Academic journal article Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship

You Don't Have to Tell the Truth; You Are Only Obligated Not to Lie

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship

You Don't Have to Tell the Truth; You Are Only Obligated Not to Lie

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

This case uses a story telling approach to set out an ethical dilemma experienced by the author when he first began his management career. What makes the story interesting is how the author had to wrestle with being asked to commit ethically questionable acts to protect the organization from a government agency that was perceived to be acting unethically. The paper then uses this experience to show how personal moral judgments may not help managers in coping with this type of ethical dilemma. What administrators need is the ability to "appreciate" ethical situations before taking action. Administrators need to identify the source of their ethical stress and then have the courage to fulfill their role as political citizens in organizations.


Traditional approaches to understanding ethics in the workplace need to take into account the challenges posed by the increasingly complex nature of the environment in which administrators work. As Fletcher (1967) notes, an often bitter truth in management decision making is that sometimes what we ought to do and what we can do in a given situation do not coincide. Organizations may respond to these types of dilemmas by "developing a policy." However, what often evolves from this type of reaction is a set of complex bureaucratic rules that end up being self defeating in terms of achieving "right" outcomes. Because policies cannot anticipate the complexities of every situation, decision makers devote an increasing amount of time finding ways around the rules to increase their problem solving effectiveness. The opposite strategy also leads to unsatisfactory consequences. Administrators who are left to their own devices to create spontaneous decisions can create organizational anarchy.

Is there another approach to ethical decision making that has consequences that are less severe than the outcomes created by bureaucracy and anarchy? The approach advocated by Simons and Usher (2000) and Fletcher (1966,1967) is "situationism" or "situational ethics." The tightness of any action depends on the circumstances (Cordeiro, 2003). What is right in one context can be very wrong in another. This observation does not imply that 'anything goes' in management decision making. Indeed, administrators cannot avoid weighing up to ethical considerations that are inherent to the situation in question. Ethical decisions may be required, but administrators cannot make these decisions based on universal principles or codes (Simons & Usher, 2000). Rather, the "situationist" approaches moral decision making with principles that are highly elastic in their application. The core of these principles is an ethic of being responsible for our actions.

The following case presents a moral dilemma faced by the author when, as a young administrator, found his personal sense of rightness at odds with the broader needs of the organization. My task was to prepare statistically based defenses against employee claims of systematic employment discrimination. The moral dilemma was made particularly challenging because top management honestly believed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was acting unethically by using these employees to make the company a political target for the agency's own political gain. The "win at all costs" mentality imposed by the human resources director led to actions on my part that were not illegal, but certainly questionable from a moral perspective. One action led to the elimination of data that would have been harmful to the company's case. A second action created a response that was purposely designed to mislead the EEOC. A third action, which did not directly involve me, was a decision by the director to intercede with the internal operations of the EEOC. Because the ethical issues posed by the actions were never fully resolved in my own mind, they should pose interesting points of discussion for students.

A case in Situational Ethics

Ed Gallo, the Vice President of Human Resources, called me into his office for an unscheduled meeting. …

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