Diffusion of Responsibility – Part 2

Posted: January 12, 2011 in Ethical decision-making
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(A continuation of last week’s post)

People might become aware of unethical processes in a company but never say anything further. What are the reasons for this, and can we do anything about it? How do we get people inside a company to take notice of a problem?

The main barrier is everyone’s reduced sense of personal responsibility when they are part of an organisation. There are other psychological factors too, including fear of reprisal, fear of lost relationships / career path / etc. These can be mitigated when people coming forward are demonstrably not punished or held back as a result. So it is important for organisations to remember to publicise the result of grievances, lest people get the view that nothing comes of it.

Behaviour of managers plays a part. Managers who characteristically use euphemistic language to skip over blatant inequities are not likely to be trusted. Concerned employees do not want to have to play games to raise an issue of concern. Everyone in an organisation can play a part in creating a culture where people mean what they say.

Complaint procedures that are deficient are a major barrier. Employees who see that a process is either hard to access or applied arbitrarily are unlikely to try to make use of it. If this is the case in an organisation, it can be raised any time, particularly the access issue. More training can be requested. Needless red tape can be removed. No one could object to that!

So what would an ideal process look like, in which employees can feel empowered to voice their concerns?

  • They consider it part of their job to assist the company in moving to sustainable business practices
  • They are shown (not merely said) to be rewarded for coming forward
  • The procedure is well known and not complicated to follow
  • Concerns can be raised without the person being identified
  • Senior management are seen to be supportive of the process

A large enough organisation should also have a “zero barrier” office with no other managerial function, where concerns can be raised confidentially. An effective union can also fulfill this role, and may have to if the company is unwilling.

Source: ‘Dealing with – and reporting – unacceptable behaviour’, Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Vol 2(1), 2009, pp52-64 http://ombudsassociation.org/publications/journal/2009Vol2Journal.pdf

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