., 2004). In particular, Longenecker et al. (2004) mention Business Ethics Quarterly and its special issue devoted to the analysis of religious approaches to business ethics. Longenecker et al. (2004) also refer to the writings of the Society for Business Ethics and use several scholarly writings in order to reinforce their argument. One of the most interesting is the analysis of the most recent changes in universities' business curricula, which have come to incorporate the elements of religiosity and religious thinking (Longenecker et al., 2004). Researchers also analyzed the headlines in the most popular magazines and even organizations' mission statements. Still, the most relevant and comprehensive evidence comes from the earlier empirical studies, which are extensively cited by Longenecker et al. (2004).

As for the primary information, Longenecker et al. (2004) chose to send their questionnaires to 10,000 U.S. business persons that were randomly selected. They received a total of 1234 responses (12%) (Longenecker et al., 2004). Given that the response rate was very low, thus the researchers decided not to make any generalizations based on the study sample. To a large extent, the results of this study are just one of the many steps towards a better understanding of the religion-ethics relationship.

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Main Concepts

Needless to say, religious commitment and business ethics are the two core concepts used by Longenecker et al. (2004) in their study. However, the research framework developed by Longenecker et al. (2004) also includes other interesting categories. The researchers refer to Trevino's interactionist model of ethical decision-making, which is based on a combination of organizational and individual factors. According to Longenecker et al. (2004), this model suggests that ethical decision-making is essentially about the interaction of various individual and situational factors. In relation to this model, the following concepts are used: locus of control, ego strength, and field dependence – these are the variables that moderate the relationship between the decision-making environment and the characteristics of workers (Longenecker et al., 2004).

Another essential concept used by Longenecker et al. (2004) is that of religious orientation. The researchers point to a distinction between external and internal religious orientation. Individuals with an external religious orientation use religion to achieve certain tangible ends, including better social status and greater security (Longenecker et al., 2004). By contrast, those with an intrinsic religious orientation seek wholeness and moral integrity through their inner religious commitments. They are willing to internalize the most sacred religious beliefs and follow them in all life situations (Longenecker et al., 2004). Despite certain limitations, all these concepts can be helpful in explaining the impacts of religiosity on ethical behaviors in business.


The entire article rests on the assumption that religion, religiosity, and religious commitments do have significant impacts on the essence and quality of ethical behaviors in business settings. Moreover, Longenecker et al. (2004) assume that religion is inherently positive and has the potential to improve the state of business ethics within organizations. At the same time, the researchers recognize that the evidence supporting this view is very limited, and only additional empirical analysis can help clarify the real implications of religiosity for organizational ethics.

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The main conclusion made by Longenecker et al. (2004) is that religion is a crucial factor of ethical decision-making in business. With all respondents being people of business, the argument that religion contributes to ethical decision-making in organizations becomes even more compelling. Longenecker et al. (2004) did not find any statistical differences in attitudes across members of various religious confessions. Simply stated, the nature of the religious commitment was not as important as the fact of being committed to a certain religion. The researchers discovered two major variables supporting a strong relationship between religion and ethics in business such as (a) the extent to which respondents felt religion was important in their lives; and (b) the theological characteristics of religious respondents (Longenecker et al., 2004). In terms of the latter, Longenecker et al. (2004) discovered a higher level of moral judgment in those, who claimed themselves to be evangelical. Simultaneously, the researchers discovered a new type of business decision-makers evangelical seekers. Evangelical seekers are the leaders, who apply to religious concepts in the tough economic conditions and seek the best solution to their business problems through prayer and faith (Longenecker et al., 2004). Apparently, these leaders are more likely to avoid various ethical controversies as they are struggling with the harsh economic and market realities facing them in business.


