The other week I had a guest in my course. She works in the HR department of an internationally operating firm and trains employees in the area of business ethics. The company has a code of conduct and in order to implement the ethical guidelines specified in the code they developed a card game. The guest introduced my students to the company’s approach to business ethics and ethical conduct and she invited the students to play the game. We divided the students in groups of six and in the groups they had to respond to several ethically difficult questions, such as:
- One of the suppliers of our company sends you 20 bottles of expensive wine. What do you do?
- One of our competitors invites you to a golf seminar. What should you do?
- You are offered a two-weeks holiday in Hawaii by one of our suppliers. How do you react?
- You learn that one of your colleague’s relative is employed at one of our suppliers. What do you do?
For each of the questions the cards provided four possible answers and students had to decide, which of the four would be the correct one. In case students’ guesses differed we asked them to discuss the reasons. With regard to the correct answers, it quickly became obvious that each time one of four possible answers to each ethical dilemma stated: “Talk to the manager.”, “Discuss with your manager.”, “Report to your manager.”, or “Inform your manager.” this was deemed to be the correct one. Hence, students did not have a hard time deciding for the correct answer.
It soon become patternly obvious to the students that in order to ensure ethical conduct employees had to ask their direct manager with regard to almost every ethically problematic situation that they could come across during their work. Therefore, I asked my guest, why they decided for this approach. She explained that according to the firm’s view managers are usually better equipped with the necessary knowledge to take decisions according to what counts as ethically correct behaviour. Hence, employees should frequently refer to their direct manager.
I saw this pattern before, when I analysed the codes of conducts of big German firms. Even though almost all of the codes strongly emphasized the employees’ vital responsibility for implementing the ethical guidelines that the code specifies, the code text made it very apparent that in the end the employees had to refer to their direct supervisors, managers in higher positions, or specific ethics boards as soon as they experienced or observed something that could violate ethical conduct. Hence, and rather unsurprisingly, the distinction between management and employees, i.e. the division between conception and execution as one legacy of Scientific Management, is also observable with regard to determining what is write or wrong behaviour and taking appropriate decisions.