R:ETRO seminar series - Reputation: Ethics, Trust and Relationships at Oxford

Our Intesa Sanpaolo Research Fellow Rita Mota, with Alan Morrison, Professor of Law and Finance at Saïd Business School, have organised a series of seminars exploring reputation, trust, relationships and ethics. For more information, contact the centre: reputation@sbs.ox.ac.uk.

23 January, 16.30 - 18.00

Whistleblowers counteracting institutional corruptionMarianna Fotaki, Professor of Business Ethics at University of Warwick Business School

Professor Fotaki writes: While various forms of corruption are common in many public institutions and businesses around the world, defining wrongdoing in terms of legality and the use of public office for private gain obstructs our understanding of its nature and intractability. To address this, I propose adopting the notion of institutional corruption (IC) developed by political philosopher Dennis Thompson and legal expert Lawrence Lessig, as divergence from the original purpose of the institution, which may not be illegal but may nevertheless cause harm to people who depend on it by creating perverse dependencies and compelling individuals to act against its core purpose. Such work is much needed to provide in-depth accounts of how external political and legislative pressures enable corruption, and to highlight the role of whistleblowing in restoring organisations to their core mission. Specifically, I will demonstrate how whistleblowers’ disclosures are key to bringing organisations back on track, and conclude by arguing for whistleblower protection and reforms that enable them to speak-up in organisations.

6 February, 16.30 - 18.00

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication and small and medium-sized enterprises: the governmentality dilemma of explicit and implicit CSR communication Laura Spence, Professor of Business Ethics in the Department of Human Resource Management and Organisational Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London 

In her work with Mette Morsing*, Professor Spence writes: Businesses that promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) through their supply chains by requiring their suppliers to report on and otherwise communicate their CSR are doing a great thing, aren’t they? In this article, we challenge this assumption by focusing on the impact on small and medium sized enterprise (SME) suppliers when their large customer firms pressurize them to make their implicit CSR communication more explicit. We expose a ‘dark side’ to assumed improvements in CSR reporting within a supply chain. We present a conceptual framework that draws on previous research on communication constitutes organization (CCO) theory, implicit and explicit CSR, and Foucault’s governmentality. We identify and discuss the implications of three resulting dilemmas faced by SMEs: authenticity commercialization, values control and identity disruption. The overarching contribution of our article is to extend theorizing on CSR communication and conceptual research on CSR in SME suppliers (small business social responsibility). From a practice and policy perspective, it is not ultimately clear that promoting CSR reporting among SMEs will necessarily improve socially responsible practice.

*Professor Mette Morsing, Co-Director of the Sustainability Platform at the Copenhagen Business School

20 February, 16.30 - 18.00

Collaborating through constructive ambiguity: a political process view on collective actionJuliane Reinecke, Professor of International Management and Sustainability at King’s Business School

Creating global governance institutions that deliver collective benefits cannot be done by any single entity, but requires collaboration for collective action across multiple parties and stakeholders. While scholars have argued that finding common ground amidst conflicting interests – a key challenge in the formation of collective action – often requires a degree of ambiguity through setting wide-ranging, inclusive goals, it is far from clear how ambiguity affects the translation of collaborative agreements into practice. Based on a six-year process study of the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, a global multi-party agreement to end the series of deadly accidents in the Bangladesh garment sector, we examine the role of ambiguity in building institutions that translate collaborative agreements into substantive collective action despite conflicting interests and the ever-present possibility of watering down the agreement. Contrary to traditional expectations that conflicting interests often lead to symbolic rather than substantive commitment, findings highlight how political conflict was productively leveraged, leading parties to escalate collective commitment and substantive action beyond initial self-commitment.



5 March, 16.30-18.00

The question of moral leadership: an inquiry with reference to whistleblowing - Iain Munro, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Change at University of Newcastle Business School

This paper investigates a number of questions concerning our understanding of moral leadership, and what can be learned about moral leadership from the practice of whistleblowing. Moral leadership has been defined in various ways which typically involve being honest, caring, trustworthy, and fair (Brown and Treviño 2006). One recent definition of moral leadership which combines the moral and pragmatic aspects of leadership involved in such definitions is “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision making” (Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005, 120). This paper aims to challenge the presuppositions of such approaches to moral leadership with reference to the practice of whistleblowing as an example of moral leadership. This paper revolves around a number of key questions: 

  • The question of its ambivalence: Moral leadership can be highly ambivalent because it often presents a radical challenge to the existing social order. Consider important cases in the history of whistleblowing such as Daniel Ellsberg’s challenge to the Vietnam War or Edward Snowden’s challenge to unconstitutional global mass surveillance. As such, it is not simply about the perceived virtues of the leader - courage, care, honesty, but about the political context in which such actions are interpreted.
  • The question of dissent: if whistleblowers can be described as moral leaders, the ethics of dissent opens up diverging interpretations, where they may see themselves as reformists exercising “civil disobedience” (e.g. Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden), others may see them as immoral traitors rather than dissidents.  
  • The question of moral norms: Moral leadership often does not involve following existing social norms but challenging such norms, consider the leaders of social movements such as Martin Luther King and the civil right movements’ challenge to racism or Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement’s challenge to gender discrimination. These leaders were actually portrayed as criminals and terrorists in their time (e.g. King was closely monitored by the FBI, who sought to discredit him and actively pursued his death), and are only retrospectively constructed as symbols of justice and truth of the nation.
  • The question of transforming values.: Moral leaders, such as whistleblowers often appeal to transcendental values such as justice, liberty and truth, but they may also be understood in Nietzchean terms as re-evaluators of values who break old tables of values and create new values and new institutions. For example the work of Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange has created a new institution of “networked whistleblowing” which has revealed systemic corruption of the military industrial complex, in which both the left and right wings of political parties are participating. 
  • The question of charismatic leadership: Max Weber described the charismatic leader in Nietzschean terms as the magician soldier who creates new values and new institutions, overthrowing the old corrupt regime - is this not what has been happening in many cases of whistleblowing, Manning, Assange, Snowden.   
  • The question of truth: moral leaders do not just tell the truth - they do not fit neatly within the prevailing social order but speak “truth to power” or “insurgent truths”, which present a challenge to that order 
  • The question of hegemony. We may distinguish between two forms of moral leader - the hegemonic moral leader, who parrots the slogans of the status quo and benefits from their participation in sustaining the extant social order (e.g. Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Cheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg), and the counter-hegemonic moral leader who poses a threat to the social order, and who may even be criminalised in the process (e.g. Martin Luther King, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden) 

In summary, this paper questions claims that moral leadership can be defined by 'normatively appropriate behaviour' (Brown et al, 2005), and by contrast investigates the significance of challenging social norms and creating new norms and values. Moral leadership thus understood is less concerned with following established moral norms than with establishing new norms.