Organizational Storytelling, Ethics and Morality: How Stories Frame Limits of Behavior in Organizations

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EJBO Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies

Vol. 10, No. 2 (2005)

Organizational Storytelling, Ethics and Morality: How Stories Frame Limits of Behavior in Organizations By: Michael S. Poulton

In this article it is argued that codes of conduct may be a starting point in examining the ethics of a business organization, but a deeper understanding of the ethics and morality of a firm may be found in the stories that circulate from employee to employee and, more specifically, from one generation of employees to another. The search for the basis of a firm’s stance on how employees should implicitly respond to both external and internal conflicts should begin with determining the “genesis” story of the firm, the primary organizational metaphor that is derived from that narrative, and how both the master narrative and metaphor frame employees’ organizational self-perception and their responses and subsequent actions in dealing with internal and external conflict.

Stories are food for the ‘epistemic’ hunger of our species. This metaphor is, however, obviously incompatible with the notion of ‘perfect fulfillment.’ Just as we cannot be ever satisfied with a single meal, or even multiples ones, even if they are absolute gourmet delights, but have to keep eating at regular intervals all our lives, so we cannot ever be fulfilled by binges of narrative activity. (Rukmini Bhaya Nair in Narrative Gravity) This paper will integrate theories of organizational storytelling and its role in forming a firm’s morals and ethics, how an organizational “genesis” narrative and subsequent organizational metaphor develop, and then how these two frame the organization’s ethic and moral responses to ambiguous situations.

I. Ethics in the business context
Ethics can be approached from a variety of directions: descriptive ethics –non-judgmental explanation of the ethical framework of societies or large institutions in a society; normative ethics – presents a specific view or approach to ethics which aims to set a standard of behavior for a group or society; and applied ethics – an offshoot of normative ethics that tries to develop ethical standards for specific areas of human endeavor like biomedical ethics, scientific ethics, academic ethics and business ethics (Buchholz and Rosenthal, 1998). Business ethics, as used in this text, pertains to human interactions when sourcing, producing and marketing goods and services for profit, and include the relationships between business management and their employees, the firm and its primary stakeholders, the business and its relationships to the community, government and society in general. In the broadest sense, ethics is a society’s ongoing examination and pursuit of actions and practices that best promote the enrichment of peoples’ lives- both materially and spiritually. It is a society’s quest for defining and understanding what constitutes “the good life” or “the good [that] has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (Aristotle, 350BC), and creating the conditions

necessary for potentially all individuals to achieve it (Buchholz and Rosenthal, p. 2). Ethics is a societal discussion of what ought to be considered for overall human well-being, including the broader concepts of fairness, justice and injustice, what rights and responsibilities are operable under certain situations, and what virtues a society admires and wants to emphasize. Ethics takes an over-view, investigating the state toward which the society should be progressing economically, politically, socially and morally. As business is a purely social construct, it, too, must be engaged in a society’s ethics debate. Economist Milton Freidman is not incorrect in suggesting that the responsibility of business is to produce goods and services people are willing to pay for and, in the process, create wealth for its owners. However, as an integral, legally sanctioned constituent of the society...
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