The study of ethics and the impacts of religiosity on ethical decision-making in business have profound implications for the entire field of business. That religiosity greatly contributes to ethics, and morality within the organizations can also be compared to a two-edge sword. On one hand, modern organizations find themselves in a tough situation. The growing challenge of market competition and the most recent economic crises have wiped away the importance of being ethical in business. Longenecker et al. (2004) are right when they speak about the Enron failure; the failure that has become a model of how businesses should not behave as they struggling in order to retain their competitive position. Unfortunately, Enron was not the last ethical failure in American business. Even sophisticated financial regulations cannot stop corruption and frauds in U.S. businesses. The recent financial crisis has become a good test to the saliency of ethics beliefs in companies – a test many companies eventually failed. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just some of the many businesses that have sacrificed their ethical commitments for the sake of fast profits. The results presented by Longenecker et al. (2004) suggest that religiosity in leadership holds a promise to reduce the scope of unethical behaviors in business. In many instances, being religious is a win-win solution for many organizations that find themselves in midst of an ethical crisis. Through religious commitments, leaders and workers can reaffirm their own identity while also participating in all organizational processes (Nielsen, 1989). Religion provides organizational leaders and their followers with a remarkable opportunity to align their inner beliefs with the principles and values promoted at the organizational level.

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On the other hand, how exactly religious commitments should be exercised in business remains unclear. Longenecker et al. (2004) do not provide any guidance as to how religious commitments should be used to benefit the organization and its workers. Moreover, this win-win approach is not without limitations; in some situations, ethical solutions and religious compromises may simply be impossible (Nielsen, 1989). Consensus-building and bureaucratic-authoritarian organizational cultures are equally susceptible to the risks of ethics failures (Nielsen, 1989). Therefore, the conclusions made by Longenecker et al. (1989) should be used as the basis for the development of new ethical leadership frameworks, which will also include the elements of religiosity and faith.


Longenecker et al. (2004) do not express their viewpoint explicitly. However, it is obvious that the researchers are very supportive of the use of religious commitments as an ethical decision-making tool. Longenecker et al. (2004) are not very optimistic about the current ethics situation in business. They speak about the most spectacular ethics failures in the years preceding their publication. Longenecker et al. (2004) sound very hopeful, when they speak about religion and its potentially positive influence on ethical behaviors in business "intuitively, therefore, it seems possible, perhaps even probable that religious beliefs would influence the perceptions of individuals facing ethical issues in business." (p.373). It seems that the researchers support religious commitments as promisingly effective and, at the same time, cost-effective approach to business ethics. The researchers sound hopeful that their findings will help many businesses find the way out from ethical darkness.

Simultaneously, Longenecker et al. (2004) support the view that religious commitments in organizations should not result in discrimination and bias. Longenecker et al. (2004) encourage the use of religious commitments to promote ethical behaviors within organizations, but only to the extent that does not contradict the principles of equality, openness, fairness, and freedom of religious choices. In their view, some religious practices should be kept private and never used to influence ethical decisions in the workplace. Moreover, in no way should the use of religious commitments in organizations undermine the spirit of diversity in the workplace. Longenecker et al. (2004) do not support any extreme measures and cite Gil Stricklin to reinforce their position "We do not go into the workplace to preach or proselytize" (p.383). In other words, the use of religious motives and values is encouraged, but only within the limits that do not undermine the openness, fairness, and equality of everyone in the workplace.


The significance of the findings presented by Longenecker et al. (2004) can hardly be underscored. First, study of religion and its impact on ethics represents one of the most long-standing traditions in organization research. However, despite the growing body of literature, recent knowledge of the religiosity-ethics relationship has been incomplete. The major contribution made by Longenecker et al. (2004) in their study is the use of empirical methods to investigate the impacts of religion on ethical practices in business. These empirical findings add to the existing body of literature devoted to the analysis of religious practices and their implications for ethics.

