Morality in Learning Organisations LO17958

Rol Fessenden (
Sat, 2 May 1998 20:21:50 -0400

Replying to LO17939 --


I like the way you put your values. I agree with them. This question of
morality as it applies to businesses or organizations perplexes me. Let
me see if I can explain why.

I know people whose goal in life is to make a difference, to do good, to
leave the world a better place. Even if only in a small, microscopic way.
I think of one in particular who worked for a company whose primary
purpose was simply to make money, even to the extent of deliverately
taking advantage of customers. He could not stand it, decided they were
immoral, and left. I pretty much sympathize with him, but I don't know
for sure if the company was immoral.

Let me give another example. I know a bank that greatly prized customer
service. For a variety of reasons, new management took over, and the
emphasis on customer service was reduced substantially. It was no longer
part of the corporate purpose. Service was still solid, but certainly not
outstanding, and if customer needs got in the way of efficiency, the
customer just could not get their needs met. One of the managers left the
company, and came to work for me. She said it was certainly their right
to change their strategic goals, but she was just not comfortable with the
new goals. They were not immoral in her eyes, but she still did not want
to work for them. Were they immoral? Can you see how this relates to the
prior story?

The third example is of a former boss of mine at my current company. My
company prizes customer service very highly. The corporate legends are
full of stories of orders delivered by helicopter, by employees on their
own time, and so forth. There are also other stories of people who have
been helped by employees in other ways in the course of phone calls, such
as the case when someone choked on the phone and the phone rep was able to
trace the call and send emergency help. Well, my boss decided that our
view of customer service was not up to his standards any more. In his
opinion, we were behaving immorally by -- in his opinion -- cutting
corners on service. He left the company.

The 3 examples are true, and in each case, each person had a very clear
morality of their own. A personal morality. What is perplexing to me is
what, in any objective sense, was the morality or immorality of the
companies involved. The 3 people had a clear sense, but I am quite
confident that in each case, other people disagreed with those 3 people,
and had the opposite view of the company's morality.

I can understand that an organization that knowingly dumps poison in a
river is immoral. Those cases are clear. But most cases are different
than that, much more ambiguous, and less likely to have any universal --
or even majority opinion -- agreement. I have two friends who sit on
ethics boards for large corporations. The issues they deal with are
hair-raising, and without clear answers. In fact, in one case, the board
does not even try to give answers, they simply attempt to fully define the
issues, and then hand the problem back to management. So management
cannot ask for an answer even from the experts, and in that context, is
highly unlikely to find a solution that is acceptable to even most people.

So, is it your morality, and your freedom to choose, that is in play, or
is there a higher morality that you are calling on? If it is a personal
morality, then I buy that. if it is more universal, I will be very
interested in your insights. Thank you for any thoughts.


Rol Fessenden

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