Covert Research & Consent: RM Winning Paper

“Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation”  (Roulet, Gill, Stenger, & Gill, 2017) will be awarded best paper for 2017 by the Academy of Management Research Methods division. The study was published in the SAGE journal, Organizational Research Methods, and is open access through this link.

This thought-provoking paper raises a number of questions not only about the nature of informed consent in organizational research, but also about constraints presented by the codes of ethics and guidelines researchers are compelled to follow. To learn more, I posed a few questions to lead author Thomas Roulet.


JS: You mentioned the Academy of Management Code of Ethics, which specifically states that informed consent should be obtained for all research. Do you recommend that this language be amended? If so, what would you suggest to change the wording, while respecting the principle of “Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity” spelled out in the AOM Code?

TR: Yes, our point is that obtaining full “informed consent” from all participants is more of an unreachable myth than anything else in ethnographic research – because consent is by nature ambiguous. Participants might consent at a point in time then change their mind, they might not comprehend the role of the researcher or the purpose of the enquiry in the same way the researcher does, etc.

Consent does matter in most cases, but the limitations of this mechanism need to be acknowledged in the AOM codes of ethics. The nature of the consent should definitely be documented in research papers, but a requirement to obtain informed consent is probably too strong.

JS: You discuss the perspective that “if something can be unanimously accepted as positive, it is the right course of action” (p. 502). In practical research terms, how could this perspective be used? Who would need to be consulted to verify that the agreement is unanimous? For example, if the managers or gatekeepers are unanimous about a covert study of employees, but no employees are consulted, would researchers proceed or insist that some employees be included in a discussion of the merits of the study?

TR: There we talk about the consequentialist perspective as one way to justify covert research – The consequentialist argument is the most commonly used in support of deception in research design as it stresses the necessity to be under cover in some cases to research important topics and produce work that can have positive social impact. As we point out, this approach is important but can be a bit simplistic – how do we compare the cost and benefits of a course of action? (the Rawlsian critique). That’s why we advance a situated ethics perspective where researchers are asked to revise their evaluation of the ethicality of their research on a regular basis.

Ethics committees in universities could examine whether the benefits of a research for society would justify deviance from the norm of informed consent.

Managers and gatekeepers can be unanimous about a covert study (that’s what can be understood in the case of Bernstein’s study of a Chinese factory) but involving employees into assessing risks and benefits of the study would be indeed more respectful and avoid the study being seen as managerial tool rather than objective and useful research.

JS: I spent a lot of my career as a research supervisor for doctoral students. The situated ethics approach you recommend seems to suggest that researchers reflect deeply and “morally question” potential actions and choices (p. 503). Do you see a role for research supervisors in facilitating such reflection? Do you think situated ethics should be taught in research methods courses? For that matter, should students be taught skills associated with researcher identity?

TR: The “situated ethics” perspective is sort of a “Bayesian” approach to ethical questioning in research – the researcher needs to question and challenge her or his moral situation at each stage of the data collection.

Supervisors can definitely play a role by questioning the ethical aspects of their students’ work and research design. Situated ethics do require confrontation of points of view and external assessment – although not necessarily possible during field work- can be of great use.

JS: The use of covert observation or covert participant observation in online studies has been widely discussed. Did you examine any online studies, or did you purposely decide to focus on studies conducted in on-site organizations?

TR: We did mostly focus on physical presence but you raise an important question and I’m not familiar with the work you mention. Consent in netnography is indeed quite often neglected – online data can be collected without the knowledge or consent of participants.

Covert research is in some way easier online as people can more easily create fake persona for themselves (I’m thinking about this paper:  Brotsky, S. R., & Giles, D. (2007). Inside the “pro-ana” community: A covert online participant observation. Eating disorders15(2), 93-109.)

JS: Briefly describe how and why you and your co-authors decided to write this article. Given the ethical dilemmas and gray areas you discussed in the article, were all of you in agreement? What was most challenging about the process?

TR: My co author Seb Stenger and I published a paper based on covert participant observation (published in the journal of the British Sociological Association – Work employment and society). We had a lot of discussion – also with Michael and David Gill who shaped the paper with us. Michael brought a lot of methodological expertise, and I brought my understanding of various ethical perspectives.

Stenger, S., & Roulet, T. J. (2018). Pride against prejudice? The stakes of concealment and disclosure of a stigmatized identity for gay and lesbian auditorsWork, Employment and Society32(2), 257-273.

JS: Did you receive any push-back from the journal about the content of the article? Did reviewers raise questions? Did you have to make substantive revisions?

TR: Overall the reviewers and the editor were very supportive – they asked us to beef up the aspects of the manuscript about the ethics of research and offer a wide range of perspective. We were also pushed to compare different fields, which I think was very useful to develop the manuscript. We had three rounds of fairly intense revision but it was a very developmental and enjoyable process (and we know how revision can be very painful!).

JS: What suggestions do you have for researchers who want to rock the proverbial boat and publish articles that question established traditions?

TR: I think it can be very hard to publish more controversial papers (counterintuitive results, or methods). You have to provide stronger evidence, stronger and more developed arguments. But once published the impact on the field is greater and hopefully it can open up new debates!

