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In every society, there is a general perception of what is right or wrong and this is demonstrably based on various social belief systems that permeate the cultural fabric of any society at any one time. This sense of what is perceived "good" or "bad" in the eyes of members of a society shapes their personalities, it gives them their humanity, it guides them on the path of "righteousness" towards the ultimate eternal bliss referred to by different names - heaven, nirvana, paradise, Promised Land among many others. Being equipped with their moral armour, people go to different places with sometimes different cultural backgrounds; they find jobs in order to earn a living. As much as they have personal ethics, so do the organisations they join.
But what happens when those personal moral codes are challenged by the culture that permeates those organisations they join? How much of their ethical identity do they compromise when the new cultural environment slowly erodes theirs?
How much does the corporate identity affect how ethical issues will be handled?
To what extent does an organisation culture influence its ethical climate and the ethical behaviour of its employees?
In the first few paragraphs, we will look at how various authors define an organisation culture and its ethical climate. Then with a few examples, we will compare and contrast those different views and draw from that, the understanding that will direct this essay into answering the above-mentioned questions.
Then in the last paragraph, hopefully, we will have gathered enough information in order to have clear answers to the questions that are the driving force of this research. And in between these paragraphs and the last one, we will examine relevant academic theories on the subject.
Definition from different authors, my own understanding with examples
In order to function in an effective way, (Pareek, 2006) it is important that an organisation understands the context in which it functions one of which is its own culture, the other two being current global trends and the culture of the society in which the organisation operates (p. 100)
Two social studies disciplines, sociology and anthropology, have given birth to various ideas of culture; these ideas have been used in organisational studies within the past 30 years. Anthropology bears the interprevist view that culture is actually just another word for an organisation whereas sociology adopts the concept that it both organisation and culture are distinct and it is rather the former that possesses the latter (York University, 2010).
The most widely used definition of culture is adopted by Edgar Schein who defines it as (Schein, 1992) "a basic set of assumptions that defines for us what we pay attention to, what things mean, and how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situations" (p. 22).
(Cox and Hopkins, 1996) An organisation culture is its personality which is made of values, assumptions, norms and artefacts (tangible signs) of organisation members and their behaviours. Culture in a sense gives an organisation a sense of identity of what they stand for and who they are.
Deal and Kennedy (1982) argue that the single most important factor for an organisation's success or failure is its culture.
Schein and Hopkins see culture as something of identity first and foremost "...a sense of identity... set of assumptions that defines for us..."while Deal and Kennedy sees culture from the point of view of how well an organisation performs; culture being that set of codes that will bring success or ultimately failure to how an organisation operates. Underlying these understandings of what an organisation culture is, is the idea that culture is some sort of intangible belief system or set of ethical codes that form the very essence of an organisation's individuality. According to Deal and Kennedy, culture permeating far-right organisations such as the BNP will determine whether its withstands the test of time and given the current global zeitgeist, one cannot help but notice the failure of this party in securing seats in the UK parliament during general election a few months ago.
On the other hand, an organisation such as the RSPCA is reflecting an image of a protector and a rescuer of the fauna and this is because, according to Schein, that is what they stand for, coming to animal rescue is their raison-d'etre and in a way, gives them that identity. We can see how they react emotionally when members of the public inflict cruelty on pets for instance. Lately, the case of a woman who threw a cat in a wheelie bin caused an outrage to charities that look after animals, mainly the RSPCA (The Sun, 2010).
Relevant academic theories on the subject
There are different types of organisation cultures and each one will have a different influence on its ethical climate as well as on how its employees should behave at work.
There are quite a few typologies of organisational cultures. Arthur F. Carmazzi, an expert on psychological applications to leadership, identifies 5 types (Carmazzi, 2007):
The blame culture
This culture as it says revolves around putting the burden of blame on any member of the organisation and as a result, very few or no initiatives are taken within the organisation due to the fear of being wrong. This type of culture tends to remain conservative and very hard to change. The very nature of this culture has some kind of absolute power over adherent members because of the idea that trying to mould it away from its existing shape instils a sense fear upon its members.
