Sub-theme 12: Being Good or Looking Good? Interrogating the Contradictions and Tensions in Organizational Ethics

Carl Rhodes
University of Technology Sydney, Australia
Alison Pullen
Macquarie University, Australia
Torkild Thanem
Stockholm University Business School, Sweden

Call for Papers

This sub-theme will develop and extend research on the ethics of organizations by explicitly interrogating on the relationships between ethics as a form of self-interested impression management (looking good) and ethics as a genuine concern with the moral implications of the effects of organizational action on others (being good). This focus is timely given that practices associated with ethics are more fashionable and well publicized than ever in the corporate world. Today organizations of all sorts are beholden to undertake programs related to, inter alia, sustainability, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance, workplace ethics, ethical codes and ethical accounting frameworks.
Why is there such a flourishing enthusiasm for ethics? A simple answer would be that organizations have seen the light, abandoned their pursuit of self-interest, and decided to genuinely respond to the moral demands that are presented to them so as to become truly ‘ethical organizations’ (Verbos et al., 2007). Such a view that organizations are simply ‘being good’ is beyond naïve given the dismal record of flagrant corporate disregard for “the ethical dimensions of global economic activity” (Fleming et al., 2013, p. 338). In response it has been argued that organizations have largely “failed to responsibly use whatever autonomy and discretion they possessed to produce fair and generous outcomes for their various stakeholder groups” (Marens, 2010, p. 761). This failure has centred on the conviction that while a variety of organizational practices and programs are described and justified in ethical terms, ethics is not their primary content or motive.
For critics, organizational ethics are brought into question when organizations engage in practices associated with term ‘ethics’ not because of any genuine moral impulse, but rather because it serves their existing business interests (Banerjee, 2008). This self-interest has been seen to be pursued through the creation of an ethical image that enhances organizational legitimacy, appeases political interest groups, and wards off state regulation; all the time having little or no real effect on investment decisions, or the prioritization of financial over ethical concerns (Solomon et al., 2013). The ethics of organizations has been condemned as an ‘ethics of narcissus’ (Roberts, 2003) that evinces a preoccupation with ‘looking good’ in the eyes of others in order to achieve ethically dispassionate corporate goals.
As well as manifesting at an organizational level, the tensions between ‘looking good’ and ‘being good’ play out through lived experience and experienced subjectivity. Programs for organizational ethics invariably seek to enrol, control, or direct the behaviour of individual employees, pressuring them to adopt particular subject positions. Ethical subjectivity, understood in terms of how people at work constitute themselves as subjects in relation to their conduct and sense of ethical responsibility, can never just be fully imposed organizationally (McMurray et al., 2011). Against such an imposition, ethics is lived in and through the body as it is located in the physical spaces of organizing. Such an ethics can be informed affectually by care, responsibility, and compassion to others (Pullen & Rhodes, 2015) leading to the possibility of a powerful and joyful life (Thanem et al., 2015). Again we see the tensions between appearing to ‘do the right (organizational) thing’ and the lived pressures that so often sees ethics resulting in the drive to resist the authoritative and self-interested dictates of organizations (Pullen & Rhodes, 2014) so as to pursue a desire for justice and an affirmation of life (Thanem & Pullen, 2014).
This sub-theme will attract papers that interrogate the contradictory relationships between an organizational ethics seeking to ‘look good’ and one striving to ‘be good’. While it might be easy to pose a simple dichotomy between the two, we encourage contributors to consider the dilemmas and contradictions between them. This concern is not with outlining either a theoretical or organizational ideal, but rather with considering how ethics plays out in the lived and practical realms of experience and engaged politics.
Topics could include, but are not limited to:

  • Ethical critiques of business and organizational ethics programs
  • Conflicting ethical and value systems within organizations
  • Resistance to organizations as ethical action
  • Public relations and business ethics
  • Greenwashing and the politics of environmental friendliness
  • Pinkwashing and the enrolment of breast cancer into corporate image management
  • Ethnographic approaches to ethics in organizations
  • The politics of business ethics awards
  • The ethics of the business case for ethics
  • Political Corporate Social Responsibility
  • The ethics and exploitation of diversity management
  • Embodied ethics in the disembodied organization
  • Internal resistance of organizational ethical programs
  • Ethical dilemmas of leadership practice
  • Corporate protest as a response to corporate ethics
  • Deconstructing the divisional between ethical appearance and ethical substance
  • Embodied ethics and corporate ethics



  • Banerjee, S.B. (2008): “Corporate Social Responsibility: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Critical Sociology, 34 (1), 51–79.
  • Fleming, P., Roberts, J., & Garsten, C. (2013): “In Search of Corporate Social Responsibility. Organization, 20 (3), 337–348.
  • Marens, R. (2010): “Destroying the Village to Save It: Corporate Social Responsibility, Labour Relations, and the Rise and Fall of American hegemony.” Organization, 17 (6), 743–766.
  • McMurray, R., Pullen, A., & Rhodes, C. (2011): “Ethical subjectivity and politics in organizations: A case of health care tendering.” Organization, 18 (4), 541–561.
  • Pullen, A., & Rhodes, C. (2014): “Corporeal ethics and the politics of resistance in organizations.” Organization, 21 (6), 782–796.
  • Pullen, A., & Rhodes, C. (2015): “Ethics, embodiment and organizations.” Organization, 22 (2), 159–165.
  • Roberts, J. (2003): “The Manufacture of Corporate Social Responsibility: Constructing Corporate Sensibility.” Organization, 10 (2), 249–265.
  • Solomon, J.F., Solomon, A., Joseph, N.L., & Norton, S.D. (2013): “Impression Management, Myth Creation and Fabrication in Private Social and Environmental Reporting: Insights from Erving Goffman.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 38 (3), 195–213.
  • Thanem, T., & Pullen, A. (2014): “Difference, Diversity and Inclusion in the Monstrous Organization.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, 33 (7), Special Issue.
  • Thanem, T., & Wallenberg, L. (2015): “What can bodies do? Reading Spinoza for an affective ethics of organizational life.” Organization, 22 (2), 235–250.
  • Verbos, A.K., Gerard, J.A., Forshey, P.R., Harding, C.S., & Miller, J.S. (2007): “The positive ethical organization: Enacting a living code of ethics and ethical organizational identity.” Journal of Business Ethics, 76 (1), 17–33.
Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies at The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School, Australia. His research focuses on the relationships between ethics, politics and justice as it relates to organizational and business activity. Carl’s most recent books are “The Routledge Companion to Ethics, Politics and Organizations” (Routledge, 2015, with Alison Pullen), and “Organizations and Popular Culture” (Routledge, 2012, with Simon Lilley. He is Senior Editor of the journal ‘Organization Studies’, and Associate Editor of ‘Organization’.
Alison Pullen is Professor of Management and Organization Studies, Macquarie University. Alison is a prolific contributor to leading journals in the fields of organization studies, gender studies and management. She has recently co-edited “The Routledge Handbook of Ethics and Politics of Organization” (with Carl Rhodes). Alison is Associate Editor for ‘Gender, Work and Organization’ and ‘Organization’, and on the editorial board of ‘Organization Studies’ amongst several others.
Torkild Thanem is Professor of Management and Organization Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden. He researches the politics and ethics of embodiment, gender and identity in and around organizations. His publications include articles in ‘Organization Studies, Organization’, and ‘Gender, Work and Organization’. His book “The Monstrous Organization” was published in 2011.