Ethics as a Conversation

The best way to approach an apparent ethics violation is as a misunderstanding that can be resolved informally among the people involved. This means that if I feel I have been wronged by someone, I should assume that that person was acting in good faith, but had perhaps been misinformed in some way. Likewise, if someone accuses me of wrongdoing, I should assume that this person has come upon information that would indeed suggest so, but that (since I’ve done nothing wrong, of course) there’s been some mistake. What we should not do is to take immediate offense, either because we’ve been wronged, or because we’ve been accused of wrongdoing. Very often, a solution is possible if we presume that all the people involved are imperfect people who trying to be as good as they can.

This idea is codified in the Academy of Management’s Code of Ethics as follows:

When AOM members have substantial reason to believe that there has been an ethical violation by another AOM member, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual. (5.4)

In interpreting this standard it’s important to apply a little common sense. This principle does not say that you must always first go to the person you think has done something unethical. There are many cases in which it would be risky to confront the alleged wrongdoer directly. In those cases, it makes little difference whether anything unethical has actually been done. Some people don’t take the accusation lightly, even if they’ve done nothing, or especially if they’ve done nothing wrong. (I’m not sure if that “even … or” should be vice versa. Are people especially offended by the accusation if it’s accurate?) What you will want to do is make sure that your interactions with the other person are documented and/or witnessed by a third party. And this is where a more official process, or the involvement of the ombudsperson, might be helpful. (More on formal processes in another post.)

What the standard does say is that is that you should be able to substantiate your sense that there has been an ethical violation. You have to have a good, detailed sense of what happened and why its a problem. This will make the conversation much more constructive. You should also have a resolution of some kind in mind. If there is something wrong, what would set things right? Don’t accuse someone else, whether in public or in private, of an ethical violation without good reason to do so, and don’t do it just to establish the fact that this person is unethical. Assume that they are ethical and want to do the right thing. Be in a position to explain the wrong and suggest the right.

And remember, always, that conversation takes time. Reaching an understanding is a long, but often rewarding, process.

Cuba and our professional responsibilities

As a new ethicist blogger, and co-chair of the Academy of Management’s Ethics Education Committee, I wish to echo Thomas’s appreciation for our three pioneers in this endeavor – Lorraine Eden, Kathy Lund Dean, and Paul Vaaler. All accomplishments begin with a vision, and we owe them much appreciation for their innovative idea, substantial contributions, and dedication. These will be large shoes to fill. My objective in this post will be to focus directly on examining how elements of our carefully constructed AOM code of ethics can be better recognized, understood, taught, and practiced.

I just returned from visiting one of the very few countries on the planet more or less disconnected from the internet – Cuba. During my visit I had ample opportunity to meet people of all stripes in diverse locations as well as researchers and academics at the University of Havana. My travels took me to both rural and urban locations, although I studiously avoided the ‘all inclusive’ tourist traps. Instead, my attention focused on trying to understand a culture and an environment with a trajectory substantially different from any of the 116 countries that AOM members represent (Cuba, obviously, is not one of them). My visit was particularly timely given the recent announcement by President Obama, who stated “ 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.  It’s time for a new approach”.

The very first item of general principles in the AOM code of ethics addresses responsibility. I think this is an excellent place to begin my reflections of our code, with Cuba presenting an interesting example to speculate regarding what some of my observations may mean to us, as practicing professionals.

In section of our code (1) we are asked to develop trusting relationships, recognize our obligations to society and our communities, manage conflicts of interest, and avoid exploitation or harm. Finally, we are asked to contribute portions of our professional time for little or no compensation or personal advantage.

Cuba is just beginning to authorize private ownership of businesses, although it continues under very strict regulation. One senior professor readily admitted that they had no tools for teaching or preparing their university students for private sector firms – something that, until recently, simply did not exist. In my meetings with them, they were unanimous in requesting assistance in my own field of entrepreneurship, both for research and for developing instructional programs. I found my colleagues to be dedicated professionals, with an unusually keen interest on community and regional development, particularly in rural areas.

