Moral and Constructive Business

By Chris Chittenden

"It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business ."

… Michael Corleone in the movie, “The Godfather”

How many times have you heard someone say something similar to the above quote from The Godfather? I know I have heard it many times over the years and often as a justification for some action that is clearly going to cause someone some harm.

Hearing Michael Corleone’s quote again recently, raised a question for me. How well are moral issues dealt with in organisations today?

The idea of moral action involves taking decisions and acting in a way that minimises harm to those involved. Moral dilemmas occur when we have to weigh situations where someone is going to get hurt regardless of the choice we make. The question at stake is who will get hurt and how much will they be hurt. The situation in “Sophie’s Choice” where a mother has to choose which one of her children will die is a classic example of a moral dilemma. The resolution of a moral dilemma is often very challenging and can be very painful to the person who has to make a choice.

In the 1980’s Frederick Bird and James A. Waters looked closely at ethics in business and their work seems as relevant today as it did then.
Bird and Waters found that it was very challenging in a business environment to act in a highly moral way. They found that raising moral questions within an organisation posed three keys threats to it:

  1. A threat to harmony
  2. A threat to efficiency
  3. A threat to the image of power

These threats can be seen as potentially impeding the authority of the organisation’s leadership and its profitability. In other words, for an organisation to do well, it is important that employees not cause any disruption and simply get on with the job. To do otherwise is a threat. This view often makes it very difficult to raise conversations about moral concerns within organisations .

No doubt there has been significant attempts to address the moral questions found in organisations, mainly through regulation and cultural change programs. However, it is also fair to say that these attempts have not been overly successful. A case in point is the ongoing extent of bullying in the workplace, where often a blind eye is turned to bullies.

Although the majority of people in most organisations are rarely making life and death decisions, they are constantly making choices where someone will be disadvantaged, hurt or even lose their job. Issues such as equal opportunity, harassment, safety and so on are part of the everyday landscape in organisations. These concerns are in counterpoint with the constant drive for profit - a diminishing of which can be seen as harming the shareholder.

Michael Corleone’s quote speaks to a way of allowing the person who is hurting someone to feel ok about their actions. It is a way of saying, “Heh, don’t blame me. It is not my fault. It is just business. I have to do this.” It is also a means of shirking the responsibility of causing someone pain.

Bird and Waters found that, for organisations to maintain their moral compass, there had to be ongoing and frequent conversations about the morals of the business. This allows for those involved to recognise the impact of their decisions in a way that is more aligned with the organisation espouse values. It also can encourage individuals to take greater responsibility for their decisions and actions.

It many ways, it seems the main priority of conversation in organisations today relates to financial concerns and outcomes. There seems to be comparatively few discussions on how to resolve moral dilemmas. Maybe the balance needs to change.

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© 2011 Chris Chittenden