All research should be grounded in ethics, and business research is no exception. In addition, there are local and federal laws that dictate what you’re able to do while conducting your research. These laws typically deal with the age of participants, how long you can have them in a study and compensation for your participants' time. You will also have to deal with regulations for building use if you want to go out of your office to conduct your research.

Ethical Issues in Business Research

When discussing the ethics of business research, you have three significant areas of responsibility:

  • Your Company: You have a responsibility to act professionally, ethically and in a way that will represent your company well.  
  • Your Customers: Your customers deserve to be treated with transparency and respect, and their concerns should be heard and acted upon. It may be helpful to create a chart that outlines the main themes of customer feedback. There are even recording tools that allow you to capture any soundbites that you think would be helpful. Your customers also require protection, and you should ensure that no one gets data about your participants that they do not need to access as a function of their job.
  • Your Community: More and more, companies are considered fixtures in their community. They put on free help events and they contribute to parks, hospitals and other public works. While handling your research, you should keep in mind what activities your company supports and how to leverage that for the betterment of your community.

Ethical Consideration in Business Research

There must be a balance between your research objective and the following considerations:

  • Protecting the rights of the participant or subject.
  • Ensuring the sponsor receives ethically conducted and reported research.
  • Following ethical standards when designing research.
  • Protecting the safety of the researcher and team.
  • Ensuring the research team follows the design.

Ways to Gather Market Research

Here is an example of a scenario involving ethical market research. An employee, Liz, was asked by her company’s marketing department to find out if their main customer base prefers offer A or offer B. She has a customer profile that requests she get information from people who are between the ages of 25 and 30 and who did not graduate from college.

After looking at the data from the customer profiles, Liz thinks that she will have the best response from remote studies in which customers talk her through their thought process while they are looking at the offers. This method means no one needs to monitor the research and will enable her to have a much wider pool of participants than she would in person.

Because Liz knows that there are other parts to offers A and B, she also adds questions about why they would be interested in either offer. For the smaller question, Liz wants to interview super users face-to-face. To conduct a proper face-to-face interview, she is going to give the users a task and then listen to them as they complete a shopping process. While she is researching, Liz knows that it is crucial that she keeps her personal opinions to herself and that she does not ask questions that could lead her participant in any direction.

Ethical Research Requires Impartial Researchers

Ethical research requires the researcher to be as impartial as possible. Because of this impartiality, the researcher must talk as little as possible and ask questions that are as open-ended as possible. Avoiding the use of authoritative phrasing is also essential. When conducting her in-person study, Liz prefers to have participants meet her in her office or meet them in public. It is never a good idea to have a single participant in a non-public area.

Inappropriate Market Research

In a similar scenario, an employee named Carol has received the same request as Liz to study options A and B. However, she does not set up remote testing that follows the primary customer profile. Carol also accidentally offered the survey to people under the age of 18 without the authority of their guardian. The data points that she got still didn’t support what her marketing department truly wanted to do, so she made up fake data.

Carol has a clear preference for B, and in her interviews with super users, Carol asked questions like “what does B have for you that A lacks” and leading questions that showed her preference for choice B. As a result, her participants had an overwhelming preference for B as well. People who are loyal to a company that you work for want to please entities from that company. If Carol had not shown her preference for B, her participants would likely have had more honest responses.

Carol’s efforts to do the job quickly caused her to potentially break the law by selecting minors as survey participants and lie to her company. She skewed the data points in her favor as well. This is a tremendous breach of ethics and could result in significant lost profits for her company. Her lack of ethics may also cause interpersonal issues in other areas of her work or even the loss of her job.

What to Ask Potential Customers

To ethically conduct a study, you should refrain from asking any personal questions outside of identity markers. In the examples above, the main customer profile is non-college graduates, aged 25 to 30. This particular group doesn’t include minors, so Liz didn’t have to worry about dealing with minors. Carol has likely broken the law by surveying a minor without their guardian present.

When you are talking to potential customers, you should already have assumptions and questions in mind. Research needs to be focused on a goal. Extensive knowledge searches tend not to get at the heart of whatever the study was meant to do.

While you are working with a participant, do not meet with them in private settings. If you cannot have a meeting in a public office, then a coffee house or a storefront would also be acceptable. The reason for this is that it avoids any chance that the participant may feel unsafe or pressured to answer in one way or another.

What to Ask Focus Groups

Focus groups are imperfect ways of gathering data, and most companies are starting to move away from the use of this method. The primary reason that focus groups are not the best way to go about collecting data is that there are consistent factors that affect the viability of the information that is gained from them.

Take, for example, a study to find out which pair of three jeans are the best. One person in the focus group is extremely loud and opinionated, which might mean their thoughts will be echoed by less opinionated or less secure members in the focus group. Oftentimes in cases like these, numerous scientific studies have been done using identical products, but the focus groups uniformly had different overall opinions.

The major reason for this is that most people are considered “pleasers” and they want to answer in ways that will please the people who are strongly opinionated or the people doing the research. Many brands used to use focus groups of their most loyal customers or their campus representatives, but this tended to result in skewed, overly positive feedback.

How to Treat Competitors

Depending on your business, you may benefit significantly from sharing your research with your competitors, provided they share equally with you. Competitors may offer insight that would help you with some of your company’s pain points, for example. However, other than things that are industry regulated, you are not legally obligated to share information.

Ethics, however, have little to do with legality. Things to ask yourself are, “Does this help?” “Is it just?” and “Does this serve a better purpose?” Being seen as a “team player,” even with competitors, can go a long way toward building goodwill with prospective customers and in the community. If you are seen as a “friendly” company, people will be more drawn to purchase from or work with you.

Considerations for Questionnaires

Questionnaires need to be written as openly as possible to avoid bias. This can be a complicated process and may take a few tries to master. Even questions like “What do you think of this image box?” are leading if you are looking to rename the “image box.” To avoid any assumptions, keep the focus very narrow and only ask questions that do not sound like one answer is preferred over any other response.

Your questionnaire should also be as short as possible while allowing you to access the data that you need. In many cases, you could enlist the help of another agency. There are placement agencies that have a pool of people at the ready who are paid to do questionnaires or remote testing and interviews. By outsourcing, you are freeing up your time and assuring a broad pool of responses.

Data Security Considerations

Data security comes with many more legal obligations than typical ethics considerations. You have a responsibility to your customers and your employees to protect their information from people who do not need to access their information.

When it comes to data, it is important not to allow employees to access more information about their coworkers or their customers than they need to do their job reasonably. Accessing information beyond that opens up your employees and yourself to the possibility of legal action. These breaches tend to be more important news than other ethical infractions, because the inability to protect customer data could affect both prospective and current customers.

To protect your employees from the risk of accessing the information they should not see, there are a few checks and balances that you can easily implement. Giving every employee an employee number is always a smart idea. In addition, each employee should have a separate login, and those logins should be gated to only the people who need that information. Tracking your employee movements can also help you if you suspect that there may be an issue among your staff.

Intellectual Property Considerations

Considerations surrounding intellectual property should revolve around protecting the rights of those who created it. In the same way that people in a hospital don’t need to know anything about a patient other than what is relevant to their responsibilities, a researcher shouldn’t over-explain what they are looking for and reveal this sort of information.

If you must talk about intellectual property, you may want to have your participants sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). An NDA effectively makes it a breach of contract if the person tells competitors or even other people what you have discussed. In the end, however, your efforts to protect the participant and their rights are more important than protecting intellectual property.