A similar knowledge gap existed in the USSR when it opened up in 1989. In a very well documented example, Jeffery Sachs, then at Harvard, recommended ‘shock therapy’, as a way of opening up Russia and other satellite markets. The results were mixed, and critics, including Nobel prizewinner Joe Stiglitz, as well as William Easterly, claim it created unnecessary suffering, advocating a more gradual approach such as that taken by China.

It seems highly probable that in the not too distant future, Cuban scholars will join our AOM community. No doubt, there will be exciting research opportunities as well as substantial financial rewards in store for the pioneer management scholars willing to ‘show them the way’. However, I can’t help but wonder how closely we will adhere to our code’s demand for personal responsibility as academicians. How many of us will contribute ‘for little or no compensation or personal advantage’? How can we, as the world’s largest association of management scholars, provide responsible and ethically sound advice for a situation that 1) exists nowhere else in the world and 2) represents an environment that our copious research experience has not examined, and is largely ignorant of. Will we approach our Cuban colleagues with arrogance or with humility? Will the implementation of our undoubtedly forthcoming advice enhance the life prospects of the average Cuban, or only that of select elites? What role can AOM play in tackling this very important transition, and how can our code of ethics guide us in responsible practices?


Is Ethical Behavior Disruptive?

In her engagement with Bob Giacalone and Mark Promislo’s AMLE article “Broken When Entering” (2013, vol 12, no 1), Kathy Lund Dean raises an important and somewhat disturbing possibility about ethical behavior. Giacolone and Promislo’s concerns about the “stigma of goodness”, she explains, suggest

… not just that some people act in virtuous ways that others may think are ridiculous as they pursue their own agendas toward wealth and power, but that the virtuous themselves represent a disruption to carefully cultivated bottom-line norms that may be emotionally disconfirming to the extent that virtuous employees must be stopped.

That’s a pretty stark truth to consider, but I have to say that I agree that it’s an issue. Virtues are only meaningful if they are sometimes, and perhaps characteristically, “inconvenient” (in Al Gore’s sense). That means both that virtuous behavior will necessarily constitute an impediment to other personal and organizational projects (“agendas toward wealth and power”) and that virtuous people (at least those who don’t hide their virtue very well) will be perceived as a threat by others. Those others may themselves be virtuous (indeed, they may worry about how their own virtue will undermine their organizational ambitions), but they will nonetheless be afraid that “higher aims” will take precedence over the organization. No matter how “good” you are, it’s a strange situation to be in to recognize that there’s a sense in which it’s counter to your interests.

Obviously, this is itself an organizational issue. We can imagine organizations that are highly vulnerable to ethical behavior. But we can also imagine organizations in which what Kathy calls “the costs of ethical behavior” are already, as it were, “sunk” into the daily organizational routines. This is what we sometimes call “due process”, and, by insisting on it even before an ethical issue has arisen, we create a space for ethical behavior that is already “paid for”, if you will. Being virtuous will then not be a disruption, but business as usual. This is certainly what we’d hope is true of our academic environments.

As always, these are just provisional thoughts. I’d love to hear what readers think.

Responsibility, Integrity, Respect

I’m going to spend a few posts thinking out loud about the the Academy’s Code of Ethics. I should emphasize that this is not an official statement, but my own personal interpretation. As with everything here at the Ethicist, it’s part of a conversation, not the last word on something. Please let me know what you think. Let’s talk about it.

The word “ethics” derives from the Greek “ethos”, meaning “habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place.” To me, this emphasizes the rather ordinary nature of ethical behavior. Ethical behavior does not usually require any drama; one just does one’s work properly, decently. This underlying ordinariness of ethical action can be seen in the Code’s “General Principles”, which state that Academy members should comport themselves with responsibility, integrity and respect. While this may seem pretty straightforward, adhering to such principles is, of course, as difficult as, well, being alive. That difficulty is what being a human being in a social milieu is all about.

At the core of the Code’s definition of responsibility lies the idea that our work is carried out within relationships that are based on trust. This, in turn, requires us to define our roles and obligations clearly; after all, we have to know who we can trust in what matters. It also requires us to avoid conflicts of interest, which undermine trust, and even to actively help others without being compensated, which builds trust. To draw on etymology again: being responsible means being “answerable”. Ethical people, we might say, are able to account for their actions.

