Where is the Space for Ethics in Rule Governed Organizations?

Where is the Space for Ethics in Rule Governed Organizations?
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By Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic.

Imagine that you work in an organization where your choices, your knowledge and your thoroughness in your work could potentially impact the lives and health of people; for the better, yes, but also for the worse, if you make a mistake. Imagine then, that at any moment, someone could come and go through all your work, ask for all the details of your choices and demand proof that you made the right decision according to all the rules that you need to know. And then imagine that large investments are at stake and that the failure or success of these investments depend, partly, on the thoroughness of your work.

Strict rules and procedures
This is the reality that many employees in pharmaceutical companies operate in. Many organizations today are governed by policies and procedures to make things run smoothly but some organizations are – to a larger extent – characterized by strict monitoring and reporting procedures, high preoccupation with failure and commitment to organizational resilience. Weick and Sutcliffe name such organizations “High Reliability Organizations” (HRO) (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). HROs are organizations working in fields where mistakes can have severe consequences and which, as a result of this, have strict procedures for ensuring compliance with processes and policies.

Studying HROs, scholars have focused on organizations such as air craft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), nuclear power plants (Schulman, 1993), hospitals (Chassin & Loeb, 2013) and military units (Bierly & Spender, 1995; Demchak, 1996); all of which operate in environments rich with potential for error but where the consequences of such are too severe to allow them to happen (Cf. Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999, p. 32).

With their close attention to monitoring, following procedures and regimes for registering data, actions and decisions, pharmaceutical companies can be defined as HROs.

Is following the rules enough?
Organizations preoccupied with reliability may spend more time and effort organizing for controlled information processing, mindful attention and action than other organizations. Weick and Roberts call this “mindful organizing” (Weick & Roberts, 1993, p. 357). But with such elaborate legislative frameworks in place as in the pharmaceutical industry, how do employees experience their room for maneuvering and for acting ethically? And how do staff and managers perceive the ethical dilemmas they meet? Is it enough to have followed the rules? And what happens in situations when there is a wider space for interpretation of such rules? How does moral reasoning take place at the intersection between legislative frameworks, financial considerations, scientific possibilities and human lives? And what domain outweighs the others at which points in time?

These are the questions that I hope to answer by studying within – and in partnership with – a pharmaceutical company. The project only started in January, so if you are interested in the answers to this, be patient, and stay tuned!


Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic is a PhD student at the Department for Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. She is working on business ethics within a multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

Pic by G. Crescoli, Unsplash.

 

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