Second, Longenecker et al. (2004) have adopted a multidimensional view of religiosity in organizations. In their view, religiosity is not limited to observable behaviors, such as going to church. In many aspects, their position on religiosity and commitment echoes that of Aydemir and Egilmez (2010). Religiosity comprises numerous core and peripheral elements, and not all religious people want to expose their religious commitments in public. However, these religious commitments become obvious, when leaders and workers are compelled to make difficult ethical decisions. By using vignettes as part of their research method, Longenecker et al. (2004) were able to explore the hidden facets of religiosity and its potential impacts on ethics.


Unfortunately, the study by Longenecker et al. (2004) is not without limitations. Moreover, the results of the study raise a number of questions, which the researchers still need to answer. In terms of limitations, the researchers used a questionnaire that measured individual perceptions of religiosity and ethics in business settings but did not measure their actual ethical behaviors (Longenecker et al., 2004). Consequently, whether religion impacts ethical behaviors is an open question. Religious commitments obviously influence and alter moral intentions, sensitivity, and judgment (Longenecker et al., 2004). Still, behaviors remain the most essential criterion of ethics in business and elsewhere, and if religion does not change them, then its role in business ethics is minor.

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The researchers have failed to achieve the proportional representation of all professions in the research sample (Longenecker et al., 2004). However, Longenecker et al. (2004) have also failed to create an adequate religious sample of participants. In their sample, 75.3% of the respondents were Christian, and this fact may have biased impacts on the quality of the final results. Future studies should utilize the benefits of proportional sampling to reflect the religious characteristics of the target population and enhance the generalizability of the research results.

The results of the study and the ways, in which they are presented, generate cautious optimism, especially against the background of other studies, their assumptions and findings. Based on what Longenecker et al. (2004) write in their work, religion should become a unilaterally and universally accepted solution to most, if not all, ethical problems in organizations. Still, the most essential question to be answered is how to avoid religious arrogance in the workplace? Longenecker et al. (2004) might be correct, when they speak about different religions and their complex interrelationships. Longenecker et al. (2004) seem aware of the fact that the world has more than one religion, and the risks of religious conflicts should not be ignored. However, they do not recognize the fact that the leader in any organization can practice only one religion. This issue was thoroughly discussed by Fernando and Jackson (2006). They refer to this problem as religious arrogance, when leaders assume an arrogant position in their religious commitments and beliefs. How should leaders practice religiosity in organizational environments to avoid coercion and arrogance in their relations with followers? This question does not have an answer. Meanwhile, an impression persists that Longenecker et al. (2004) confuse the meaning of religiosity with that of spirituality. Given the multitude of the religious traditions practiced in the world and the trend towards diversity and fairness in organizations, it could be better to avoid perceiving ethics as an inherently religious entity. There is still no consensus on whether spirituality is religious or not (Milliman, Czaplewski & Ferguson, 2003). Yet, spirituality looks like a feasible and more ethical alternative to the concept of religion in organizations. Spirituality is about having consistency between individuals' core values and the values and principles promoted by the organization (Milliman et al., 2003). Even if, religion can enhance the ethical climate in organizations, it is better to rely on spirituality as an element that glues individual principles and fundamental beliefs to those of the organization.

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Viewpoints: Ignored and Evidence

The first ignored viewpoint is that religion and ethics are two philosophically different entities. The current state of evidence confirms the fundamentally irrational nature of religion, as well as its complex relation to the risks of discrimination and abuse. Certainly, Longenecker et al. (2004) write that the use of religious practices and commitments in business settings should be reasonable. Religious commitments in business ethics should not lead to discrimination (Longenecker et al., 2004). However, Longenecker et al. (2004) ignore the fact (also supported by evidence) that individuals who call themselves religious are often given preferential treatment over those, who do not practice any religion at all (Savulescu, 1998). Even if religion benefits ethics in business, and even if all religious practices are equally respected, what is left to those, who consider themselves as atheist? Most likely, those organizational leaders and followers who are driven by religious values will look and sound more ethical than those, whose self-interest is not religiously supported (Savulescu, 1998). Even if religious commitments do not translate into ethical behaviors (Longenecker et al., 2004) these risks should not be disregarded.

