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Are Ethics Relevant?

Government scandal could now be considered commonplace. I should know. I’ve been part of a staff that has experienced political scandal first hand. I’ve dealt with the feelings of uncertainty and confusion that accompany a weighty charge being levied against a government official. It’s frustrating, devastating, and even humiliating being a staff member associated with scandal. Al Gini in Joanne Ciulla’s Ethics, the heart of leadership, writes, “like it or not, business and politics serve as the metronome for our society.” This statement may seems ironic in light of the scandals that have occurred in the almost ten years since the book was published. What is interesting about the statement is that he did not say that business and political leaders regulate or guard the ethical standards; rather they only serve to keep time, or reflect back the current “beat” of standards. The problem facing leaders today is that ethical standards seem to be changing rapidly. What was considered a scandal five years ago might not register quite as high on a national scale now. The metronome’s pace is changing as fast as leaders, followers, and citizens can keep up with it. Is there a role then for ethics in 21st century organizations? What can be done then to create accountability for government leaders?


Role of Ethics

Ethical standards hold a dominant role in maintaining successful organizations and attracting competent, moral individuals. Organizational ethics are as vital as individual ethics, when looking at organizational success. Employees, logic holds, can only be held accountable for acting ethically, in ways that the organization itself acts ethically. An organization cannot have the expectation of ethical employee behavior, if the organization itself is acting unethically in the same manner. Corporate or organizational ethics then, are the cultural aspects, both spoken and unspoken, that regulate the behavior and beliefs of the individuals in the organization. Organizational ethics do impact individual ethics. Organizational ethics, specifically the demonstration of a leader’s ethics, have a significant impact on individuals. Ethics follow a flow-down pattern in organizations, making a leader’s ethics vitally important. Andrews and his colleagues in their 2011 Leadership & Organizational Development article entitled, “Values and person-organization fit: does moral intensity strengthen outcomes?” state, “It is imperative for leaders to behave ethically as employee perceptions of their leader’s integrity has been related to intentions to engage in unethical behaviors.” This strong statement demonstrates the unequivocal need for leaders to not only espouse ethical intentions, but to enact those ethics as a model to their followers. So, how can ethics be utilized by a leader in an organizational context? I purpose three metaphors that help contextualize the purpose and usefulness of organizational and leadership ethics. Metaphors can help provide clarity and insight into concepts and ambiguous situations. But, as with all metaphors, when we focus on specific aspects of the organization in an effort to make them clear, we may lose some of the other important aspects of the organization. Ethics serve as: the framework, the battleground, and the referee where character is tested.



An ethical framework provides an established frame for organizations and individuals. This creates ethical boundaries for employees to work within. This framework view gives employees a general concept of where they are allowed to “roam” and what is considered off-limits. To successfully utilize ethics as a framework, some scholars urge organizations to implement a company-wide ethics education program. An ethics program creates an understanding of the parameter for all the employees to adhere. In order to discuss and implement corporate ethics, organizations must first give employees an understanding of the environment at large, and how the organization fits into the environment. This contextual overview provides the necessary understanding for an ethical educational program to solidify boundaries for employees, so that fruitful ethical conversations can occur. The ethics education then provides the framework for the organization. Regardless of the industry, the basic tenants of the program should focus on establishing strong and clear framework.



Brady in his 2003 article in Public Administration Review entitled “Publics administration and the ethics of particularity” makes an interesting statement regarding character, “character, whether of a person or community, can only be taught as immersed in particulars, by stories and by exemplars.” Character development occurs not in theories and philosophical debates, but in real-life situations and ethical choices. Ethics then, according to this line of thinking, is a battle or training ground where those real-life decisions are determined and made. This concept implies the lack of simplicity associated with ethical choices. Ethical processes are confrontational, messy, and quite often, rocky, but it is through this process that the evolution of organizational ethics occurs. It is during these ethical battles that concrete determinations are made. Decisions about direction, mission, and purpose are all made as a result of the ethical battles, consequently making the battle very important. The leader, as a result of this ethical determination, as Brady points out, must rely on personal discretion. “Our…experience with…duty is directed at concrete particulars- a promise to a neighbor, a commitment to a friend, a covenant with a spouse, an agreement with a child.” In other words, the outcome and purpose of the ethical battles that take place within every organization are critical because the outcome affects something real and concrete. Ethical choices should not be made lightly, or without regard to opposing sides, because in the end it is not a possibility or idea that is affected, rather it is a specific realm or the framework of the organization.



Ethics can also be regarded as the referee of the organizational world. Referees are either seen as heroes or villains, depending on the game and team. Similarly, ethics can play a role as the facilitator of righteous behavior or a controlling dominator that limits the organization’s abilities. Some individuals view ethics as merely a public relations stunt serving to proclaim the organization’s righteousness. Those who hold the opposing view conclude that ethics are good for society, and people, regardless of the difficulty or loss conveyed by enacting them. These two diametrically opposed views create conflict and stress when espoused by different members of the same organization. This clash is even regarded by some as the prime evolutionary catalyst behind ethics laws. So, even though the purpose of ethics and their place in the public eye might be the source of tension and conflict, ethics themselves can serve to regulate and ease this stress. Just like in a sports game, a referee’s call will impact one side positively and one side negatively. Organizations must utilize ethical referees who determine which side is appropriately abiding by the framework of the organizational ethics. Multiple views to each ethical entanglement arise, but regardless of the difficulty of the decision, ethics must be in place to guide the “game.”



Ethics serve many purposes within organizations: framework, battleground, and referee. Each role helps flesh out the specific organizational ethics that guide and develop organizational and individual morals. Regardless of the role ethics play in organization quandaries, they play an overall vital role by serving as moral compass and adding transparency and accountability to the organization.


Author: Becca Janiak, MPA, DSL candidate.  Becca can be contacted at [email protected].  


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