Organizational ethics includes the consideration of a wide number of issues of rights, responsibilities, values, and proper conduct in contemporary organizations and in organizations’ relations to host societies. Conceptions and studies of organizational ethics have focused on both internal practices and social consequences and have been descriptive as well as normative. Unsurprisingly, questions of organizational ethics are especially prominent today in the wake of widespread scandals such as those at Enron and WorldCom and the almost incredible global social, economic, and environmental effects of large organizations. While many organizational ethics studies still focus on individual behavior and issues primarily linked to compliance with organizational policies, communication scholars have become increasingly interested in ethical issues focusing on values, governance, and corporate social responsibility, drawing on concepts developed from critical communication theory (Deetz, in press).
Organizational ethics discussions focusing on descriptions of internal organizational practices and individual conduct (often also called business ethics) have emphasized accountability, employee rights and responsibilities, and dissent and whistle-blowing (e.g. Seeger 1997). Most research has described various business ethics programs, formal codes of ethics, what division houses the ethics program within an organization, ethics violation reporting, how culture influences ethics, and the role of leadership with respect to ethics. These studies investigate ethical decision-making, moral recognition, judgment, cognitive moral development, religion, and the role of emotion (Treviño and Weaver 2003). Most studies have used fairly simple self-report and behavioral measures. Jackell’s (1988) work is an important exception in his ethnography of moral decision-making in organizations. His in-depth analysis provided an understanding of concrete moral dilemmas confronted by employees and the complex processes of making choices in actual work contexts.
A second line of work has been more philosophical and normative. Following MacIntyre’s (1984) influential work, organizational managers were said to have developed a “character” problem. Character here is not meant in a sense of individual psychological lack, but as arising from the decline of a robust social discussion of values and shared guiding principles. Managerial “stewardship” was described as giving way to a rather raw instrumental reasoning process in which ethics was relegated to a private emotive realm and weakened. Value conflicts and debates gave way to calculations in presumed valuefree representational codes, and procedural values like due process replaced end-state values based on conceptions of quality of life and morality. These works tried to reinstate value discussion in the organizational context. The complexity of multiple communities with multiple standards makes such discussions important but difficult.
A third line of work argues that the primary issue is neither individual conduct nor shared values but instead organizational governance and decision-making processes. In this work, the consequences for the environment and larger society are central, and issues of ethics and social responsibility merge. The concern ranges through important issues such as human rights, environmental protection, equal opportunity and pay for women and various disadvantaged minorities, and fair competition. Such broad issues are instantiated in activities such as using prisoners as workers, moving operations to environmentally less restrictive communities, offering and taking bribes and payoffs, creating environmentally unsound or wasteful products, closing economically viable plants in takeover and merger games, growing income disparity, declining social safety-nets, malingering harassment, maintaining unnecessary and unhealthy controls on employees, and advocating consumerism.
From such a perspective governance and decision-making processes are flawed from an ethical standpoint because, while the processes of organizational decision-making are heavily value-laden, they do not include a sufficiently representative set of values to make responsible decisions for the community or to make the most productive use of resources. The call for greater responsibility is less the application of a new social standard than a transformation of organizations to allow more decisional voices and value debate and negotiation. Ethics and responsibility rest in more free and open communication rather than in moral standards. Most of this work has focused on reforming stakeholder theory by providing a richer conception and more robust applications drawing from critical communication theory, especially following the work of Jürgen Habermas (Kuhn & Deetz in press; Palazzo & Scherer 2006; Scherer et al. 2006).
- Deetz, S. (in press). Corporate governance, communication and CRS. In S. May, G. Cheney, & J. Roper (eds.), The debate over corporate social responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Jackell, R. (1988). Moral mazes: The world of corporate managers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Kuhn, T. & Deetz, S. (in press). A critical management theory view on corporate social responsibility. In A. Crane, A. McWilliams, D. Matten, J. Moon, & D. Siegel (eds.), The Oxford handbook of corporate social responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virtue: A study in moral theory, 2nd edn. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Palazzo, G., & Scherer, A. G. (2006). Corporate legitimacy as deliberation: A communicative framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 66, 71– 88.
- Scherer, A. G., & Palazzo, G. (in press). Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility: Business and society seen from a Habermasian perspective. Academy of Management Review.
- Scherer, A. G., Palazzo, G., & Baumann, D. (2006). Global rules and private actors: Toward a new role of the transnational corporation in global governance. Business Ethics Quarterly, 16, 505– 532.
- Seeger, M. (1997). Ethics and organizational communication. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Treviño, L. K., & Weaver, G. R. (2003). Managing ethics in business organizations: Social scientific perspectives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.