Reflections on some business ethics tensions within organisations

The Ethics Institute adopts the definition of organisational ethics as the balancing of what is good for the organisation with what is good for other stakeholders. As reflected in the Institute’s  new corporate identity and logo, the definition is encapsulated in the classic ethics triangle (good, self and other). 

Reflections on some business ethics tensions within organisations

Julio Andrade

The Ethics Institute adopts the definition of organisational ethics as the balancing of what is good for the organisation with what is good for other stakeholders. As reflected in the Institute’s  new corporate identity and logo, the definition is encapsulated in the classic ethics triangle (good, self and other).  Organisations need to, however, also balance several other ethical tensions within the confines of its boundaries if it hopes to build an ethical culture over time. This article draws attention to three ethical tensions within the organisation: 1) the need to promote ethics talk within the organisation against the dangers of moralising; 2) the need to protect the whistle-blower’s disclosure against the need to celebrate ethical courage; and 3) the need to incentivise employees to participate in ethics interventions against the danger that such incentives will work against employees internalising those interventions.

 Ethics talk versus ethics shouting

Creating awareness of ethics within the organisation starts with simple talk about ethics. ‘Ethics talk’ is about creating an opening within the day-to-day business of the organisation that allows ethics into the conversation. Talk about ethical aspirations need  to be allowed and encouraged to assume a position on an equal footing with  operational matters or financial targets for example. Employees should feel free to speak about professed values such as integrity or trust without perceiving that they will be undermined or seen as being naïve or idealistic. Ethics talk aims to encourage the verbalisation of anxieties or discomfort experienced around questionable business practices, and promotes the embedding of an ethical organisational culture.  Ethics talk encourages employees to raise concerns about observed misconduct. Ethics talk also allows organisational values to be articulated, thereby enhancing value congruence between the organisation and employee.   

Employees can, however, become uncomfortable with ethics talk. They might feel that their personal integrity is being called into question. Ethics becomes a hurdle, a swearword – the ‘E’ word. When employees feel that they are being preached to they are likely to reassert their moral autonomy in ways that may run counter to what the organisation intended. When ethical concerns start to dominate the conversation then ethics talk can escalate into ethics shouting, supressing the voice of organisational purpose. To balance this tension, ethics talk needs to be leadership-driven whose “aim is to identify and solve ethical dilemmas and grey areas in the organisation.”[1] Counterintuitively, one need not even use  the word ‘ethics’. Simple statements - such as ‘we may hurt others if we go down this road’ may be sufficient to trigger talk about ethics. 

Whistleblower protection versus whistleblowing celebration

Employees reporting observed misconduct could potentially be a powerful tool for an organisation to root out unethical behaviour.  To overcome power asymmetries inherent in organisational hierarchies requires trust though. Employees may, rightly or wrongly, fear repercussions to raising concerns. Line managers may downplay issues brought to their attention, insinuating that a subordinate lacks proper judgement; or there may be a kind of collegiate peer pressure not to ‘rock the boat’. Sometimes the organisation retaliates, passing the whistleblower over for promotion for example. To prevent such practices organisations should take measures to protect the whistleblower. The most effective tool in this regard is a safe reporting mechanism – a hotline, preferably managed by an external third party, where the whistleblower can report observed misconduct anonymously.  However, whistleblowers will only feel emboldened to step forward and raise concerns if they have an assurance that they will be protected from unwarranted retaliation

Against this is the need to celebrate the ethical courage the whistleblower demonstrates. If other employees are made aware of misconduct that is detected and eliminated as a result of a whisteblower’s disclosure they will feel emboldened to ‘step up’; similarly if such a disclosure ensures that an employee is justly dismissed for unethical behaviour. Those skirting the boundaries of acceptable organisational values may feel less confident to justify their conduct. This point is linked to ethics talk as discussed above – talking about ethics serves to entrench ethical culture; in this instance to eradicate unethical behaviour. Celebrating the whistleblower leads to a strengthening of trust within the organisation. However to ensure that the whistleblower is not inadvertently revealed in this celebration the organisation needs to ensure that it is the whistleblowing act that is celebrated, while the whistleblower is protected. The organisational focus should not be on who lifts the veil, but rather what the unveiling reveals.

3). Incentivisation versus Internalisation

The final ethical tension to be examined relates to a much more practical concern. Ethics interventions in organisations, such as focus groups aimed at determining ethics risk, ethics awareness campaigns and ethics training sessions, compete not just for budgets with other departments, but also, more crucially, for time. Ensuring attendance and participation for these ethics interventions is a constant challenge. Survey fatigue shadows every attempt to measure one or another organisational dimension from financial performance to employee satisfaction. An online ethics questionnaire is often added  to a seemingly never-ending list of demands on employees’ time to complete surveys. ‘Gentle’ and friendly’ reminders are part and parcel of the work-flow design of these ethics interventions. And once the ethical climate has been ascertained and the awareness campaign completed there is the imperative to ‘make it stick’. All such interventions consume what some employees’ may label valuable ‘work time’.

More astute  ethics officers might know that an indication of lunch or coffee and snacks to follow an ethics intervention always bump up the attendance register. Small spot prizes such as chocolate bars are enough to make participants sit up straighter when facilitators seek participation from those gathered. A pen or notepad inscribed with the organisation’s values received after such an ethical intervention help to extend that interventions’ shelf-life. While there is always a duty to make one’s message interesting and engaging to an audience, these tactics speak to human motivation and the need to incentivise behaviour.

Such ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ well intentioned as they are, however, run the risk of bringing ethics instrumentalisation in via the back door – where ethics is viewed as just another tool to bring about a certain outcome rather than something important for its own sake. Business ethics training should strive to inculcate the idea that ethics belongs in the organisation because ‘it is the right thing to do’ and not just as an insurance policy against reputational damage. If employees need to be incentivised to attend and participate in ethics interventions, it may dull the sense that ethical behaviour at work is vitally important in and of itself. Over time, these ‘sweeteners’ may obstruct the emergence of the ethical culture they are intended to encourage. Employees need to ‘internalise’ ethics in order for a truly ethical organisational culture to take root.   

In conclusion, organisations who are cognisant of these tensions, and actively manage them, will be far better positioned to strengthen and sustain the ethical dimension of their organisational culture.


[1] Rossouw, D. & Van Vuuren, L. (2014) Business Ethics 5th edition. Oxford University Press. Cape Town, p.311