How to Proceed

It is unfortunate, but of course understandable, that ethical issues arise and are discussed in terms of “violations”. While one could imagine a “positive” ethics, modeled on, say, positive psychology or, more recently, positive organization scholarship, the focus is conventionally on the avoidance of wrong, not the promotion of right. One reason for this, especially in a “business” environment, which is founded, famously (or infamously, as you choose), on the idea that the “private vices” can foster “public virtues”, is that ethics is seen by many as a kind of “minimal” condition for conduct. In a certain sense, it is not enough to be virtuous. “At the end of the day,” as they say, there’s the “bottom line”, etc.

So it’s very much a question of where to draw the line. Of when to take a stand. Of how to, let’s say, insist on ethical behavior. And here I think it can be useful to take a procedural stance. While there are many, perhaps all too common, behaviors that are in some sense “unethical” and could rightly be called out as “wrong”, doing so may involve a disproportionate amount of effort and discomfort to the parties involved. Certainly, accusers may find themselves getting into a longer and more painful process than they bargained for. But even the perpetrator, even when actually guilty of something, may be subjected to reprisals that, when we think about it, are finally a bit cruel or unusual. (See Jon Ronson’s detailed piece on social media blow-ups, for example.)  It is worth practicing a bit of care, therefore, both in one’s allegations and one’s responses to them.

The AOM Code of Ethics tells us that:

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. If an informal resolution appears appropriate or possible, or AOM members seek advice about how to proceed, they may contact the AOM’s Ethics Ombudsperson for guidance. (5.4)

Notice both that there’s a requirement here for a “substantial reason”, and for some attempt to resolve it directly with the wrongdoer. That sets the bar for engagement pretty high, but I think for the most part appropriately.  We can’t have a system where every small perceived infraction has be to settled by a formal process (in the AOM’s case, that means the Ethics Adjudication Committee, of course.) But I think we also have to keep in mind that there are situations where the requirement of direct confrontation with the alleged perpetrator is too much to ask of the victim, or even just the person who discovers the violation.

The two kinds of case that immediately come to mind are (1) when PhD students and junior faculty discover research misconduct in the their supervisors or superiors and (2) those involving harassment (including, but not limited to sexual harassment). The second kind often has a subtext of assault, i.e., even if the police would not deem it serious enough to intervene, the behavior is both unprofessional and in some sense “physical”. I.e., the “violation” is also a kind of violence.

In such situations, where the power dynamic is not conducive to an individual simply ” bringing [the ethical violation] to the attention of [the violator]”, we need some institutional frameworks. These should, of course, be available in the immediate environment (the research environment) but can also be available in the broader professional environment, which is constituted in part by professional associations like the AOM. Understanding the options available to both the accuser and the accused is part of our ethical competence. And this blog is of course an attempt to contribute to building that competence.


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