How does an organisations culture influence its ethical climate

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In order to function in an effective way, 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.

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.

In his book Organizational Culture & Leadership (2nd Edition, 1992, Jossey-Bass), Edgar Schein defines culture as "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).

Based on Schein's view of what an organisation culture is, an executive of an organisation will have to influence in a way the culture of the organisation in order to implement a major change. In his book "Branding and people management: what's in the name", Graeme Martin and Philip Beaumont argue that in certain circumstances, managerial actions can shape an organisation's culture and leadership can have a role in the process.

On the other hand, factors that guide behaviours in an organisation are represented by the shared values and beliefs that are present within a culture (Sathe, 1983).

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. This essay will attempt to examine the extent to which these various cultures will make managers and employees deviate from their personal ethics and align themselves with what the organisation deems wrong or right.

Whichever the culture of an organisation, managers and employees are expected, directly or indirectly as part of their job description and roles, to be the vehicle for communicating the overall corporate values if they are to have a long term position in their organisation. They are the ones to presenting a certain image of the organisation and this image is the big picture the puzzle pieces of which are values and beliefs that make up the cultural platform.

There are quite a few typologies of organisational cultures. Arthur F. Carmazzi, an expert on psychological applications to leadership, identifies 5 types:

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.

Multi-directional culture

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.

Leadership-enriched culture

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 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 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! In 2007, a young African American child, Deamonte, 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 conscience.

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)