Managing Sustainably - Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility


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With the transition from bureaucratic to post-bureaucratic management structures, organisations have identified that the key to steady expansion and success lies in the acknowledgment and adoption of ethical codes of conduct, corporate social responsibility, and sustainable practices. Bureaucratic management approaches revolved around a ‘hierarchy of authority, division of labour and formalized rules and procedures’ (Cunliffe & Luhman et al. 2013, p. 16), supporting the classical business theory of profit maximisation as the sole purpose of a business.

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Consequently, this narrow-minded focus fostered an environment for unethical business practices, resulting in human and environmental exploitation by corporations. Yet with the emergence of post-bureaucratic management practices, brought on by the stagnation of employee enthusiasm and a reduction of standardised operations under the bureaucratic obsession, rules were replaced with personal interaction, and responsibilities were allocated on merit rather than hierarchy, expanding the managerial boundaries of an organisation (McKenna, Garcia-Lorenzo & Bridgman et al. 2010, p. 129).

Hence, in an increasingly turbulent world, post-bureaucratically aligned initiatives such as ethical principles, CSR, corporate greening and stakeholder management become vital in promoting sustainability for future generations, examined by Cunliffe & Luhman (2013), McKenna, Garcia-Lorenzo and Bridgman (2010) and many others. Whilst Weber afforded bureaucracy as an unparalleled tool of technical superiority that raised ‘precision, speed, unity and strict subordination’ (Clegg et al. 2016, p. 452), bureaucratic management practices demanded too stricter devotion to regulation and rules, generating inefficiency and stifling innovation. Thus, the movement to post-bureaucratic management processes saw an emphasis on empowerment and self-direction, greater flexibility in rules and processes, evaluation by results not process, and motivation by intrinsic rewards (Clegg et al. 2016). The adoption of soft forms of coordination and control has allowed organisations to appreciate their employees creativity, self-efficacy and intuitive thinking (Rego, Sousa & Marques et al. 2012), contributing to the development of an ethical culture that promotes the cultivation of virtues in a post-bureaucratic organisation (Fabiano & Hornstein et al. 2017). Hence, the increasing focus on the adoption of ethical practices by organisations in recent years is epitomized with the reflection upon employee treatment during the industrial revolution, most notably Henry Ford’s assembly line. Hailed as a remarkable development for managing operations, Ford’s assembly line was a mode that allowed high volume, low cost and standardised production (Wilson et al. 2014). Whilst designed for maximum efficiency, this approach failed to consider employee wellbeing, subjecting workers to harsh and sub-optimal working conditions, and overlooking their individual skills and expertise. Ultimately, this unethical exploitation of individuals reduced long-term productivity and efficiency as workers were strained from excessive hours, and emotionally disengaged due to the mundane nature of the tasks they were required to complete.

Thus, Ford’s bureaucratic approach to production is seen today as morally reprehensible, as current societal management practices focus on bolstering and enhancing employee wellbeing. In the eyes of management literature, ‘effective organisations are those that produce excellent results by any measure of costs, quality or efficiency’ (Fabiano & Hornstein et al. 2017). Abiding by this notion, organisations have free reign over their operations without any consideration for the social and environmental impacts of their operations – but to what extent should this concept be followed? Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s gravest industrial catastrophes, the 1984 gas leak from Union Carbide Corporations pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India caused between 8000 – 15,000 deaths within the first few days, with an estimated 20,000 residents dying in the three decades since (Odysseos et al. 2015).

An accumulation of unethical practices, including faulty safety systems, untrained workers and the neglection of plant maintenance contributed to creating life-threatening environmental conditions that still exist today. Such a corporate disaster raises a multitude of ethical questions about accountability, human rights, and justice, but most crucially; when will organisations take responsibility for their actions and enforce preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of similar situations occurring in the future? With the rise of post-bureaucracy, this question has begun to resound within organisations through the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR): ‘the explicit attempt by an organisation to signal that it exceeds minimum legal obligations to stakeholders that are specified through regulation and corporate governance’ (Clegg et al. 2016, p. 396). In the past, there was little concern for the exploitation of the environment or sustainable development, however now, CSR is seen as a voluntary commitment by organisations to improve the quality of life for its employees, families, local communities and society (Clegg et al. 2016). Although ideal, altruism has never been the sole motivating factor behind corporations adopting CSR, however, its global support is increasing exponentially, representing the most widely held form of conscious capitalism seen thus far (Carroll et al. 2015).

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