Organizations consistently use terms such as character to describe themselves in terms of mission, vision, and values. Oftentimes character is used to describe the decision-making framework and parameters of an organization, centering on integrity or leadership – but otherwise, little effort is often made to discern character and to systematically cultivate the character of an organization. A closer examination of the concept is warranted because unpacking character and similar terms reveals much about an organization, as well as how it does business. Further, a character that arises spontaneously may not be as desirable as a one that is consciously cultivated and managed.
Where does character originate? Ethics is the backbone and origin of organizational character. As the foundational concept from which forms of implementation arise, ethics is often under-discussed in the corporate world. Organizational ethics are composed, in part, by individual ethics but because of larger influences of organizational culture, the ethics of an organization exist independently of individuals (Bowen, 2002). This “sui generis” existence of organizational ethics in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts mean that the organization does indeed have its own ethical character (Bowen, in press).
A closer look at the core concepts in ethics can help develop and maintain a conscientious and consistently ethical organizational character. Values, beliefs, and priorities all drive the policies of the organization and its strategic decision-making and operations. The core values of the organization are the essence of the ethical belief system. Values determine what is important in terms of management, strategy, and implementation.
If the core values of an organization have never been defined or explored, they may arise in a haphazard manner that can lead to inconsistent decision-making, contradictions, or even capriciousness (Bowen, 2015). Those unintended outcomes can damage relationships with stakeholders and publics as expectations are not met, and they can erode trust (Bowen, Hung-Baeseke, and Chen, 2016). An organization cannot be truly ethical and have a good character to express unless it has a strong understanding of its own ethical values. Doing some internal research and refinement of organizational values is key, and institutionalizing those values throughout all levels of the organization follows (Goodpaster, 2007).
An organization must also determine which approach to ethical decision making best pairs with its ethical values. Those who seek to serve the public interest may be most comfortable with a consequence-based approach from of utilitarianism, seeking outcomes that serve the greatest good for the greatest number. Many organizations, especially those who have a duty to maintain customer safety of some kind, steer toward deontology. Deontology maximizes the universal responsibilities, respect for stakeholders, and good intention of an organization so that it focuses on core values (rather than potential outcomes) in decision making and expectations of stakeholders can be met (Bowen, Hung-Baeseke, and Chen, 2016; Men & Bowen, 2017).
Lastly: What are the priorities and order of organizational goals? Priorities can be multifaceted in changing with market demands, industry compliance, or the competitive environment. Ethical values can best be discussed in terms of current priorities and competitive trends when those are well researched and understood as a basis for strategy. In that manner, the corporate character is strategic and purposefully cultivated to streamline efforts in management decision making and policy with the core values of the organization. A consistent and cultivated character strengthens the organization in terms of ethical responsibility and rectitude, so that stakeholders can be confident in who the organization is, knowing its genuine character.
Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., (Professor, University of South Carolina) researches and consults on ethics in organizations and management decision making. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society, and the Board of Directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bowen, S. A. (2002). Elite executives in issues management: The role of ethical paradigms in decision making. Journal of Public Affairs, 2(4), 270-283.
Bowen, S. A. (2015). Exploring the role of the dominant coalition in creating an ethical culture for internal stakeholders. Public Relations Journal, 9(1), 1-23. http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Documents/2015v09n01Bowen.pdf
Bowen, S. A. & Hung-Baesecke, C. J., & Chen, Y. R. (2016). Ethics as a pre-cursor to organization-public relationships: Building trust before and during the OPR model. Cogent Social Sciences, 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2016.1141467
Bowen, S. A. (in press). Ethics of strategic communication. In R. L. Heath (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of strategic communication. (pp. tbd). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Goodpaster, K. E. (2007). Conscience and corporate culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Men, R. L., & Bowen, S. A. (2017). Excellence in internal relations management. New York: Business Expert Press.