Here, an obvious contradiction is in the irrationality of religious beliefs and the rationality of ethics. Religion and ethics are as different as ethics and mathematics. Savulescu (1998) states that religion is about faith and ethics are about reason. Religion is about what the biblical texts and figureheads say should be right or wrong, whereas ethics is about being reasonably right or wrong (Savulescu, 1998). Religious people also have a tendency to believe in miracles (Savulescu, 1998). It is difficult to imagine how irrational religious beliefs can help cultivate strong moral commitments within organizations. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how organizational leaders will reconcile the various viewpoints and irrational beliefs of what should be right and wrong exercised by different religious confessions. Brammer, Williams and Zinkin (2007) confirm the diversity of moral values and attitudes exercised by individuals of different faiths. Christians associate themselves with the God, in whose image they were made while in Judaism, economic activities are being treated as beneficial for the existence and future welfare of the entire humanity (Brammer et al., 2007). The Islamic tradition requires that everyone works, but material enrichment is secondary to spiritual enhancement and social justice (Brammer et al., 2007). Buddhism is the least economically motivated religious faith (Brammer et al., 2007). Unfortunately, Longenecker et al. (2004) do not provide any advice to help resolve these controversies.

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Given the irrational nature of religion, another ignored viewpoint is that religion as a driver of ethical attitudes may not coincide with firms' value maximization ideals. This viewpoint deserves particular attention because it was already discussed by many scholars, and the outcomes of this discussion may have profound implications for the analysis of Longenecker et al. (2004) and their argument. If religion and profit maximization do not match, then everything written by Longenecker et al. (2004) does not deserve attention. According to Zekos (2004), ethics, religion, and value maximization are not equivalent. On one hand, value maximization is not possible without ethics. Value maximization is much more about ethics than typical textbooks about short-term profit maximization can suggest (Zekos, 2004). On the other hand, the conditions of organizational and market performance should also be considered. In certain conditions, religion and ethics may work against the value maximization incentives of the company and its stakeholders. Longenecker et al. (2004) ignores the assumption that the effectiveness of religious commitments and ethics in organizations should be tied to their efficiency and value maximization ideals. Yet, in Longenecker et al. (2004), ethics and religion operate as separate entities in an ideal world that does not seek to sustain its material wealth.

For this same reason, Longenecker et al. (2004) ignore the potential of various cultural impacts on ethics in business. Cross-cultural variations in ethical standards have been widely documented (Zekos, 2004). Ethical norms constantly change under the influence of technologies and culture (Zekos, 2004). Still, it is not very clear whether religion, with its emphasis on stability and conservatism, can help businesses catch up with changes in ethical perceptions and requirements. All these contradictions suggest that it is time to move away from religion and faith towards spirituality and, as a result, morality and ethics in business. The findings of Longenecker et al. (2004) are valuable and important, but the concept of spirituality provides a broader space for ethical self-fulfillment in business. Spirituality is not limited to a particular religion, and the risks of discrimination based on spirituality are minimal. Spirituality is a better way to align individual values with those of the organization because it simply recognizes the presence of an inner life that informs daily workplace practices and meaningful organizational belonging (Milliman et al., 2003). Much of the existing research into spirituality was rooted in religion. However, the times when spirituality was considered solely in terms of religious adherence and faith gone. "While the focus on personal spirituality experiences is essential, it is also important to conduct research with helps understand the potential positive impact on employee attitudes that can occur when management supports individuals' needs in the workplace" (Milliman et al., 2003, p.427). Workers should not be religious to make moral judgments. They should not be religious to be regarded as ethical. Despite the significant contribution made by Longenecker et al. (2004) to the study of business ethics, spirituality is likely to become the next step in the evolution of ethical behaviors in organizations.



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