In truth, that image was never entirely fair. Sure, business has always involved a certain amount of cut and thrust, and - while there have always been a few prepared to engage in searching rivals' rubbish and other "dirty tricks" - the majority have had a strong sense of where the dividing line between right and wrong lies.
What is pushing the issue up the management agenda is increasing doubts over whether it is still good enough to rely upon implicit assumptions about ethical business behaviour.
This is partly a response to the recession of the early years of this decade, when a "greed is good" culture in the City and beyond was felt to have contributed to a spate of corporate collapses. But it also acknowledges that the way much of business now operates makes it impossible to assume that those involved in it instinctively know how to "do the right thing".
In the old days personal contact played a much more important role in recruitment than it does today. In many ways this is a welcome development, though it does mean job candidates have to be taken much more on face value - even with psychometric tests.
And, people are given responsibilities much sooner and are no longer forced to demonstrate their abilities to established "grey hairs". Of course, this is another development to be welcomed, as it encourages the initiative and risk-taking that has been sadly absent from so much of British business.
But it is not so good if such initiative is allowed to run unchecked. This is an issue that is of particular concern to City law firms and other professional services organisations that have grown rapidly - only a few years ago everybody, quite literally, knew everybody else - to one where they have offices all over the world and nobody can know anybody else in any depth. With rumours flying that well-known City firms are involved in money-laundering, this is not an insignificant issue.
Dale Fishburn, of the public relations consultancy Fishburn Hedges, is just one adviser who sees all this as contributing to a growing belief that "the time is ripe to place corporate ethics on a more systematically considered and explicit basis". Like John Drummond of the consultancy, Integrity Works, and a growing band of banks and other businesses, he thinks that there should be greater codification of desired standards and attitudes.
That is all very well, but, as a survey published last week by the Institute of Business Ethics, and sponsored by Fishburn Hedges, shows, it is not enough just to have a code. According to the research among some of Britain's top companies, more than half now have such a code. But in practice their contents, and even existence, are often unknown to staff, customers and other stakeholders.
This may result from a laudable reluctance to market themselves on the basis of their ethical stance. Yet it risks bringing to nought all the effort of installing such codes if people do not know they are there - and, so, do not abide by them.
In an increasingly competitive world, there is mounting evidence that people want to feel good about the people with whom they do business. Or as Jack Welch - chief executive of General Electric of the United States, and nobody's pussy-cat - is quoted by Fishburn Hedges as saying: "In the end, integrity is all you've got."Reuse content