Ethics and business management: a possible tandem?
Sometimes it is not easy to find the terms “ethics” and “business” together. It is popularly believed that the essence of one eliminates the other and in this we justify the lack of a network of companies that are truly committed to guaranteeing conditions, but society has changed and needs the working environment to change as well. A paradigm shift where company dynamics put in place fairer structures for all, for example, could be one of the ways to change the working environment.
When we talk about ethics in business, we basically concentrate on the ethical “choice” between possible options for a concrete and defined problem. We like to think that when faced with a problem, there are several options, and we can rank them from very unethical to very unethical. Therefore, it all boils down to using ethical criteria, ranking the options, and choosing the most ethical of the possible options. Thinking that this is possible and trying to deal with business ethics in this way gives us peace of mind, but it is a false security. It implicitly leads to the conclusion that all problems have ethical and unethical solutions, and that the simple fact of choosing the right decision criteria will lead us unequivocally to choose options from the group of ethical solutions.
Ethics as an isolated subject
The worst thing comes when we want to do business’ ethics training thinking this way, then the mess can be monumental, as well as the frustration afterwards. And if we look at most business training, ethics is a simple “little pill” that is given outside the core subjects, as if the manager can separate the decisions that need “ethics” from those that do not. In highly technical decisions, this may be possible, but in most decisions the ethical part is inseparable from the unethical part.
But in management training there is a tendency towards a curious specialisation. Ethics courses are held separately and many managers believe that they will receive the basic prescriptions that will enable them to make ethical choices from a range of possible options. The very fact of taking a business ethics course leads to the simple thought that there is an ethical painting page that automatically transforms solutions into ethical solutions. The manager may think that in this specialised training he or she will learn to paint any decision in a rosy colour. In reality it is the way one approaches the problem and the justification behind it, if the options are exhaustive, that the real ethics lie.
Working on empathy also with employees
Thus, ethics is not only to be found in any given choice between several options, but also in the very definition of the existing business problem. And also in which options we consider as a possible solution to the specific problem. For example, let us imagine that we have considered that we have two options: to dismiss or not to dismiss an employee. What we should do is to take a step back and look at what we want to dismiss. We define the problem and we see we have a member of staff who is always late. But we have to go one step further and find out why he is late, and somehow do something to compensate for his lateness. Also the implications of the fact that he is late: does it hurt anyone, does it affect the smooth running of the company? And once the problem has been defined, we should look at the possible options to solve it (not simply to fire or not to fire). It does not seem that dismissal is the only option. A change of working hours, a reprimand, a warning that being late affects productivity, and a long list of other options could also be considered.
It seems quite clear that the ethical component of managerial action is crucial to the whole process: how we define the problem, what possible solutions we propose, and how we choose the most appropriate one. Ethics cannot be reductionist and go straight to the choice. But it must also be transversal and permeate all business management disciplines. Reducing ethics to a mere ethical choice strips the manager’s task bare. It makes the manager less complete and his or her task is not shown in all its importance. It dwarfs him or her and also dwarfs the result of good management: the common good in capital letters.
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