Some questions about Ethics and Organisations.

  1. Does it make sense to talk about ethics in organisations?
  2. It has been very popular recently to speak of organisational cultures. Certainly one aspect of culture is an ethical system. If one accepts the usefulness of this recent writing then one can speak of organisational ethics.

    The Unabridged Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as “the science of morals; the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty.... Ethics at large may be defined (as) the art of directing men’s actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness” (Bentham, 1789) and finally “the rules of conduct recognised in certain associations or departments of human life”. This last one suggests the appropriateness of examining ethics in organisations.

  3. What is the relationship between organisational ethics and the ethics of individual members of the organisation?
  4. Certainly sociological literature in the past 40 years has been full of studies of the impact of organisational ethics on individuals and the conflict between organisational and individual ethics.

    We need to be clear about whether we are looking at organisational ethics as part of organisational culture or the impact of organisational structure on individual ethics.

  5. If there are organisational ethics do they change over time? Are they different now than they were twenty years ago (before globalisation), 500 years ago (before industrial capitalism)?
  6. Globalisation has existed for much longer than 20 years but the expanded use of the term, and economists and sociologists writing about the phenomenon, is less than 20 years old. Imperialism is a variant of globalisation which predates the concept.

  7. Are any perceived changes in organisational ethics merely the reflection of changes in organised capitalism? If there are, then we can stop right now wasting any time on looking at organisation ethics.
  8. This is not to say that changes in organisations need be as fundamental as changes in capitalism but they must in some way make a difference in order to be worthy of study.

  9. If perceived change are not or not just the reflection of capitalism then we need to determine what these changes are and how they have made a difference.
  10. Richard Sennett has written interestingly about changes in values (some work is needed on the distinction between values and ethics). In his most recent writing he argues that the increasing number of short term, casual, limited contract workers has made a fundamental difference in the satisfaction available through work in these organisations and the loyalty which organisations can command from people with no long term prospects. These questions of loyalty and satisfaction pose a dilemma for any attempt to organise workers at least at the enterprise level. If workers are moving from one enterprise to another their interest in securing rights and benefits are probably reduced. Also the question must be asked whether organising efforts directed toward securing workers long term employment are likely to succeed. Another interesting question which arises out of Sennett’s work: Is the control factor assumed to be required by capitalist organisations put in jeopardy by lack of continuous employment? Will organisations change into networks? This is already happening in the IT field.

    Universities and workers in them seem to be facing the problems Sennett describes. More and more short term academic appointments, cries for more flexibility (ie the ability to fire people) in all staffing and a corporate model of governance.

  11. After working through the above questions the final question is: W hat is to be done? How can political organisers react to and /or take advantage of changed conditions and ethical systems in organisations?
  12. Fiona Clyne and Roger Wook
    21st March 2001