Ethics for Managers

Stuart Hannabuss (The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen)

Library Management

ISSN: 0143-5124

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Hannabuss, S. (2000), "Ethics for Managers", Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 330-333.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

There are many approaches to ethics at work and in business. One is pragmatic, highlighting the way in which good and bad and “grey” decisions lead inexorably to ambivalent consequences for stakeholders, reflecting with what is claimed scrupulous realism the Machiavellian complexity of the management process. Such a book is Robert Jackall’s influential Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (Oxford University Press, 1988). Then there is the position of best practice, effective management with an ethical dimension, suggesting that being ethical will protect the firm against sleaze and equip it to deal with customer expectations, the green ethos, increased pressure from interest groups for corporate accountability, and the empowerment of staff. Such a book is Bob Kelley’s Ethics at Work (Gower, 1999).

Then there is a more thoroughgoing moral approach, drawing on the literature and philosophies of personal growth, transformational leadership, reflective and self‐transcendent management, creating a caring corporate culture, and seeing business as stewardship. Such a book is Philip Holden’s Ethics for Managers, the work under review. Within that third approach, Holden’s Ethics for Managers is many things. It is a useful survey of writing and sentiment about broadly ethical and moral approaches to life and business. He has a wide knowledge of current business literature, and this work is a twin of his previous The Excellent Manager’s Business Library (also Gower), a distillation of wisdom from business writers on issues from corporate culture to personal development. He has also worked on the what and how of managerial success in his Super Success (Piatkus, 1996).

So one thing busy managers will certainly find in Ethics for Managers is a lot of general “wisdom”: some of the key sources are Charles Handy and Erich Fromm, Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker. He organises these sources around ten or so themes – truth and integrity in business, getting right values, balancing profit with principle, leading morally, excellence through ethics, being green, being accountable to the larger community. For people wanting a quick journey from Marcus Aurelius to Rabbi Lionel Blue, from Mother Teresa and Carl Rogers to Tom Peters and Rosabeth Moss Kanter, particularly if they are looking for ways of expressing ethical ideas in a business context, Holden’s book will be useful. They will have to go far further if they want direct guidance on writing a code of ethics, even though Holden does include one from Johnson & Johnson.

The down‐side to anything like this is that “wisdom” and gnomic sayings can sound like clichés and truisms very easily, and so saying like “love makes more love” and “make your own luck” are as good as you want to make them. Quips from Groucho Marx and analogies to It’s a Wonderful Life, make reading it entertaining but sometimes it is like a dictionary of quotations. Less generalised are useful references to managerial success and personal development in a very modern context (e.g. works like Max De Pree’s Leadership is an Art, Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).

Linked with works like Herriot on new transactional contracts and employee loyalty, and the general context of downsizing and change in the workplace, such works become relevant for practical management. A number of these works take a Christian perspective (for example, Covey does), and Holden’s approach looks Christian to me in comparing dealing with despondency with a cross of renewal and finding some “higher spiritual force like God” as a way of achieving the “holy managerial trinity” of “profit, principle and peace”. Management wisdom literature generally has a syncretic (i.e. bit‐of‐this bit‐of‐that eclecticism from classics and moderns, new age and Christian, Rogerian counselling, green philosophy and empowerment): some readers will find what I believe is a central Christian strand through the book a nuisance, others an important organising thread and focus.

What they point up is an important cultural and perceptual divide between what organisations think they are doing, for customers and the community and for their own staff, and what effect they are really having. Undy and Kessler’s research on the new employment relationship (published in 1995, by the Institute of Personnel and Development) reveals that employees do not believe the rhetoric and spin put out by the very organisations they work for, and that has serious ethical implications for company success and personal job satisfaction.

Another interesting issue that books like this throw up is how easy it is to look at all the “wisdom” from other points of view. So making your own luck can be the natural opportunism and self‐interest of capitalism; continuously improving can be as much led by managing margins as by managing empathy and creative self‐transcendence; using money wisely can be as much investment in preference shares and corporate assets as in getting the balance right between company demands and time spent with the family. Identifying with the values of the company can be driven by inspired leadership but it can also be lubricated by share‐ownership and regimes of corporate intimidation. Corporate social and environmental responsibility can represent a compromise, or an uneasy alliance of “official” accountability and latent ruthless competitiveness, a dialectic always there in business ethics.

Holden describes ways through this apparent contradiction, above all by describing companies who have, in his view, successfully achieved an ethical balance between conflicting interests, in fact reconciled and transcended the conflict – the Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, Ben & Jerry’s, Merck, John Lewis, companies that have found ways through the “ethics/profit” cycle and its philosophical and personal counterpart, the “me/you” dialectic (how do we balance selfishness and gain to others? answers on a spectrum from enlightened self‐interest to indifference). There is such a thing, he claims, as moral marketing and going green can work. He includes about ten quizzes (or sets of ideas that can be used as quizzes) for managers to examine themselves and their situations and companies, and these are always fun and usually interesting and valuable at any time.

Workplace change and corporate accountability are driving agendas in the direction of wisdom, transparency, empowerment, caring, new styles of enlightened leadership, and reflective continuing professional development. The full bibliography and wealth of ideas in this book enable it to fit in well with these current trends. The argument for achieving the balance between profit and principle is well made, even if sceptics will find it Capra‐esque. It is the kind of stuff which, ultimately, only works if you try it out yourself.

The emphasis is on business managers, and that might have been made clearer by the title, but in the wash, managers in both private and public sectors face similar challenges, and will find Holden will help them clarify at least what they think they believe, want to believe, think they want to believe, or want their employees or customers to believe. Getting that right, in a totally authentic way (in the sense that Carl Rogers described congruence as being a good fit between what you say and do and what you believe), is something many organisations fall short on: organisational politics and bottom‐line‐led economics nourish a spin culture where rhetoric is reality, and in the face of such trends, the “wisdom” in Holden’s book is worth turning to.

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