Ethics — What is the Manager’s Responsibility?

Conflicting values lead to dilemmas

ethics-managers-responsibility-2Most managers believe they are ethical in the workplace, although, they might also agree that there is still plenty of room for improvement given the large number of corporate scandals featuring in our news streams. As a manager how much consideration do you put into the ethics for any given decision you make?  When you need to decide what to do, are your choices made around an ethical framework or are your decisions mostly reduced to the economic concerns of business?  By explicitly making ethics part of your organizational decision-making, your company can enhance its reputation and show that it cares about long-term sustainability and corporate social responsibility. 

Dr. Lucas Introna tackles this subject in the first module of the International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM).  This module, entitled the Reflective Mindset, focuses on managing self and sets the stage for the program by having participants examine their managerial and leadership practices and styles.  Classroom participants come from around the globe to engage in interplay between ethics and values. Dr. Introna tells students that ethics are about the practice of values. In other words what do you value when you make decisions or act in certain ways. The problem is that you often have competing values (as well as different culturally defined values).  When you are faced with competing values we normally describe this situation as a dilemma. What do you value more, profit or the environment? Or, differently stated, how much profit will you be prepared to sacrifice to preserve the environment, or, give workers a fair compensation for their labor, and so forth?  The ethical problem is that managers often do not treat their decisions as dilemmas, implicitly or explicitly, because they value certain outcomes above all others, from the start.  As such they transform ethical decisions into economic decisions—sometimes with devastating results. 

Workplace culture and taking responsibility

In dealing with ethical dilemmas managers often defend their actions by claiming that they had no other choice. This is often the defense of managers caught up in corporate scandals.  What does this ‘I had no other choice’ mean?  When carrying out instructions or making decisions are they made because you are required to meet shareholder expectations?  Are you deferring to the authority – to your role?  Is your response, “I have to do this because I am a manager?”  You may reach the conclusion that certain actions will be taken by any manager, regardless of who they are. You might also suggest that there are targets to be met and that what you do is a result of the organization’s culture.  Of course, this can be done and can be used to defend your choices.   

However, Dr. Introna argues that ultimately ethics is an individual responsibility. Responsibility cannot be outsourced or deferred. You cannot give away your responsibility to the organization, the group, your manager, the market, the shareholders, and so forth. Ethical actions flow from individuals taking responsibility. And, sometimes this might be very difficult and come at personal cost. But that is exactly what responsibility and accountability means.

The dilemma of ethics in action

What if we want to take our ethical responsibility seriously, what will we face?  Uncertainty.  Who, or what, will we consider and in what way?  If we offer a promotion to a staff member, it means that other, possibly equally deserving employees did not get it.  We are often placed in the position where we must evaluate what is not comparable. How do we compare the performance of one employee against another? They come from different backgrounds and offer different contributions. They are not objects that we can weigh and declare the one heavier than the other. Of course, we can say that the one achieved their targets and the other has not. That is not wrong, and indeed that is what we often do in a performance review. However, are we comparing like with like? Or, are we forcing very different individuals into standard forms to make our decision less difficult. We often know that this is what we do. And what about the environment, and the local community, and, all the other ‘others’ that we conveniently leave out of our considerations?  The problem with ethics is that it is difficult. It is difficult to consider all the many differences that each employee brings, and all the different stakeholders that might be affected by our actions.  To deal with this ethical complexity we make things simpler through standardized goals and performance metrics and by prioritizing economy over everything else.  This is not taking responsibility. To take responsibility is to become aware of who and what is it that bears the ‘cost’ of our responsibility ‘shortcuts,’ one might say.  Are we fair to all we ought to consider or are we avoiding the difficulty of truly taking responsibility? How do we practice ethics in such complexity?

Ethics and Virtue as a Practice

One response to the ethical uncertainty, and our desire to take responsibility, is to develop our ethical sensibility through the development of virtue.  Aristotle suggested that we are what we repeatedly do.  If we want to be fair we need to act fairly; considerate, act considerably; honest, act honestly; sincere, act sincerely, and so forth.  But how do we know what fair, honest, sincere, etc., is in every situation?  Aristotle says we need phronesis (practical wisdom)—the virtue that forms the foundation for all other virtues.  Practical wisdom is the will to do the right thing and it is the knowledge of what the right thing is, in any particular situation. Note, all ethics starts with, and is rooted in, the will to do the right thing. Then follows the process of developing the skill to know what the right thing is. Aristotle suggested that the development of this skill is like the stone mason’s skill. It needs to develop through practice.  This is best done explicitly and collectively. For example, how can we make our promotion process fairer? How can we distribute rewards more fairly?  How can we become serious about our environmental footprint? For all these questions there is not a single right answer. We have to think it through, experiment, and learn to become practically wise.   This is the work of ethics. 


Taking responsibility is difficult. Being an ethical manager is difficult. That is perhaps why many managers try and simplify it by deferring responsibility (to someone or something else) and by turning ethical choices into simple economic decisions, or decisions driven by simple metrics. Ethical managers do not shy away from their responsibility. They face the complexity and try and work it out, as wisely as they can. That does not mean they always get it right, but they are always driven by the will to do the right thing. What more can we ask?   Are you such a manager?


By Lucas D. Introna
Professor of Organisation, Technology and Ethics at the Lancaster University Management School
Faculty IMPM

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