Managers’ perceptions of ethical codes: dialectics and dynamics

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Abstract

Codes of ethics and conduct have become common in UK organisations. This paper explores how such codes are understood and responded to by those whom the codes seek to influence. The study is an interpretative one, based on interview material, in which a dialectical pattern is seen in employees’ reactions to codes. Initial contradictions are found in codes of ethics (which claim to give employees space in which to exercise their integrity, but simultaneously are seen as impugning employees’ moral status) and in codes of conduct (which require a loyal adherence to rules that interferes with wider loyalties). These tensions create perceptions of a two-tier system in organisations in which core employees are subject to codes of ethics that are loosely applied, but non-core staff are subject to codes of conduct that are strictly applied. However, even core staff are aware of a dialectical contradiction in their position. They believe that loyalty to the organisation is the price they pay for being allowed freedom of integrity by their organisations, but that the price they have to pay for showing integrity may be breaking faith with their organisations. This chiasmus of integrity and loyalty represents a difficulty for the project of improving standards of corporate citizenship. The use of this trope and other rhetorical figures to exemplify processes of understanding and interpretation in organisations is discussed.

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