The Code defines integrity as a concern for “accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness”. Basically, we try to ensure that when when people are talking to us, they don’t come to believe things that are untrue. So we don’t lead them to believe we have qualifications we don’t have. We don’t lead to believe that our rivals are less competent than we know they are. We don’t misrepresent the facts, or obscure our sources of the facts. We don’t, in short, claim to know something we don’t understand or to own something that isn’t ours. The commonsense injunctions against lying and stealing capture this principle nicely.

Finally, the Code invokes the principle of respect–specifically for the rights and dignity of others. And here we can begin to see the difficulty that an ethical life implies. After all, treating one person with respect may come into conflict with your responsibilities to another; certainly, being honest with someone is not always the most respectful thing you can do. The Code sorts the concern with confidentiality under “respect”; clearly this sometimes precludes being entirely truthful, which it sorts under “integrity”. (Even to let on that you know something about someone that you are not allowed to say can be a breach of their privacy.) There’s an important ethical tension here.*

There is a lively discussion these days about the importance of being aware of your “privilege”. Do your words and actions carry extra weight because they channel a power that is rooted in history of injustices, whether of race, or class, or gender, or sexuality? If so, these injustices are, importantly, historical. The list will no doubt have to be amended in the future as we become aware of forms marginalization we haven’t seen before. The value of the Code is that it requires us to face these issues explicitly, and then to work through them as our cultural values, personal morals, and actual responsibilities change throughout our careers. Like I say, it’s as difficult as being alive. Doing it well is correspondingly rewarding.

P.S. In a post from 2013, Kathy Lund Dean put this point forcefully: “Ethical and principled behavior is de-stabilizing to important, instrumental relationships in business, and there are costs to that.” I’ll write more about this in my next post.

It’s been great, and THE ETHICIST moves on…….

The Ethicist LogoThanks! It’s been great, and THE ETHICIST moves on…….


As Thomas Basboll’s post on THE ETHICIST (February 2, 2015) indicates, it is time for THE ETHICIST to engage in “A Change of Pace,” and take on new bloggers. We are delighted that the Academy of Management is continuing with this important community engagement space, and that Benson Honig and Thomas Basboll are taking on the lead blogging roles. We have a significant sense of ownership over the future of THE ETHICIST and plan to continue to be part of the blog, writing from time to time ourselves, as the blog moves ahead with new authors, editors and topics.

As we look back on the last several years since the inception of THE ETHICIST, it’s interesting to see how blogging itself has evolved. Much of the advice of best blogging practices reinforces what Thomas will change about THE ETHICIST, including shorter and more frequent posts, and expanding the scope of the discussions.  The international diplomacy-building organization DiploFoundation recommends using the “E.K.G.” approach for blogging: Engage with other blogs and your own readers, Keep the material fresh and exciting, and Give people a reason to return. The blog hosting site HubSpot says readers want to see the blogger’s personality come out, and that readers come back to blogs that treat topics in unusual and cross-disciplinary ways. All of this advice mirrors plans for THE ETHICIST and we are looking forward to seeing energetic treatment of ethical issues.

The common advice about blogging — no matter whose advice one takes — revolves around content: compelling, thoughtful and timely content is the make-or-break blog factor. And in this respect, we are confident that THE ETHICIST will broaden its community reach with Thomas and Benson at the helm. There is so much to share about how the Academy is integrating ethical practice into meetings and member resources, and how we as an academic community are grappling with significant ethical questions. All five of us are members of the Ethics Education Committee; we have facilitated lively discussions throughout the Academy in multiple ways and venues: at doctoral consortia, via webinars, through YouTube video discussions, and in myriad annual meeting sessions. We have found our fellow Academy members, particularly doctoral students, to be enormously interested in how to do the right thing, and how to resolve conflicts in ethics in ways that allow them to flourish.

Thank you to everyone who has supported THE ETHICIST so far. We gratefully acknowledge in particular the help of Terese Loncar; our advisory panels for research, teaching and professional life;  members of the Ethics Education Committee and the Board of Governors of the Academy of Management; and our home departments. We look forward to the great new conversations and connections to be made ahead.

