L13- The Ghosts of Ethical Climates Past

Reading about organizational climate and ethical climate this week had me thinking back to previous organizations in which I’ve worked and reflecting a little on their ethical climates. One place in particular stood out to me before the lesson (and before I’d ever considered studying ethics!) as an unethical work environment. I’d always known that some of the ways of thinking and things that were done were unethical and just plain wrong, but I’d never peeled back the layers to peer into the climate and consider why these actions were accepted in the organizational culture.

It seems like outside of my high school forays into retail, I’ve always worked in laboratories, research labs in college and hospital labs ever since. In this work environment, employee safety is paramount and is (usually) taken quite seriously, since biohazards and chemical exposures abound. In one laboratory, numerous safety problems were reported with frequency, ranging from inadequate ventilation in chemical areas, to improper storage and lack of protective equipment. The safety director for the entire organization took great pains to sweep the issues under the rug with short term fixes while never addressing the underlying issues. It was clear to the employees that he was a part of a management team that had priorities other than employee safety.

The organizational culture, the “underlying values and beliefs that exist continuously and drive behavior in the organization,” was heavily focused on cost management, speed and efficiency (Pennsylvania State University, 2016). The organizational climate, a more immediate peek into the “reactions of organizational members to the organization,”  and the ethical climate, the slice of organizational climate focusing on ethical decision making and actions, reflected the culture (PSU, 2016). Arnaud (2010) listed four dimensions that can be examined to assess an organization’s ethical work climate: collective moral sensitivity, collective moral judgement, collective moral motivation, and collective moral character. This organization would rank low in collective moral sensitivity, which accounts for “moral awareness and empathetic concern,” which is reflected in their lack of response to employee reports (PSU, 2016). The social norms created within the organization by the lack of collective moral sensitivity were used by management to judge what actions and decisions were right and wrong. So, that lack of empathetic concern drove management to perceive ignoring safety issues that would be potentially expensive to address as an acceptable course of action. In looking at the organization’s collective moral motivation, power and achievement seemed to be driving ethical (or unethical) behavior, since the focus was largely on getting things done as cheaply and quickly as possible, with less concern for safety and quality. This type of focus was not conducive to ethical decision making in a laboratory setting. Collective moral character refers to “the personal characteristics of the individuals in the organization driving moral reasoning,” and while I’m sure those traits were a factor in this organization, I won’t make any personal judgments now (PSU, 2016).

All of these factors mixed together resulted in the ethical climate that allowed serious issues to go unresolved. Without major changes in the organizational culture, there was little hope for the ethical climate change that was needed to ensure a safe work environment for all.               

Arnaud, A. (2010). Conceptualizing and measuring ethical work climate: Development and validation of the ethical climate index. Business & Society, 49(2), 345-358.

Pennsylvania State University. (2016). Lesson 13: Ethical climate. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1775390


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