How do you tell if an organization is ethical? Do you care?

Organizations are everywhere and unavoidable. The United States of America, your local place of worship, Starbucks, The George Washington University, Walmart, International Rescue Committee, the Daily Show with John Stewart – these are all organizations, right?

When you think about measuring the success of a given organization, it seems like most of us think about whether an organization is efficient, profitable, and maybe even environmentally friendly. One thing seems clear: an organization’s ethics is far down the list of considerations. And even if people are thinking about ethics, how much is it affecting our decisions as consumers?

Take the NFL for example. The NFL has been shrouded in controversy this year: domestic violence, allegations of cheating, and of course the ongoing (but muted) scandal of head injuries and former players suffering from dementia and early death. This year it seemed like not a week went by that the NFL wasn’t in the news for a scandal and still the Superbowl was the largest watched event in U.S. history! Even at the end of the game players were throwing punches and getting ejected. Not to mention the Superbowl is notorious for being one of the biggest sex trafficking events of the year.

What’s going on? Either we’re very forgetful, very forgiving, we don’t care much about ethics, or something else is up…

Part of the problem, according to Harvard professor and author of the book Justice, Michael Sandel, is that ethics is harder to define. Recently, I heard Sandel speak at GW and he made a point that perhaps one reason we as a society tend to measure things in economic terms is that it’s easier to agree on whether something makes money rather than whether something is ethical. Makes sense. No one can argue with profits and GDP. Numbers are straightforward and mostly safe from disagreement. Asking whether something is ethical seems to open a very convoluted can of worms with only one good answer: “it depends…”

To simplify things (which our brains love to do) I think most of us operate as if ethical is linked to profitable. But let’s assume they aren’t one and the same.

Let’s work out our brains a little. Even as you read the title of this blog post I hope you found yourself asking, “Well, what does it even mean to be ethical?” My response to you: Good point. Let’s talk about it. What does it mean to be ethical?

How do you tell if an organization is ethical? Do you care?

I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

12 Comments on “How do you tell if an organization is ethical? Do you care?

  1. Great Work, Ozzie!

    My first order definition of ethical would be something like this:

    Does the activity or organization provide benefits to a group of living things, without harming another group?

    Does it increase the aesthetic value of a place or thing without diminishing other aesthetic values?

    I invite you and others to adopt, modify, or trash this as you see fit.

    your pal

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice Marty. Thanks for your definition. I like it. I like that you use the phrase “provide benefits to a group of living things, without harming another group.” I think well-being is a huge part of the ethics of an organization. And not just well-being for people but also all living beings and the environment as a whole.
      Interesting that you chose the aesthetic value as a piece of your definition. What was behind that? Fascinating.


      • As humans we spend maybe 1/3 of our time providing for our needs and 1/3 of our time sleeping. That leaves 1/3 of our time for art and aesthetics. That’s a lot of human-hours that should be spent ethically…. Even if it is watching the Daily Show or playing Ultimate


  2. I think an organization is ethical when they have a clear policy and rationale outlined, and have a good working relationship with both the government and their employees and clients. This way, there is an agreed-upon way of interpreting the regulations and external policies so that no one has to violate their conscience or be in fear of the law. (This is especially important for things like tax withholding, and hiring/firing policies.)

    I also think that leadership style is important — you can be a very hardline, top-down organization and still be strictly ethical, but I prefer an organization that rewards loyalty by finding out and working with the personal goals and motivations of its members.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Nathan. So I’m hearing you value transparency. I think this is an important aspect of ethical – especially in our free market. Transparency has to be there to allow people to make informed choices about what organizations they want to support and allowing the market to speak. Do you buy this? How transparent should an organization be?

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are two types of transparency: that at the policy level, and that at the crisis-management level. I think as long as an organization is improving in its other factors, transparency will help it, both in actual value, internal efficiency, and in PR. Of course, there are different levels of information that can be given to people at different levels of trust, but the basic direction of truth should still be the same. I’d say that a good measure of transparency is whether those who need to know are able to find out from the leadership what sources of tension exist in the organization and what’s being done to resolve them — without needing to use alcohol.


  3. I would suggest that an ethical organization is one that puts people ahead of profits. Not that profits are bad per se, in fact they are necessary to a successful business, but they often become the sole goal, in which case the organization becomes immediately unethical in my opinion. People first, always. I believe it is possible to make money and treat people with dignity and financial fairness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. I’m thinking about how to measure this. Would you endorse having some sort of scale that measured the extent to which an organization is valuing people and the extent to which it is valuing profits and as long as it measured people more than profits it would be ethical. Seems complicated. Also, part of the problem with measurement as you’re probably considering is that it takes the heart of it. It takes away the intrinsic motivation to put people ahead of profits. If an organization puts its people ahead of its profits, it might be doing so just to pass that “test” so it can make more profits! How do you personally measure an organization’s putting of people ahead of profits? Could that measurement be generalizable?


  4. The problem is that public relations departments, advertising, and media releases can paint any organization in a positive light. So it’s difficult for consumers to really know the truth. The NFL is a special case because its commodity is a collision sport played by world-class athletes who are immeasurably competitive. We’re going to have to accept some instances of throwing haymakers on the field, a few instances of skirting competition rules, not to mention maybe some off-field transgressions due to the nature of the sport and the men playing and coaching it. If you want to shun professional football over the actions of a half-dozen or so (out of nearly 1,700) NFL players, go ahead. The crime rate among NFL players is probably lower than that of the general public but we hear about every incident that happens to these guys because of their notoriety and the popularity of their profession. So let’s get off the high horse and stop overreacting to every little thing. And besides, what do we really mean when we talk about ethics anyway?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points about the need to define ethics and the media blowing up over a few things that get crossed in our minds as the rule instead of the exception. What about the statistic published by the NFL that the rate of players with memory-related diseases (dementia, etc.) for males ages 30-49 is 19 times higher than that of the normal American population?

      Depending on how we define ethical, we might have room for this type of phenomenon to occur within the realm of ethical. That’s up for us to decide as consumers. In many ways we’ve spoken already.

      It is a high horse.


  5. How do you tell if an organization is ethical? What does that even mean? Are we talking about right and wrong? In what society? You can’t even get people to agree on pizza toppings, what makes you think they’ll agree on a system of ethics?

    I think your question is too hard to answer. Let’s take a concern that is often raised with large manufacturing organizations—dumping of waste products in rivers. There are three ways you could ask the question and still be talking about ethics:

    Did the company dump waste products in the river?
    Is it against the laws of the United States to dump those waste products in the river?
    Should the company have dumped the waste products in the river?

    The first two are easy to answer, the third not so much. And, unless I’m mistaken, this is the type of question you’re seeking to answer. You might spark some good debate, but you’re unlikely to ever get an answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Brad,

      I think you’re right that the question is complicated and needs definitions and parameters before it can be adequately answered with your opinion. On the other hand, I like questions that are open to interpretation and that allow the readers to answer in however they want. It gives a light into how that person is making meaning of the question.

      Your first two river questions are descriptive and mathematical. They could likely be solved empirically with evidence. The third question is prescriptive and might not have a universal/definitive answer. So do you throw up your hands and allow people to throw whatever they want into the rivers around the world? Or do you start asking those complicated and “hard” nitty-gritty questions like, when, if ever, is it okay to dump waste into a river? How much waste? What kind of waste? When? What type of river? Where is the river? What’s near the river? What are the effects of the waste on living things?

      Thanks for being part of the debate. You’re right we might never get an answer, but I’m learning that life is less about answers and more about debate. In the end, all “answers” are just “somebody’s answers.”


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