Ethical Dilemmas

CSOM's Nielsen says most organizations have ethics standards, but don't know how to enforce them

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When it comes to dealing with ethical issues, says Assoc. Prof. Richard Nielsen (CSOM), most organizations act as if they are watching a brawl: They know what they're seeing is wrong, but don't know what to do about it.

"Do you intervene, and if so, how?" Nielsen explained. "What started the fight? Are there ways of preventing this from happening again? Can you get those involved to talk about the problem in a way that is helpful and constructive?"

Nielsen proposes ways both managers and employees can tackle such questions in his new book The Politics of Ethics: Methods For Acting, Learning and Sometimes Fighting With Others in Addressing Ethics Problems in Organizational Life .

Drawing upon classical, literary and historical references, Nielsen describes obstacles to ethical organizational behavior and how these can be overcome through the action-learning method. Using various types of dialogues, organizations can create what Nielsen calls "political space" to assess - and if necessary, change - their approach to ethics.

Assoc. Prof. Richard Nielsen (CSOM)-"An organization can try to create processes and guidelines relating to ethics, but it can't just be from the top down. The middle managers, the rank-and-file, must also know how to address ethical issues among themselves."

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"If it is true that most organizations, and the people in them, have a cognitive understanding of ethics," Nielsen said, "then the question is how to stimulate and empower that characteristic. This is where the original meaning of politics comes in, the idea of a community of citizens interacting with one another.

"Unfortunately, people tend to feel powerless and don't understand how they can be effective organizational citizens," he continued. "I hope that illustrating action-learning will help provide skills so people can break open narrow, schematic lines of thinking which can contribute to those feelings."

Action-learning can take on many forms, Nielsen said, such as a small group of people discussing ethical matters informally over lunch, or a board of employees designated to examine and take action on ethical issues in their organization. These models are not interchangeable, he said, nor are they necessarily perfect solutions; some may involve incentives, others coercion.

But the objective in each, Nielsen added, "is as an organization acts upon the decisions it makes regarding ethics, it learns about its policies, traditions, biases and other factors affecting ethics."

Nielsen says the book should not be regarded as simply targeting businesses or corporations. Organizations of any kind - whether government agencies, automobile manufacturers, hospitals or civic groups - have far more similarities than differences, especially in the area of ethics.

"Organizations all have external pressures, which vary according to the organization's function and nature," he said. "But there also can be internal pressures against raising sensitive, ethical issues and even against discussing the fact these issues are not raised."

Nielsen uses fictional and historical characters as well as case studies to demonstrate those attitudes and beliefs which work against organizational ethics. Adolph Eichmann, for example, was so immersed in the Nazi organization that he avoided ethical questions altogether. Faust personifies the idea of using bad means to achieve good ends, Nielsen said, while Socrates' jailer portrays a person who recognizes his actions on behalf of the organization are wrong but is afraid to stop them.

These behaviors may be discerned in organizations, Nielsen said, such as an automobile maker who calculates the cost of recalling a defective model against that of potential fatalities, or a manager who falsifies data to prevent a company from closing down.

Handing out punishment in such cases is seldom enough to truly address ethics issues, however, Nielsen said. An organization should review the root causes and contributing factors, like poor communication or a faulty decision-making process. Sometimes it is necessary to go outside the organization, he noted: A hospital concerned that its cost-cutting measures result in premature discharge of patients, for instance, might discuss the problem with other hospitals and reach an inter-organizational solution.

"An organization can try to create processes and guidelines relating to ethics, but it can't just be from the top down," Nielsen said. "The middle managers, the rank-and-file, must also know how to address ethical issues among themselves. The interest and engagement on the part of organizational citizens is critical in the politics of ethics, just as it is in the American political system."

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