Can Religion Help in the Fight against Corruption? Evidence from Marketing and Management in Saudi Arabia: A Behavioral Ethics Perspective

by Marianna Fotaki, Faisal Alshehri and Saleema Kauser

There is general agreement that religion and ethics are closely linked. Religion provides a system of norms and values guiding how individuals should live. Such norms and values are often codified as religious beliefs in the Bible or the Quran (Parboteeah et al., 2008). And 84 percent of the world’s population declare themselves as religious (King, 2008). Even so, behavioral ethics as a discipline tends to ignore issues of faith.

As a professor of business ethics working in leading UK business schools, in which we have a variety of religions and backgrounds among staff and students, I became aware of this lacuna. This was heightened as I began work on a forthcoming collaborative book that aims to examine business ethics from a global perspective (Fotaki, Kenny and Reinecke, forthcoming). Feeling that the issue of religion was surely key, I began to search for material and literature on the topic. I was surprised to find that studies have consistently failed to capture how exactly religion affects ethical behaviors in organizations (Lehnert et al., 2014).

The absence of clear links between religiosity and behavior might be due to methodological and conceptual limitations, including the absence of theoretical frameworks capturing the role of beliefs, biases and emotions. The evidence of wrongdoing in diverse business settings has promoted a great deal of interest in how individual and situational factors might impact on ethical decision making in organizations (Gino and Moore, 2015). Given the widespread ethical failure in private, public or not-for-profit sectors, it is important to understand how religion can be used as a resource in the fight against corruption and unethical conduct in organizations. But are religious people more concerned with ethics than non-religious ones? If so, then religion should have a positive impact on ethical decision making in work and business contexts (Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe, 2008). That religious values have impacts in the workplace was already suggested by Weber in 1905, but these impacts are still present and worthy of continued research.

Without a more nuanced understanding of how different dimensions of religiosity and religious identity influence ethical behavior (Weaver and Agle, 2002) such attempts might fail. It is particularly important to research these issues in non-Western contexts and from a variety of religious viewpoints to better understand the connections between religion, ethics and corruption. Despite being much needed, such work is scarce. For instance, while existing literature on religiosity in management and organizations focuses overwhelmingly on Western Christianity (Tracey, 2012), there is a striking lack of studies regarding religion’s influence on ethical decision-making and organizational behavior from an Islamic perspective, despite it being one of the world’s fastest growing religions.

The study carried out by the team of researchers from the University of Manchester and Warwick, involving Faisal, Saleema and myself, addresses this gap. Specifically, we examine how core religious beliefs within the Islamic tradition have shaped the ethical perceptions of Muslims and their impact on ethical judgments and behaviors of individuals in various business situations. Religious belief is the key dimension of individual religiosity (Parboteeah et al., 2008) though numerous other dimensions including religious experiences, practices and knowledge are also important. Understanding how an individual internalizes the image and concept of God can provide us with a meaningful snapshot of one's religious beliefs. This can also help explain the normative gap between Islam’s ethical teaching and business practices in many Muslim countries, where corruption is high (see Transparency International’s Corruption Index, 2014).

Given that the majority of studies on examining religion in organizations lack sufficient specificity in theorizing (Steffy, 2013), our aim was to build a theory of Islamic beliefs and conduct an empirical investigation to test it. The first step was to frame the deeply held religious beliefs emanating from main Islamic schools of thought in the form of a conceptual schema. The proposed framework helps explain how Muslims might prioritize different religious values when dealing with ethical dilemmas. This schema is based on values that believers internalize through affective and cognitive processes as image (view) and concept (idea) of Allah. We argue that deeply held religious beliefs help shape Muslims’ individual perception of Allah in three fundamental ways: (i) as punishing, (ii) as benevolent and forgiving, or (iii) as a combined view balancing both aspects. We hypothesized that in the first case believers will be less likely to act unethically because of the fear of being caught by an omniscient God and being punished (Conroy and Emerson, 2004), in the second case they might be paradoxically more likely to commit unethical acts as such acts would be eventually forgiven (Shariff and Norenzayan, 2011), while in the third case believers would balance aspects of forgiveness and punishment.

