The morality question

Back in 2000, I passed my undergraduate degree. It was a good moment. I’ve written before that throughout my education I was never a student who got high marks. I was often the student who got the ‘C’ grade. My degree class was ‘2:2’ which means it was the equivalent of a ‘C’ grade for degrees. In the rankings of degree classifications it came:

  • 1st – first class honours
  • 2:1 – second class honours, upper division
  • 2:2 – second class honours, lower division
  • 3rd – third class honours
  • Ordinary degree – pass
  • Fail

I remember receiving my degree certificate, and it stated I had received the degree class ‘2:1’ – second class honours, upper division. Now, to place this in some context, at that time, getting a decent job with a good salary in a good company kind of meant you had to have a 2:1 degree. It was completely to my advantage that my degree certificate stated what it did.

Except, I couldn’t personally accept it. Morally, it was the wrong thing to accept. So I got in touch with my tutor and explained what I had received and that I wanted it amended to reflect my actual achievement. To say the least, he was surprised at this. He passed me on to the relevant team at the university and I got in touch with them about the same. Again they were surprised – most students got in touch with them because they were contesting their results and had managed to get a higher class degree, and here was me asking for it to be reduced. Madness!

At that stage in my life – pre-work, I was a deeply moral person. There was a right and wrong to most things. This, for me, clearly fell in the wrong camp which needed to be righted. As I entered the corporate workforce a few years later, I learned that my definition of my morals needed to be challenged and developed. Many matters were simply not right and wrong as I once thought. All shades of grey became apparent and as much as I was learning about corporate existence, I was learning about moral development too.

I learned that in the workplace, our morals can be pulled in all sorts of directions. The employment contract can be so strong, for many people, that it overrides your normal tolerance for what you would do. Milgram, in his famous experiment about electric shocks, proved this back in the 1960s. When faced with a figure of authority, people will defer their own judgement to that of the other person, because that’s what they believe is expected of them.

In recent years we’ve seen various high profile events happen where the morality of individuals and leaders has come into question as well as the culture of organisations and the impact of their actions on society at large. One of the clear pieces of insight that most commentators have talked about is the moral character – or lack of.

And you have companies like Best Companies (organisers of the Times 100 Best Companies list) who highlight and report on the importance of moral development of leaders and the impact this has on engagement in organisations.

It’s all actually quite complex stuff. If a leader says the right things, but behaves in ways which are morally questionable, who is able to stand up to them? How do we cultivate a culture in organisations where acting morally is rewarded and recognised for doing so? If you’re faced with a decision which may be morally corrupt questionable, how do you decide which course of action to take? If there is one individual who is behaving in ways which are morally wrong but they deliver results, who is responsible for addressing this type of performance?

I don’t think there are easy answers to this stuff. It’s why governing bodies / monitoring agencies / regulatory bodies and the such like face such challenges. The route many go down is by defining a set of standards which all companies/organisations should be measured/evaluated against. Except, people find ways around things like this. It’s why organisations and companies who create values for their companies have a hard time enforcing them. They’re often understood by a select group of people and often not articulated well enough for everyone to be in agreement with or abide by.

And I don’t think it’s just the responsibility of HR/L&D/OD types to lead on this stuff. This group of people are no more moral than any other group, and there should be no expectation that they should be. Morality is a human question. Developing moral capacity and capability is an organisational issue and not one that one person or department can claim authority about.

Just things to think about.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “The morality question”

  1. Your comments about organisational values really stands out for me – organisational values, living the values – a lot of talk and no real action, and it’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s deeply human and personal – great post!

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