What is the main ethical issue with regard to Jane's

Jane was very enthusiastic as the course she was studying involved a live research project. The whole approach of her course, particularly the research project, was to provide solutions to real-life managerial issues, and she felt that this would really help her career in the large restaurant chain that was sponsoring her. The research project seemed an ideal opportunity for her to collect data from the head offices of competitor restaurant chains while working as a student researcher. This could enable her to establish what was really best practice in terms of setting performance standards and ensuring these were maintained in the chains of restaurants run by these companies. Using contacts she had made on the course and her own knowledge of the industry, she was confident that she could collect some really useful data that would make a good research project and advance her career with her sponsor.

Jane's research plans involved talking to people in the head offices of some of her employers' major competitors. She was not concerned that this was unethical because while she was at university her company was not actually employing her, even though they were sponsoring her. She planned to share the results of her research with her company later on; indeed it was a condition of the sponsorship that she do this.

Jane's research involved two stages of data gathering. She hoped to start by looking at service standards in a number of restaurant chains. She knew from her own working experience that mystery customer monitoring of competitors' service standards was a fairly common industry practice. She therefore decided to start by devising a checklist, drawn from her own experience of working in the industry and from reading refereed journal articles on service standards. Using this, she planned a study that involved some participant observation of service standards. She intended to visit a number of different competing restaurant chains as a mystery customer and to record her experiences, if possible by using the video camera in her mobile phone. The second stage of the research would involve depth interviews with these companies where she would ask them to comment on some of the data she had collected.

Before she could start collecting data, Jane had to write a research proposal that described and justified her research methods in some detail, and submit this to her research methods tutors for approval. She also had to complete her Business School's research ethics checklist. This asked her to provide a brief description of her research method, which she duly did. It then asked her a number of simple questions including:

Does your research involve any of the following?

Deception of participants? Yes/No

Financial inducements? Yes/No

Possible psychological stress? Yes/No

Access to confidential information? Yes/No

Any other special circumstances? Yes/No

Jane felt that she had to answer ‘yes' to the deception question, but justified her use of deception as a standard industry practice, referring to a recent search she had undertaken on Google, which had revealed numerous ‘mystery customer 'companies offering their services of which she felt her tutor would also be aware. She also cited two refereed journal papers by Calvert (2005) which she said had used mystery customers.

When Jane got her research proposal back she was horrified to discover that it had been referred by her Research Methods tutor on ethical grounds. The tutor had consulted the Business School Research Ethics Officer (REO), whose views on the ethics of Jane's research were quite different from what she had expected. The REO had advised that the proposal amounted to deliberate deception of participants, which was in breach of the University's Code of Practice on Ethical Standards for Research involving Human Participants. This stated that: potential participants normally have the right to receive clearly communicated information from

the researcher in advance,

- participants in a research study have the right to

give their informed consent before participating,

- honesty should be central to the relationship

between researcher, participant and institutional

representatives,

- the deception of participants should be avoided.

Jane assumed that the problem was with her mystery shopper exercise, but as it turned out this was only a minor part of her problem. The REO agreed that the use of ‘mystery customers' was standard practice in this sector and therefore permissible. However, Jane was asked to make it clear that the restaurants being studied would not be identified in the research project, and that it must not be possible when she carried out the interviews in the second stage that any of the staff or customers involved could be personally identified by industry insiders.

The REO was much more concerned about the depth interviews in the second stage. In particular,the REO was concerned that Jane proposed to present herself as a student, although she was collecting data that she was going to reveal to acommercial competitor. It would be unethical and unacceptable to use her role as a student at theUniversity in this way, and might well be viewed as a form of industrial espionage.

QUESTIONS

1. What is the main ethical issue with regard to Jane's proposed research project?

2. How can Jane change the design of her mystery customer observation method to avoid ethical problems?

3. How might Jane carry out the second part of her research - with the companies' head offices - in an ethical manner?

4. Use online databases such as EBSCO Host and Emerald to obtain copies of the two articles that Jane used to justify her use of mystery shopping.

To what extent do you believe that these articles support Jane's belief that becoming a mystery customer is ethical


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