Research in organisational settings

Within the vast literature on ethical dilemmas for researchers there appears to be some agreement that the main ethical problems occur over attempting to conform to the principles of informed consent, safety, privacy, confidentiality, anonymity and respect. This is complicated further through the suggestion that responsible researchers should also aim to avoid deception, exploitation and harassment. One must also consider issues of legality and the responsibility the researcher has to the participants; and the researchers own hierarchy of importance between results and participants. The researcher also has to create a balance between all these issues, whilst still collecting reliable data.

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Within the literature on research in organisational settings, these issues become particular to that setting under certain circumstances. Firstly, one must consider issues of funding and sponsorship. Clearly, this presents dilemmas of loyalty, but these issues become ethical when one considers debates such as ownership of knowledge under market economics, the researchers commitment to his participants and legal issues. Who is the researcher reporting too? Would they report information that may lead to someone losing their job? Would they feel able to report illegal behaviour? These are all ethical dilemmas, which become particular to the organisation if the researcher is commissioned or funded by the managers and the subjects are the ‘powerless’ employees.

Also individual to research in organisational settings is the position of the insider researcher/practitioner and the use of participatory or action research. I aim to present these dilemmas and draw comparisons with the position of the outsider researcher and the ethical dilemmas for both that arise over gatekeepers, unexpected results, their changing ethical positions in different organisational settings and the decisions they make over what data to use.

In my view, the ethical dilemmas they face before, during and after the research are diverse. Mullins denotes three main ethical areas and approaches within organisation; firstly, deontological ethics, that which is guided by religious or moral beliefs. Secondly, ethics that are concerned with ends rather than means are referred to as teleological. Lastly, ethical relativism refers to beliefs that are specific to individuals and social groups. (Mullins, 1996 p.320)

‘Ownership of knowledge:’ ethical dilemmas faced in ‘contract research’: David Bridges (1998) argues that educational and social science research has undergone a process of commodification in which the language of market economics and privatisation has become prevalent. Bridges places his argument within the organisation setting of a university. The first ethical question that is presented is the use of data after the research has been completed and the implications outside funding has on this. Bridges (1998) notes that there is an, Increasing tendency in educational and social sciences research for researchers to find themselves entering funding regimes or relationships in which those providing the money see this as providing them with full proprietal rights over the research, or at least over its products, including in these the rights to hold the results of the research to themselves or to release information selectively. (p.594)

Within this dilemma the ‘powerless’ participants are removed even further from the research, as they may not even be eligible to gain access to the results. Through this transfer of control of the data, principles of privacy and confidentiality may be breached as it is no longer the ethical code of the researcher, which may have led to participants feeling comfortable to partake in the initial stages, that is to be adhered to. It is now up to the government, sponsors, university or management to decide how the data is implemented. For the researcher, prior to undertaking the research, this is perhaps merely a moral dilemma. However, once the participants become involved and their safety or privacy is questioned it becomes a question of ethics peculiar to that organisational setting.

Another ethical dilemma faced in this situation is the researchers adherence to discovering and publishing the ‘truth’ (if one considers that this could ever realistically be achieved.) Social science research may, for example, readily reveal discrepancies between the claims made by the government or other sponsors of educational innovation and the evidence of the research. (Bridges, 1998, p.599)

This ethical problem concerns the position of the researcher, especially as an insider-researcher, who may not feel confident to report ‘failures’ or ‘discrepancies’ to senior management, with the implication that the temptation is perhaps to alter results. Yet there is also the question of the practitioner/researcher’s commitment or responsibility to their profession and its improvement; should they allow the research evidence to be withheld by those who have ‘purchased’ it.

These ethical dilemmas are not merely created by the fact that the research is contracted or controlled by these in positions of power. They are also related to conflicts of interests over the original purpose of the research. That is whether it was merely contrived to support managerial claims or decisions; whether it aimed to objectively evaluate these, improve the profession or whether to the researcher and funder it simply aimed to get the desired results at any cost to the participant. Bridges continues this idea to suggest that in educational organisations ‘contract research’ is itself unethical as he suggests that educational research carries a moral banner and thus, I would argue that the participants are easily exploited in the stated pursuit of improving the profession. Bridges states that research, which was subjected to the criticism of academic peers, was part of the action of the investigation and perhaps guarded against its misuse. Whereas in this situation researchers are,

Gearing their work so as to satisfy the demands and expectations of their governments or corporation sponsors rather than the demands of their academic colleagues, whose critical scrutiny is no longer, perhaps, part of the process. (p.596) The suggestion here being that the presence of an outside influence on research detracts from the organisation’s inbuilt guards against unethical behaviour. In a later article Bridges develops this criticism of the ‘property’ (p.382) of knowledge and see it instead as a ‘virtue’ that can be easily disseminated without harm to anyone.