Strong organisational contexts can and do push people towards unethical decisions every day. The challenge is to be able to analyse the risks of unethical or illegal behaviour and to understand why good people make bad decisions. Unethical behaviour is rarely the action of single individuals but the result of the collective inaction of a community.
This is my peer-assessed submission on the course ‘Unethical Decision-Making in Organizations’ taught by Guido Palazzo, Professor of Business Ethics, and Ulrich Hoffrage, Professor of Decision Theory, at the University of Lausanne (Faculty of Business and Economics). The scenario I present is hypothetical though based on real events in organizations the world over and I offer approaches to protect against ethical blindness.
Recently hired as the Chief Strategy Officer of a news media company, I am responsible for leading the strategy to create integrated newsrooms and layered journalism. The strategy involves (a) integrating the two divisions – traditional and digital, and (b) cutting over to new content and customer management systems to streamline the reporting-to-publishing process.
The CEO and the Board have signalled that they want to see signs of turnaround – halting of loss of marketshare – within the next 12 months, and a 3% increase in market share within 24 months, otherwise major restructuring will have to begin. The authoritarian CEO has adopted the mantra “may the best man win” and most of the CxO leadership team fear disagreeing with him.
Ethical issues and risks
(1) Decline in professional standards: The battle between traditional and digital journalists for dominance/survival is distracting them from their professional commitment to bring accuracy, verification and truth to their readers. It is also putting their advertising revenue at risk.
(2) Integration plan at risk of customer data security breaches: In order to meet the deadline, the technology team has instructed the technology solution vendor to omit the 6-8 week testing phase in order to meet the CEO’s deadlines and save $0.5million.
(3) Fudging readership and advertising data and revenue figures: Leaders of the two sides are using massaged figures to influence internal decision-makers to support their own political agendas. They are also lying to their advertising clients about readership numbers.
(4) Taking advantage of employees’ rights: The threat of job losses is pressuring journalists and editorial team members to work long hours. While not explicitly stated, leaders are not discouraging the practice. No statement has been made about compensation and no-one dares raise the question.
There are great tensions in the styles of reporting between traditional and digital that reflect different journalistic values, generations and readership habits. This impasse together with a weak integration strategy is leaving many feeling vulnerable and disengaged.
(1) Cognitive framing
The different reporting styles (and habits) of traditional journalists (accuracy, pre-publication verification, balance, impartiality, gate-keeping) is rubbing up against the digital journalism styles that emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, non-professional journalists (bloggers) and post-publication correction. The fear of declining journalism standards on the one hand and fear of irrelevance on the other is fueling an “us vs them” culture.
(2) Situational context
Authority pressure – the deadlines have been set by the CEO who is under pressure from the Board. No-one has dared to question the deadline but instead has looked for ways to meet it by removing critical steps (like platform testing) and reducing allocated resources.
Peer/Role pressure – As each side has become more and more entrenched in their camps, they have come to regard each other as the enemy of journalism. Aggressive behaviors and language have become the norm in the daily editorial meetings. These meetings are dysfunctional and highly stressful.
Time pressure – The unrealistic deadlines have not allowed for time for coherent strategic planning, issue resolution and have pushed people into working overtime without compensation for fear of losing their jobs.
(3) Organizational context
The traditional journalists and many of CxO (with backgrounds in traditional journalism) are operating on out-dated economic premises. Their discomfort with technology keeps them attached to old routines even in the face of loss of market share.
(4) Institutional / societal context
“There is only one way to report and digest the news.” (coercive isomorphism) vs “We need to do things the way our online competition is doing it.” (mimetic isomorphism). Both beliefs are dictating the way team members behave and what they believe is possible. These dogmas have created a stalemate; even in the face of data that highlights the success or failure of any given reporting style and publication medium.
(5) Routines (formal norms) vs solving on-the-fly (disruptive)
For traditional journalists, policies and guidelines are strict, highly prescription and allow very few exceptions. For the digital journalism team – operating in a highly ambiguous, fast moving and experimental environment – the guidelines are very loose, ever-evolving and with many exceptions. The values of both sides seem to be at odds and irreconcilable.
Activities to defend against ethical blindness
(1) Strategic Masterplan
As part of the new integration plan, I would run a series of externally facilitated workshops to redesign a more realistic, company-wide collaborative plan, with clear objectives and accountability, for sign-off by the Board:
- Bottom-up Design: Bring key members of traditional and digital media teams together to define new standards; taking the best of both media and adding new possibilities that enhance quality for both styles. Efforts include drawing up team charters (including acceptable language and behaviours) and securing alignment (objectives, commitments, resources and risks).
- Leadership Offsites: Highlighting current ethical issues and risks, and presenting output of workshops A, have full CxO leadership team review and reflect on Bottom-Up Design recommendations. Workshops would include renegotiating timelines, budgets and expectations, as well as work on the leadership team communication skills.
- Support Structure: My peers (CxOs) would be charged with securing actions from their teams (Finance, HR, Operations, etc) that support the new strategy, including updated policies that safeguard against future ethical breaches.
(2) Deploy education programs
Deploy education programs aimed at exposing all levels of staff to technological innovations and increasing their comfort with new ideas and experimentation.
(1) Majority commitment across the company to uphold the principles of quality journalism AND embrace the need for experimentation in order to lead the industry. Evidenced by upholding higher technology standards and development of new journalism models consumed by readers.
(2) Increasing evidence of integrated/layered journalism in action and building on each others’ work to create new journalism models; decreasing incidence of combative language and aggressive behaviors in meetings.
(3) Employee morale surveys indicate a reduction in overtime and an increase in happiness levels.
(4) More collaborative CxO leadership team leads to increase in confidence by the Board; the Board is less prescriptive and more trusting in the autonomy of the CxO leadership team.
(5) The new integrated journalistic approaches create an excitement in the industry, attracting readers and advertisers.
What else would you do?