The proposed theoretical schema guided our empirical examinations. The study involving multiple designs and different types of analysis including focus groups, questionnaire surveys, scenarios and vignettes, was carried out with a large sample of marketing and management professionals from Saudi Arabia. Developing a valid and reliable psychometric scale to measure a Muslims’ conception of Allah was essential. We conducted three preliminary focus groups and had our initial items reviewed by experts in Islam and psychology of religion. We then pre-tested the scale with a small convenience sample, applying a cognitive interviewing technique to refine and improve the scale. The scale was administered to the target population: a multi-stage Cluster Sampling (N = 427) of marketing professionals from Saudi Arabia who assisted us in refining the Scale of Muslim’s View of Allah (SMVA). The results showed that the newly-constructed scale had adequate psychometric properties.

A self-administered online questionnaire was sent to a randomly selected sample of 600 marketing and management professionals recruited from the email list of Saudi Management Association. This list consists of over 6400 registered of marketing and management professionals from all around the country. In the main empirical study we used vignette methods rather than direct-question-based survey. The aim was to provide a less threatening context and reduce social desirability bias. We also framed questions in the third person and assured full anonymity for the participants. To remedy variance that is attributable to the measurement method rather than to the constructs the measures represent, our data were collected in two stages separated by 35 days. Half of the participants completed the religious and demographic scales (Scale of Muslim’s View of Allah, religious practice scale, and religious knowledge scale) in stage 1 and the ethical vignettes in stage 2. While the scales measured participants’ views of Allah, and the level of their religious knowledge and practices, 24 vignettes (very short stories with hypothetical situations requiring ethical judgment from respondents) were aimed to measure the degree of the acceptance of ethically questionable scenarios. Each view of God that we identified in our schema was then linked to their endorsement of these scenarios. Structural equation modelling (SEM) was used to test all our hypotheses simultaneously.

The findings of the study confirmed that forgiving conceptions of God in Islam might be more closely associated with unethical behavior within organizations. Respondents who had this conception of Allah turned out to be significantly more accepting of the ethically questionable scenarios. We also found that respondents who espoused the combined view and conception of Allah were by far more likely to oppose ethically questionable vignettes. Finally, those who internalized the fear view and conception of God were even less accepting of ethically questionable scenarios. Unexpectedly, therefore, the fear view was more positively associated with ethical judgment when compared to the combined or forgiving view. Furthermore, we found that individuals’ religious knowledge and religious practice partially mediates the relationship between the forgiving view and the ethical judgment. Also, individuals’ religious practice partially mediates the ethical judgment in both the balanced and the fear view. However, individuals’ religious knowledge does not seem to mediate ethical judgement in either the combined or the fear view.

What do these findings tell us? Our key finding is that people who see Allah as benevolent and forgiving are to an extent more accepting of unethical behavior and are potentially more likely to engage in decisions leading to an unethical outcome, at least in hypothetical situations. This is largely affected by processes we may not be fully aware of, but it might also be because certain conceptions could provide us with “disguised” language and stories that we tell ourselves to justify our corrupt actions. In other words, the forgiving view provided individuals with language that helped their self-deception (Tenbrunsel and Messick, 2004). Thus, even though they knew that the hypothetical situation was ethically questionable, they did not much care about the outcomes of their decisions, as they believed forgiveness would be granted to them anyway. This proves that religion continues to provide a language for ethics even as it might lead to adverse ethical outcomes. Overall, our findings confirm that religious beliefs have an important effect on ethical behavior in a business context at work: they influence ethical decision making in profound and often unexpected ways.  

We used the case of Islam to highlight how religious beliefs might influence both deliberate and unintentional ethical decision making. Such work provides much needed theoretical integration by incorporating knowledge borrowed from Islamic theology along with behavioral ethics to develop categories guiding empirical research on links between religion, ethics and corruption in variety of cultures and contexts. It also offers practical contributions for ethical training and education. Our work might, for instance, be useful for international companies operating in international markets where Islamic beliefs are dominant, particularly in today’s increasingly global and religiously diverse business environment.


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See also: Marianna Fotaki