Raising the question of morality in business is all very well as an academic discussion, or something that makes for an interesting feature on BBC Radio 4, but should the moral issues underpinning day-to-day management decisions be more frequently and openly discussed within organisations?
The morality of big business periodically claims the headlines, usually prompted by a notable case of fraud or institutional wrongdoing. For some time now the focus has been on the financial sector, with growing worldwide protest against corporate greed.
The recent publication of the St Paul’s Cathedral Institute report, Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today, seems remarkably timely given the uneasy relationship between the cathedral and the protesters camped on its doorstep. The report gives a fascinating insight into ethical issues within the financial services sector. Although these precise issues may not necessarily concern businesses in other sectors, there will nevertheless be ethical issues that managers at all levels need to consider.
Morality is often seen to be a matter of personal choice. People for example have different views on acceptable levels of bending the truth, and in many circumstances it may be appropriate to leave individual employees to act in line with their own conscience. It could also be argued that certain things go without saying, and it might seem patronising to spell these out. Managers however need to consider at what stage they should intervene. The impact of being caught telling fibs to a colleague may be just a little temporary personal embarrassment, but if it establishes a culture of mistrust, this can have a lasting effect on teamwork. Managers also need to set the standard about whether it is acceptable to provide misleading or false information to customers, given the potential damage this can do to the company’s reputation.
A particular challenge arises when inappropriate behaviour is clearly linked to achieving results. It can be tempting as manager to turn a blind eye and allow the behaviour of a star performer to go unchecked. Although there is an argument that the ends justify the means, short-term profit needs to be considered in the wider context.
Following the phone hacking allegations that forced the closure of the News of World, further claims are emerging about the newspaper’s regular use of covert surveillance of celebrities and their families. The private detective at the centre of these new revelations justifies his action on the grounds that if he didn’t do it someone else would. Like the ‘everyone does it’ argument, this is a common excuse for questionable business behaviour. While individuals may have their own views about what they are and aren’t prepared to do, it is down to managers to set and maintain the organisation’s moral climate.