This culture promotes the fragmentation of the organisation into almost self-dependent departments which could severely weaken the integrity of the organisation. Members working in this cultural atmosphere are much more loyal to their departments than the organisation as a whole.
Live and live culture
Complacency is the backbone that holds this culture. The passion for great work in a live and let live culture has almost faded. People are so used to their work that they exhibit little or no vision and are content with the status quo of the organisation. There is interaction on both the individual and departmental level and the organisation will function but will rarely come up with innovative ideas.
Brand Congruent culture
In this culture, the pride of the organisation lies in the product or service they are providing. Members of this culture will work mostly on group levels in order to achieve the target provision of their product and services. They come up with new ideas on how to improve further and cut a bigger slice of the market share. Such a culture might have little influence on the ethical behaviour of its members because the main focus will be selling.
People working in this culture are doing so on the level of the organisation itself. Unlike the blame culture, employees are willing to show leadership and vision. They take upon themselves the medal of honour in taking the organisation towards a victorious end.
It becomes clear that the influence of a culture on the organisation it permeates could vary from one culture to another. The influence of a "blame culture" on its ethical climate will be different to that of "leadership-enriched culture" or "Brand congruent" culture. There are certainly a great number of ethical do's and don'ts in the blame culture so one has to constantly be alert not to "sin" against the organisation and suffer the consequences of the "scapegoat".
The Brand Congruent culture will tend to overlook when a certain member of the organisation stumbles on the ethical path as long as the means justifies the end, (at least from the organisation's perspective) namely in the form of a very lucrative service or a big sale boost of the organisation's product. Managers and employees of certain western or Asian companies will not be blamed by their executives for sealing deals with poor and war-torn regions of the sub-Saharan African continent if that will boost the products and services their companies provide. They will have acted "morally right" for the interest of the organisation in which they belong, though they will have acted differently in the eyes of anyone outside the company.
Someone working in an organisation where meeting customers face to face will have been dictated by the organisation's code of conduct to greet, smile and talk to customers even if they act rudely to them. It will be "right" for the employee to do so even when if they would not normally greet, smile and talk to strangers outside the organisation. They could adopt a different ethical approach when dealing with a vulgar stranger on a public place but within the organisation, "greet, smile and talk" to customers is the "way things are run around here", you either take it or leave it.
A nurse in a hospital in the United States might feel it is morally right to save someone who's suffering from a massive bleeding because maybe that was her call - to take care and help save people's lives - but the way the healthcare system in American runs, the way they do things around there to paraphrase ...one needs insurance in order to be treated so the culture framework of the healthcare system will influence what the nurse feels it is the right thing to do and the right thing to do as far as the system is concerned, is to look after and treat someone who has insurance! The consequence of which moral code to adopt at work place has had several serious and even fatal implications n America. In 2007, a young African American child Deamonte (BBC News, 2007) died because his mother could not afford private insurance. Across the United States, millions of Americans are without private insurances so where does that put staff members of hospitals? Do they do what "is" right in their conscience or what their employers expect of them to do as part of their job? After all, no insurance will mean no income for their employers and therefore no salary for staff members.
There is a certain amount of risk, the potential professional cost, attached to trying to break away from the cultural glue that binds the ethical climate of an organisation and that is most likely unemployment.
What about an organisation's action that is not only unethical but also illegal? How does an employee behave in such a situation? They either whistle blow or keep quiet and witness what is unhealthy to their moral value system.
There are three points the whistleblower has to consider:
Do they judge where they need to draw the line between acceptable illegal and unethical behaviour?
Do they whistle blow with anticipation of a professional cost? Or
Do they allow themselves to suffer the "bee-sting" principle?
To the extent of an organisation action, product or policy doing serious and considerable harm to the public, an organisation culture may have little or no influence on the moral compass of its employees and as such, a whistleblower will be morally justified (De George 1986)
The influence an organisation's culture has on its employees is arguably dependent on the type of culture legacy the organisation holds. As we have seen, different types of cultures will have different strengths of influence on the ethical climate. Nevertheless, there are instances whereby top-ranking officials in an organisation could in certain circumstances influence the culture of the organisation in order to adopt an organisation-wide change.