Morality’s Place in Business
Organizations are challenged on their moral compass by customers and employees alike.
Modern organizations feel a growing need to satisfy more than just the monetary gains of owners, stakeholders, and employees. In general, people are becoming more aware of aspects like gender equality, racial equality, environmental footprints, animal rights, et cetera. This entails the need for a moral compass in an organization.
The issue with morality is that different people adhere to different viewpoints they consider to be moral. In a large organization, you have to deal with not just the moral viewpoint of the leadership, but also of the employees, and of stakeholders. As we’ve seen in recent years, especially employees of modern, agile-minded organizations like Facebook and Google have not taken this moral compass lightly.
In 2018, huge numbers of Google employees participated in the Google Walkouts, in which they literally walked out of the office building and demanded concrete changes from the company, including a commitment to end pay inequality, a transparent sexual harassment report, an inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct, and to elevate the Chief of Diversity to answer directly to the CEO and create an Employee Representative. Some — but not all — demands have been met since then, but managers of large organizations in general were warned that their morality was on the table for all to see.
Also in 2018, Facebook employees were reportedly quitting or asking to switch departments over ethical concerns around the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a data-analytics company used information from millions of profiles to influence American voters during the 2016 presidential elections. Many of the employees believed their company could — and should — have done more to handle user data responsibly and were frustrated that CEO Mark Zuckerberg was silent for days after the allegations surfaced. A product designer was quoted as literally saying, “Morally, it was extremely difficult to continue working there.”
In 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg again faced frustrated and outright angry employees, trying to explain his inaction on outrageous posts made by American President Trump. Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout and in a direct conversation with Zuckerberg vented their moral anger. The top question for Zuckerberg, which called for changes to the company’s stance on political speech, received more than 5,400 votes from workers, according to an employee that was present at the virtual conversation.
Later in 2020, after the horrible murder of George Floyd by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, an Instagram employee (which is part of Facebook), tweeted that she was deeply disappointed and ashamed with how the company was responding to the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. Even the Facebook director of product management added that “I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.” In a personal Facebook post, CEO Zuckerberg publicly admitted that “Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms.”
Even though morality may mean different things to people from different walks of life, there is a psychological basis that is interesting in this respect. However much morality is often hijacked by the religious, who claim morality comes from their god(s) or their religion, studies have shown that there is little evidence for a moral effect of religious beliefs. Rather, research has shown that we are more likely to have been born with an innate sense of morality.
Canadian-American psychologist Paul Bloom has done a lot of interesting psychological experiments on morality with children too young to be affected by religion or other supposed moral institutions. In his 2013 book Just Babies, he describes some of these experiments that show moral awareness in kids as young as six months old. In one such experiment, a baby is shown two puppets. One of the puppets has a ball and plays with it. Then it hands over the ball to the other puppet, which takes the ball and makes a run for it — not such a nice move from this puppet. After this little stage play, the baby is handed both puppets to play with. In overwhelming numbers, the babies prefer the first puppet to the puppet that took the ball and ran. Now, if the babies would have had no sense of morality, they wouldn’t have cared if the puppet played nice or not, but they do care, which shows a sense of what is right and what is wrong at even this young age.
In an earlier article, we already saw — in the segment about the Ultimatum Game — that primatologist Frans De Waal found that capuchin monkeys also have a profound sense of fairness, which shows that morality is not solely a human thing either.
If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores: https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Psychology-Modern-Organizations-scientifically/dp/B08NP12D77/