Lorraine, Kathy & Paul

Lorraine Eden
Lorraine Eden
Kathy Lund Dean
Kathy Lund Dean
Paul Vaaler
Paul Vaaler


A Change of Pace

At the Academy Meeting in Philadelphia this summer the Ethics Education Committee discussed, among other things, a new direction for this blog. Benson and I have been talking about our approach behind the scenes and we’re now ready to begin implementing the changes, so I thought I ‘d take a few moments to explain what we are going to try to do.

First, however, I’d like to thank Lorraine Eden, Kathy Lund Dean, and Paul Vaaler for the great work they’ve done over the past few years, providing thoughtful and informative content about ethical issues to the readers of the blog. We’re building on a solid foundation now, thanks to their efforts, and we will no doubt be dipping into the archives every now then for inspiration for upcoming posts. A blog is ideally the site of an ongoing conversation, and we’re very aware that we’re walking into a room that is already filled with vibrant dialogue. Don’t be surprised to see a guest post by one of them every now and then in the months and years to come. We’ll be drawing on all the expertise we have access to.

Going forward, our plan is to post at least once a week (and at most once a day) on a broad range of issues grounded in the Academy of Management Code of Ethics. As most everyone is aware, ethics is not the domain of easy questions, where a clear right and clear wrong can be straightforwardly determined. Rather, there will always be a need to interpret the Code, and what we will be offering here are attempts at such interpretations. In the end, all Academy members will face their own more or less unique ethical dilemmas, and the difficulty in each case will be one of applying the Code’s general principles and standards to their specific circumstances. We can’t make a determination for you, but we can model ethical reasoning by thinking through particular cases in an open and frank manner.

In this, my first, post, then, I’ll show what this means by beginning with a sentences from the Code’s preamble:

AOM members respect and protect civil and human rights and the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching, and publication.

It’s an important sentence because it is rooted in the Academy’s mission as a organization of scholars. While its members are also often professionals, their ethical orientation is rooted in their identity as researchers and teachers. What this means in practice is that the value of “freedom of inquiry and expression” occupies a central place in our thinking about right and wrong behavior. This is not a trivial issue; it does not apply in all fields. Intelligence professionals, lawyers and engineers, for example, may value discretion, confidentiality and secrecy above freedom of inquiry. This does not make them unethical, and AOM members do of course keep their promises of confidentiality when they give them. The point is simply that a dilemma may arise for them when they do so, and the specific choices within that dilemma are shaped by the high value that a scholar places on the search for the truth. A scholar is uncomfortable–ethically uncomfortable–with any arrangement that restricts his or her freedom of inquiry and expression. As in all things, this is not an absolute principle, but it is an important concern.

I said earlier that we’re going to endeavor to be open and frank here at the Ethicist. The sentence I quoted from the preamble is my attempt to anchor that ambition in the Code, which it is the mandate of the Ethics Education Committee to disseminate. And this will be how we proceed from week to week. (On Friday I’ll look at our General Principles.) The idea is to use the blog to reflect on the best way to present the issues that the Code addresses. And this means that the blog will also be a site for the development of our contribution to the Professional Development Workshops at the Academy’s meetings. Not only will you be able to get a good sense of what the committee is up to, you’ll be able to influence our thinking.

For that reason the comments are open. We will be moderating them quite closely, but we have not yet developed a specific commenting policy. Basic principles of respect and decency, of course, apply. But we have a sense that the readers of a blog called the Ethicist will be reasonable people. One decision that we have made is not to let this blog become a place to discuss cases that are not already in the public domain. Like any blog, we will no doubt find much material in the news of the day. But we will confine ourselves to commenting on the news, not breaking it. That goes also for the comments.

Finally, a note on the length of the posts. We’ll be posting more often than has been the case in the past, but they will be significantly shorter.  I’ve just hit 830 words, for example, which is right in the ball park of the length of the posts we’re shooting for. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 words. So, with that promise of keeping it brief, I’ll stop. More on Friday.