 

Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S., & Gill, D. J. (2017). Reconsidering the value of covert research: The role of ambiguous consent in participant observation. Organizational Research Methods, 20(3), 487-517. doi:10.1177/1094428117698745


Learn more about research ethics from resources collected in these SAGE Research Methods Reading Lists!

 

Note: This post previously appeared on SAGE Publications MethodSpace.

Journal editors – unregulated and unmonitored

HI Friends

I’ve been quiet for a couple of months – summer schedule and all – and wanted to get back to the blogosphere. I’ll try and be more diligent.

Many strange things have been brought to my attention over the summer, but I thought I would start with a more personal experience. That way, if anyone want’s to comment, at least one side of the equation is available.

Last spring we sent a paper in to an unnamed FT50 journal. Normally, these top journals reply within three months – at least – that has been my experience until now, for the most part. One consequence of the enhanced competitive environment is that journal editors seem to invite submissions by promising faster turn around.

In any case, a full six months went by, without hearing from the journal. As a result, I contacted the editor directly.  The editor immediately responded, on a Friday,  by saying “I should have contacted him earlier” and that he would ‘get on it’. By Monday, we had our rejection, along with only one review, and a note from the editor saying he was unable to get a second review. He didn’t even bother adding his own comments to the rejection letter. Needless to say, the first review was not very helpful, but that is beside the point. This little exchange once again brings me to question the authority, transparency, and lack of professionalism sometime exhibited by editors of even top journals. One cannot help wondering, given the importance of these gate-keeping roles, how it happens that we have processes that appear cavalier, with no recourse regarding accountability, transparency, appeal, or arbitration. In this particular case, my career does not hinge on the outcome – but I must report – in many cases where individual careers are in jeopardy, I have more often observed arrogance than compassion.

So, this brings me to raise an important question – and I must highlight – this question does NOT apply to Academy of Management journals, where transparency and fairness seems to be much more institutionalized.

Who appoints these people as editors?

Who governs their behavior?

Why do we allow autocratic and incompetent behavior by editors, even of prestigious journals?

In my view, we have a serious professional need for an equivalent of ‘rate my professor’ for academic journals. Such an idea was posed a few years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Robert Deaner who called for a “consumer reports for journals”. We could monitor and evaluate the review process, the editorial process, the time taken, and other aspects of peer review. If anyone is interested in starting such an activity, please let me know – as I think we really need some monitoring out there.

Happy Research!

Benson

 

The Moldable Model

by Don Dunn, PhD

Wrightandwrongdecisionse have researched ethical leadership for nearly 100 years, but not as extensively and with as complicated methodology as during the new millennium. Due to the ethical failure or dark leadership of so many corporations during the early years of the 21st Century, the study of company ethics has hit a feverish pitch in looking at best practices and organizational behavioral results.

Much of the literature on ethical leadership, specifically in the area of how we lead and manage ethics at the organizational or corporate level, offers a wide variety of components or processes needed to assure that a company operates ethically. The literature offers components such as codes, rewards, discipline, ethical training and communication, decision-making tools, accountability processes, and/or the new kid on the block – ethical audits. In reviewing the literature, I noticed that there was not a consensus on one model of consistent components to lead and manage ethics. Would it not be advantageous to know that there was some sort of model or framework by which any organization in any industry of any size could create, improve, or enhance its ethical culture? Would it not be beneficial to busy executives to have a framework that could easily be implemented in their organizations that would guide company ethics?

That was the problem and purpose of my research using a qualitative, multiple case study approach sampling three organizations of global, regional, and local reach that had demonstrated strong ethical processes. In researching these organizations, collecting data from three different sources, I was able to determine that a model of consistent components emerged from the single- and cross-case analysis.

The model is called the Moldable Model© (MM) because it has a fixed framework of three components that all organizations can use, but then can adapt or mold those fixed components to fit company-specific needs. The MM includes the fixed framework of these components: role modeling, context, and accountability or as delivered in the three R’s of corporate ethics: (1) Role modeling, (2) research Reasons or outcomes for being ethical, and (3) Responsibility or holding employees accountable for company values. Role modeling based on social learning and social exchange theories can be implemented in different ways in the organization; it is a leadership function (influence relationship). Reasons to be ethical are numerous, and specific reasons can be selected by the company to share with and to motivate employees toward ethical conduct. Responsibility or holding all employees responsible for company values is a management function (authority relationship) and includes a choice of several activities such as hiring protocols, consistent ethics training, communication of company ethics, rewards and discipline, ethical audits, and/or employee evaluations that include adherence to company values.

Specific explanations and implementation processes of the MM are available in my recently published book by Business Expert Press: Designing Ethical Workplaces: The Moldable Model©. The book was written for use in executive MBA programs and for PDWs, while based on solid research.

