Thursday, March 3, 2011

Organizational ethics

A national organization had reserved a hotel’s conference facilities in Arizona prior to the passing of legislation in that state targeting undocumented people of color. One member of its board objected to the organization going ahead with the conference in Arizona, despite the financial penalty it would have to pay for canceling the reservation, but a majority of the board voted to proceed with their meeting plans. What should those opposed this decision do?

Professional organizations have ethical responsibilities like individuals. We expect organizations to be honest in their dealings, prudent in their decision, and fair in their treatment of others. We also want the leaders of organizations to carry out their roles dutifully and to assess the consequences of decisions with the greatest good in mind. Organizations get held to the same ethical standards as people because such entities remain nothing but collections of individuals. What we expect of one member of a group, we should expect of all.

That, however, discounts the effect that interpersonal dynamics can have on the individuals in a group. As we saw with the often-ordinary German citizens engaging in heinous behavior under the Nazi regime during World War II, actions that many would likely have found objectionable prior to the war began to seem normal and socially acceptable in the perverse psychology practiced by the Nazi’s. The ethics of the group, in this case, veered far from what most people would consider ethical. While most Nazis carried out their duties faithfully, their actions toward the Jews and other minority groups represented an almost complete lack of virtue – dishonest, imprudent, intemperate, and unfair – and an almost complete blindness to the dire and ultimately self-destructive consequences of such behavior.

The Nazi example can make all other ethical dilemmas pale by comparison, bit it does highlight an important aspect of organizational ethics. How should an individual member of a group respond to actions taken by the whole that the person finds ethically objectionable? Does a member of a group have a duty to accept the will of the majority or does that person have a stronger duty to follow his or her own conscience and to refuse to follow objectionable actions by others?

It depends. In a democracy, citizens not only have the right to vote for those who we want to represent us, but also the responsibility to obey the law, even when we disagree with it. We saw that in Arizona when, in response to that state’s enacting of a law that allows police to target immigrants, people protested for a while, but the real action will come in the next election when those same opponents have a chance to elect new representatives willing to change the law.

That same duty, though, does not apply to those in other states or nations. They did not elect the leadership in Arizona who passed this legislation and so non-residents who object to the Arizona law have a right and, ethically, an obligation to put conscience before convenience and to refuse to participate. The extent to which a person takes that refusal remains up to them. In this case, one member of the board decided to resign rather than continue to take part in the organization, while others decided to remain involved in the group, but to skip the Arizona meeting.

Some might argue that refusing to take part in an organization or to go to a meeting does little to change things, but that depends upon what we mean by change. Groups may not care about isolated protests and individual acts of conscience not sizable enough to disrupt the whole, but the individuals taking these actions do care and that is all that matters ethically. The most powerful force on earth remains our refusal to go along with something that we see as wrong. No amount of social pressure or physical coercion can match the power of a committed will.

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