It has been very popular recently to speak of organisational cultures. Certainly one aspect of culture is an ethical system. If one accepts the usefulness of this recent writing then one can speak of organisational ethics.
The Unabridged Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as the science of morals; the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty.... Ethics at large may be defined (as) the art of directing mens actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness (Bentham, 1789) and finally the rules of conduct recognised in certain associations or departments of human life. This last one suggests the appropriateness of examining ethics in organisations.
Certainly sociological literature in the past 40 years has been full of studies of the impact of organisational ethics on individuals and the conflict between organisational and individual ethics.
We need to be clear about whether we are looking at organisational ethics as part of organisational culture or the impact of organisational structure on individual ethics.
Globalisation has existed for much longer than 20 years but the expanded use of the term, and economists and sociologists writing about the phenomenon, is less than 20 years old. Imperialism is a variant of globalisation which predates the concept.
This is not to say that changes in organisations need be as fundamental as changes in capitalism but they must in some way make a difference in order to be worthy of study.
Richard Sennett has written interestingly about changes in values (some work is needed on the distinction between values and ethics). In his most recent writing he argues that the increasing number of short term, casual, limited contract workers has made a fundamental difference in the satisfaction available through work in these organisations and the loyalty which organisations can command from people with no long term prospects. These questions of loyalty and satisfaction pose a dilemma for any attempt to organise workers at least at the enterprise level. If workers are moving from one enterprise to another their interest in securing rights and benefits are probably reduced. Also the question must be asked whether organising efforts directed toward securing workers long term employment are likely to succeed. Another interesting question which arises out of Sennetts work: Is the control factor assumed to be required by capitalist organisations put in jeopardy by lack of continuous employment? Will organisations change into networks? This is already happening in the IT field.
Universities and workers in them seem to be facing the problems Sennett describes. More and more short term academic appointments, cries for more flexibility (ie the ability to fire people) in all staffing and a corporate model of governance.
Fiona Clyne and Roger Wook
21st March 2001
Ethics Discussion Page