See: Dunn_BEP_Designing Ethical Workplaces-TheMoldableModel (4)

PDW Making Ethical Codes Meaningful

SIM and the Ethics Education Committee collaborated on a caucus held in Vancouver. In small groups, participants examined themes and potential revisions to the AOM Code of Ethics. We are now using the notes from that caucus as we work to propose changes to the content and format of the Code. In Anaheim, SIM will offer an excellent opportunity to continue the conversation, and consider ethical codes in the context of this year’s theme of “Meaningful Organizations.” I invited Scott Taylor and Laura Spence to share information about this important PDW, and I hope to see you there! –Janet Salmons, Chair, EEC

Making Ethical Codes Meaningful – Change, Community and Voice
Scott Taylor and Laura Spence

#161 MAKING DIVERSITY & INCLUSION MEANINGFUL: MOVING FROM DE JURE CODES TO DE FACTO PRACTICE
Friday August 5, 4.15-6.15pm
Sheraton Palm Hotel, Palm East. All welcome!

If we know anything with certainty in the field of business ethics, it’s that ethical codes don’t guarantee ethical actions. Many colleagues use the Enron code of ethics in teaching to demonstrate this – a spectacularly detailed, glossy, hortatory 65 page document, that was systematically ignored and derided by most working in that unhappy organization. An extreme example of code-practice disconnect, for sure, but one that we should always have in mind when we develop and promote ethical codes, such as the one to which all AOM members are automatic signatories. Need a reminder of what it you have agreed to? Take a look here.

It is no surprise that we don’t all have the content of the AOM code memorised, and that needn’t mean that we are acting in contradiction to it. Or indeed our practise might naturally exceed the expectations set out in the AOM code. However, there are times when observable practice contravenes the code.  Whatever your position on the value of codes of conduct – and they are subject to critique themselves of course – if you are member of AOM, you have committed to following this one.

To think through and act on the potential for code-practice disconnect, we decided to put together a PDW in Anaheim this year on the topic of bringing codes into practice with a view to identifying practical steps through an interactive workshop. We asked people from Africa, Europe, North America and South America to come together and make provocative presentations about putting formal professional ethics into meaningful practice. Presenters and discussants will talk about their experiences of working with police forces, social movements, and academic colleagues, in practising and analysing how ethics happen in complex organizations.

One of the intellectual reasons for putting this workshop together was the realisation that management researchers and educators have been writing and talking about the gap between codes and practice for as long as management and organization studies has been taught and written. This observation was the central pillar of, for example, Melville Dalton’s classic book Men Who Manage (first edition 1959!): official behaviours, represented in codes and guidelines, and unofficial actions, observed in everyday organizational life, were universally characterised by being markedly different. Why have codes if we don’t intend to act on them? And as the entries on this blog to date show, the key first step is to think, talk, and write about the gaps. That’s the first purpose of this workshop.

Like Dalton, though, we also want to take a second step, towards taking action. To that end, we’re creating a space where people can listen to and talk about very concrete possibilities: social activism, implementing quotas, protecting the conditions for voices to be heard, and occupying formal offices (in AOM and in our own employing institutions). None of these things are easy to do, especially when the everyday demands of academic work is so high, and when so many positions are precarious, framed by short-term contracts, pressures to publish, managerialism, and student assessments of our teaching.

However, if we don’t take up the challenge to bring what we know about ethics to our own profession as well as to the organizations that our students work in, then what, really is the point? First, we leave ourselves open to accusations of hypocrisy – if our own house isn’t clean, then we have no right to tell others how to maintain theirs. Second, we’re likely to experience significant cognitive dissonance – and again, we know from the research we do as a community, that’s not great to live with. Finally, it’s simply the right thing to do – as a profession, despite steadily degrading working conditions, many of us still have the privilege of being (mostly) in control of our own workplaces, institutions, and practices. In that sense, we have the freedom to think about and take pro-social, progressive action in our own working lives, as well as promoting this to others.

Do join us, and come armed with your challenges and solutions relating to the practice of ethics in the Academy of Management. We are keen to have a diverse and engaged workshop, so bring some innovation and energy too!

#161 MAKING DIVERSITY & INCLUSION MEANINGFUL: MOVING FROM DE JURE CODES TO DE FACTO PRACTICE
Chair:
Laura Spence, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.

Presenters:

  • Rafael Alcadipani, Sao Paulo School of Economics/FGV-EAESP, Brazil. Practising diversity in extreme organizations.
  • Yvonne Benschop, Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University, Netherlands. Formal and informal networking to promote diversity and inclusion.
  • Lauren McCarthy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Social movement and action, technology and feminism for inclusion.
  • Patrizia Zanoni, Hasselt University, Belgium. The challenges of engaged scholarship on diversity and inclusion.

Panel:

  • Alex Faria, Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration /FGV-EBAPE, Brazil. Practising diversity and inclusion through post- and decolonial thinking.
  • Sarah Gilmore, University of Portsmouth, UK. Bureaucracy and holding office in service of inclusion.
  • Scott Taylor, University of Birmingham, UK. Building inclusive communities.

    Discussants:

  • Eileen Kwesiga, Bryant University. HRM and diversity.
  • Nceku Nyathi, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Values based leadership.

Sponsored by the Diversity & Inclusion Theme Committee, Critical Management Studies, Gender & Diversity in Organizations, Social Issues in Management.