Academic journal article Generations

Creating an Ethical Organization

Academic journal article Generations

Creating an Ethical Organization

Article excerpt

Organizations can encourage and support individuals in doing good and right things-and they can hinder such behavior, discourage it, and even foster its opposite.

It is easy to overlook the moral role of the community-based agency or organization that provides homecare, adult daycare, or related services to elders. The limited attention so far paid to the ethical problems of offering such care has largely focused on the individuals who provide care and on the difficult choices they face. This focus, important as it is, may ignore the substantial power of an organization-even a "mom and pop" community care agency-to influence individual attitudes, decisions, and practices for good or ill. Organizations-human-service agencies among them-can be very complex entities, incorporating intricate patterns of human interaction and interdependence (Herman, 1997) and that nebulous phenomenon called organizational "culture" (Schein, I992; O'Reilly, I989), all of which shape individual' predispositions and behaviors in both obvious and subtle ways. From this perspective, creating an "ethical" organization is neither a small nor an unimportant task.

WHAT IS AN ETHICAL ORGANIZATION?

Creating an ethical organization requires some agreement on what it means to be such an organization. Some would argue that it is actually misleading to speak of an ethical organization, for such language suggests that the organization itself could be ethical apart from the individuals who constitute it. If we want an ethical organization, according to this argument, we should first make sure that the organization hires ethical people. Once employed, those individuals must step up to the moral challenge and fulfill the ethical responsibilities they have. In short, individuals bear responsibility for the ethical nature of their organizations; it will not do to claim that the organization can somehow "lead individuals to do good or evil" (Potter, I996) or that the organization can be guilty of unethical behavior apart from identifiable individuals who lead it and staff it.

While this notion of the ethical organization has its merits, it is also one-sided. It seems to assume that an organization is-or should beled and staffed by "moral heroes" who are strong enough to withstand any dubious influences of peer pressure and organizational climate. This view overlooks the fact that organizations consist of highly interdependent relationships in which not only individuals but groups (homemakers and case managers in homecare, for example) influence each other in myriad ways (Herman, I997).

Thus, while individuals have an indisputable moral responsibility in organizations, people also need their organization's moral support. Organizations can support individuals in doing good and right things-and they can hinder such behavior, discourage it, even foster its opposite. Developing mechanisms to address ethical issues is critical to becoming a more ethical organization. These mechanisms can help to support an overall consistency of behavior that transcends idiosyncratic differences, day-to-day inconsistencies, and even the weakness of character of individual practitioners (Schyve, I996).

To some, the test of an ethical organization is whether it establishes standards for the conduct of its affairs and for the conduct of the individuals it employs, then monitors "compliance" with those standards. In this understanding, the term eth/ca means conforming to a set of rules or a code of conduct. Such conformity may be a necessary characteristic of an ethical organization; but even if it is necessary, compliance is not sufficient. By itself, it reflects a too-limited understanding of the terms ethics and ethical.

In a broader view, an ethical organization is one that is also continually reflective about its moral responsibilities. "Ethics" in this broader sense involves a continual asking and learning about the issues that should be addressed, the values that should be considered, and the voices (internal and external) that should be heard and attended to (Tronto, I993; McCurdy, I997). …

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