The winners of the SAP’s Best Student Paper Award in 2019 are Jane Lê (WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management) and Fannie Couture (University of Sydney Business School) with their paper “Protecting ‘Monsters’: How Complicity Eco-Systems Facilitate Wrongdoing in Organizations”. The paper also received the Carolyn Dexter Award for Best International Paper that is presented to the annual meeting paper that best meets objective of internationalizing the Academy.
Congratulations for receiving SAP’s Best Student Paper Award! Can you please tell us what your paper is about?
Our paper develops a practice framework to enrich understanding of complicity in organizations. Using two highly publicised cases – Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and Oxfam GB staff’s sexual exploitation – we study the emergence and maintenance of complicity eco-systems. Delving deep into the cases, we show that complicity eco-systems are enacted through the opposing, but mutually constitutive and reinforcing practices of complicity and non-complicity. Our conceptual model shows how these practices maintain complicit eco-systems, not just in spite of but indeed because of increasing challenges. This allows us to uncover some of the mechanisms that enable wrongdoing to persist over extended periods of time.
At the heart of your paper are complicit practices, practices that are enacted to protect individual actors violating central organizational or societal norms. What motivated you to study these practices?
Quite simply, we were motivated by moral outrage. We live in a time where large scale scandals are common – We are continuously confronted with evidence of wrongdoing that happens ‘out in the open’, wrongdoing that is highly visible, observed by many, and yet continues for years, even decades. We wondered how that was possible. How can so many people be aware of the wrongdoing, even try to stop it, and yet it continues? Our minds went back to the original studies around conformity and social cohesion, but we could not find a satisfactory explanation. We thus set out to seek better understanding ourselves through this empirical project.
You analyze textual and visual data on two extreme cases. What were you experiences in working with multimodal data and this sampling strategy?
The first and most visceral aspect of this paper is how hard it was to do the analysis and write the paper. The data are quite confronting. We are not watching big corporates at strategy meetings, trying to decide which product to release – We are seeing people recount their lived experience at the most difficult points of their lives. These accounts are very emotive and deeply affecting. At the same time, we are seeing evidence of a lot of morally reprehensible practice, in graphic detail, and simultaneously are confronted by knowing that it was condoned and even supported. This is a difficult reality to work through. So, while the technical aspects of the work could be challenging, they certainly did not constitute the biggest challenge, having previously worked with photo and video data.
Your paper showcases the dynamics of how wrongdoing in organizational settings unfold. What are the main implications of these findings for managers and policy-makers?
Our findings suggest that wrongdoing can occur in the ‘best’ organizations. We would recommend that managers and policy-makers remain vigilant to the practices that drive individuals to (unwittingly) becoming complicit in that wrongdoing. We are not naïve enough to think that you can circumvent wrongdoing entirely – there are always bad apples in the bunch – but we do think that we can prevent wrongdoing from becoming systemic and enduring over the long-term by short-circuiting the complicity system that supports it. And in this context, even small victories matter immeasurably.
Your paper that contributes to the emerging research on ethics as a form of practice also received the Carolyn Dexter Award for Best International Paper. What are the key advantages of a practice-based on ethics in organizational settings and what are your thoughts on where future research might be heading?
Ethics-as-practice provides a more dynamic view of wrongdoing – It recognizes that what is deemed right or wrong is context-specific and continuously changing. Thus, what was considered righteous yesterday can be seen as wrongful today. Our focus is on what people actually do in morally ambiguous and structurally constrained situations where reliance on fixed moral codes is not possible. A practice view of ethics acknowledges that people use a practical, emergent, ambiguous and context-specific ethical judgement, rather than a theoretical, static, clear-cut and universal one. Ethical work is spontaneous, enacted moment-by-moment. And that is exactly why practice matters!
Thank you so much! Is there anything you would like to share with members of the community who want to win the SAP’s Best Student Paper Award and the Carolyn Dexter Award in the future?
We would just like to encourage our colleagues in the SAP community to keep up the good work. It is so encouraging to see our research published in top-tier journals and receiving Academy-wide awards. This is at least in part due to our innovative approach to management and organization studies, and our dedication to do meaningful work with real world impact. We thus see this award as another community accolade – One of many! We are conscious that we would not have been able to write this paper without our own community of practice: Thank you.