05 December 2007
Ethics and the Problem of Evil in Organisations
Free Event • Registration Not Required
Trader A: They're f***ing taking back all the money from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?
Trader B: Yeah, Grandma Millie, man (laughing)
Trader A: Yeah, now she wants her f***ing money back for all the power you've charged right up, jammed right up her arse for f***ing $250 a megawatt hour.
This talk focuses on the concept of agency in and around organisations that are considered corrupt. Much of the academic literature analysing the post-2002 wave of corporate corruption has downplayed agency in favour of contextual explanations. Rather than posit a few 'bad-apples? as the source corruption, attention is given to peer pressure, rationalization and an unforgiving business environment as causal factors. This is why many of the criminals involved in Enron, WorldCom and the others appeared to be otherwise ordinary and law-abiding citizens. The work of social psychologists is often evoked too, indicating that any of us placed in similar environments would probably crack and be enlisted in rituals of illegality. This talk, based on the first chapter of a forthcoming book, agrees with this contextual approach. But it aims to unpack the concept of agency in more detail as a driver of corruption. In particular, studies of evil and gross human rights violations provide interesting data about agency that makes its summary dismissal more difficult. Hannah Arendt?s arguments about the banality of evil are especially germane. Using a variety of examples from the corporate world, a defence of the 'bad-apple? approach is attempted. It is proposed that this defence better highlights the major shortcomings with an over-emphasis on agency in discussions regarding the causes of corruption.
Peter Fleming is a professor of Work, Organisation and Society at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary College, University of London.