It could have been worse. I didn’t work for Enron or Uber. I was never asked to do anything illegal, and didn’t witness anything illegal or grossly unethical. Yes, it could have been worse.
But it still wasn’t good. I had long felt some murky undertones in the ethical climate of my department. I noticed the tendency to treat employees as slightly sub-human. I heard of plans to frequently change employees’ schedules just to remind everyone that they were controlled, that the department held power over them and could move them like pawns as they chose. We all saw decisions that proved, day after day, that the company drove for profit above all else, regardless of the human toll. It was this environment that I wanted to change, and what drew me to join the leadership team. I thought I would have a better chance at making change from the inside. But this also made me, by association, one of the perpetrators of the practices I disliked. When decisions came “from management,” that meant me now too. So what do you do when your sense of ethics doesn’t match that of the team around you, especially on a leadership team?
From the inside, I was privy to the thought processes of the other members of the leadership team, up to our executive director. I observed how quickly some jumped to lie to employees when they didn’t feel like explaining the truth. It was shockingly common for a manager to roll in late, then later that same day reprimand an employee for tardiness. Employees found the management team “shady.” Simply by being part of that team, I couldn’t fully separate myself from that.
I recognized my situation in the following: “Leaders are in a unique situation of being involved in both their own personal ethical codes as well as the culture of the organization (a microcosm of society), so their own personal ethics are not always easily distinguished from that of the organization” (PSU, 2019a). I felt my own ethics getting eclipsed by the team around me. However, I still hoped to be able to make a difference.
I bore in mind the quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I didn’t blame anyone for their actions, thinking perhaps they didn’t know that things could be better. Of the theories of moral development, Kohlberg’s theory of cognitive moral development describes the situation well. I would have placed the decision making of some of my colleagues in his preconventional level, in which one chooses his or her course of action based on what will supply personal rewards while avoiding punishment (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). Above this is the conventional level, in which behavior is chosen to meet the expectations of others and society (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). Finally, there remains the post conventional level, wherein individuals follow their own moral path aiming toward just societies (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). I thought, perhaps, that if I could show there was a better way to lead, that we could move the collective meter of the leadership team up out of the preconventional level of moral development in which we often operated.
Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. I reminded myself of the differences in cognition, the way each person thinks (PSU, 2019b). I knew that I saw different things, thought different ways, and even had a different set of values. Yet as time wore on, the ethical mismatch made me increasingly uncomfortable. Research has examined the relationship between an individual’s moral development and the ethical climate of their workplace. Regarding this ethical climate, a study by Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke (2008) showed that “employees with a higher level of congruence between their preferred and perceived climate showed lower turnover intentions and higher commitment” (p. 326). I was feeling the effects of the reverse, as my commitment to the organization sagged while turnover intention increased.
In the end, I felt I could no longer be party to this. I could not, in good conscience, tacitly endorse the actions of the management team by remaining part of it. There were other factors that contributed to my departure from the organization, but this one played a major role. This experience taught me to be careful when signing onto a leadership role, and to evaluate the ethical level of decisions being made. I realize that there are no perfect people and no perfect organizations, but is it possible to avoid such a mismatch in the future? I hope so. Should I have stayed and continued to work for change? Maybe. That question still haunts me.
The situation could have been worse. But it could have been better. I wanted to make it better, but feared that I continued to hurt as I tried to help. I couldn’t satisfactorily raise the cognitive moral development of my team. I couldn’t reconcile the difference between what I thought was right and what was happening. I don’t know if I did the right thing when my sense of ethics clashed with the team around me. But if anything good came of it, the experience continues to push me to work for change, to work for the good, and to make myself better so that in the future I can do better.
Ambrose, M.L., Arnoud, A. & Schminke, M. (2008, February). Individual moral development and ethical climate: The influence of person- organization fit on job attitudes. Journal of Business Ethics, 77(3), 323-333. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-007-9352-1
Pennsylvania State University. (2019a). PSY 833: L01 Unethical Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l01-unethical-leadership?module_item_id=25808367
Pennsylvania State University. (2019b). PSY 833: L04 Cognition. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l04-cognition?module_item_id=25808398
Townsend, T. (2016). Uber is currently facing more than 70 lawsuits in federal court. Retrieved from https://slate.com/business/2016/07/uber-is-fighting-more-than-70-lawsuits-in-federal-court.html