In the contemporary literature on organizational culture, a clear link is made between issues of ethics and morality in the workplace and the structure of particular workplaces. For example, leadership with weak or malleable ethical guidelines is interpreted as encouraging an organizational moral ambiguity, which can lead to ethical and moral violations. In contrast, a “stable” organizational culture, it is suggested, creates unambiguous moral and ethical rules for employees to go by. Accordingly, Schein (2004) writes that organizational “culture implies some level of structural stability in the group. When we say that something is “cultural”, we imply that it is not only shared, but also stable, because it defines the group.” (p. 14) The question of ethics and morality in an organization, following this viewpoint, thereby is based upon what kind of culture is shared by the group.
However, such an account perhaps gives to much power to the particular organization in establishing culture. For if we consider hypothetically an organization that has improper ethical standards, how is it possible to identify this conduct as amoral from within this organization, if there are not elements of “culture” within the organization that are not products of the organization itself? Certainly, it could be argued that such violations can only be identified from without the organization: but this is based upon viewing such organizations as in a way “hermetically sealed”. It does not consider that such organizations are made up of individuals who come from their own traditional and more stable cultures, for example, ethnic and religious groups. Accordingly, within an organization, there is not only the culture of this particular organization, but rather a fusion of different cultures that is created by the collective backgrounds of those workers who make up the organization.
Kerns (2003) nears this point when he writes the following: “leaders with strong virtuous values are more likely to act ethically than are leaders who are operating with a weak or non-existent value system. One set of values that seems to be universally accepted includes wisdom, self-control, justice, transcendence, kindness, and courage.” In other words, such values pre-exist the particular organization in so far as they are universal. The organization in this sense either commits itself to such values or it does not. This “culture” is not the property of the organization itself, but is rather either continued or not, since these values we encounter pre-exist our entry into the workplace of the organization.
Organizational cultures in this regard already operate in an ethical vacuum because they consider their organization to be the “only” culture: all workers who enter the organization have to conform to these rules, be they existent or non-existent, regardless of their backgrounds. In this sense, the question of “situational basis” to organizational culture and ethical decision-making would seem to be a negative: i.e., ethical judgments are made on a case to case to basis and this fosters instability in the organization. However, this presumes that organizations are themselves stable: business organizations are basically money-oriented, capitalist earning operations, and therefore they have already made a clear ethical commitment – to turn a profit. This organization can only exist if this commitment is made: the moment it is violated, the organization ceases to exist.
According to this example, therefore, the talk about cultures and stability in an organization seem superficial: because business organizations have a foundational ethical commitment that seems to contradict ethics itself – a selfish self-preservation. This attempt to make the workplace ethical has to be thought in conjunction with a re-thinking of the workplace itself: do workplaces exist only to turn a profit, or to help sustain a community and therefore try to become a part of this community, instead of making the community, with its own historical culture, part of its pseudo-culture.
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