The last few weeks have seen a crescendo of revelations about Oxfam. Since the Sunday Times broke the story that Oxfam personnel had engaged prostitutes during the earthquake rescue operations in Haiti, the charity found itself fronting a scandal of still unknown proportions.
The Oxfam story is too grim to be discounted as one of the many failures of large organizations. There is simply too much bad behavior to account for, including aid staff possibly having sex with underage girls in Oxfam-paid facilities, workers failing to protect colleagues while on duty, personnel physically threatening witnesses, and, above all, “humanitarian” staffers taking advantage of crisis victims whom they were supposed to be helping. Since the scandal, new allegations suggest that Oxfam personnel may have used prostitutes in Chad. And Oxfam itself has admitted receiving at least 26 reports of sexual misconduct in recent weeks.
Oxfam’s story may end up exposing endemic predatory practices in the aid sector. The Charity Commission will investigate sexual misconduct across aid organizations as a result of what transpired at Oxfam. Save the Children UK acknowledged that it had dismissed 19 staff due to sexual misconduct, and that as many as 193 sexual harassment cases were recorded at Save the Children International in 2016. Besides, alleged misconduct dates way back as an earlier report about sexual exploitation of female refugees by United Nations and NGO staff documented. According to Report the Abuse, not only is sexual misconduct and exploitation a sector-wide problem, but in as many as 39% of the cases expat staff are the perpetrators.
The endemic ethical failures of the humanitarian industry shed light on an unexpected fact: the non-profit sector is hardly immune to ethical fiascos, likely facing the same poor decision-making outcomes that affect the for-profit sector. This may seem odd given that the non-profit industry was born purpose-led and values-based. Take Oxfam, for example: their purpose “is to help create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty…,” and their beliefs entail statements such as “everyone has a right to realize their potential… in poverty, people have little power …women and girls are the most oppressed by poverty…”
Clearly, a focus on purpose and values may be insufficient for building ethical conduct in organizations. Research has demonstrated that embracing moral standards and/or engaging in ethical behavior may actually give people some type of moral license. For example, it’s been shown that individuals who’ve had a chance to establish their kindness are less inclined to engage in subsequent prosocial behavior.
Studies also indicate that individuals who have had the opportunity to express their moral intentions may give themselves permission not to follow through. The mental glitch that makes people more likely to take liberties seems to run on an implicit balance sheet: we take stock of our purported allegiance to moral standards or recent ethical actions and may use whatever moral credit we believe we’ve earned to take moral licenses.
How does this play out in real life? Take the case of Oxfam staff in a rescue operation. Imagine Oxfam aid workers launching critical work under the banner of a purpose-led, values-based charity known for its commitment to ending poverty and injustice. After a long day spent providing life-saving help, the moral credit these individuals will feel is likely enough to license and discount serious ethical slippages.
The same type of glitch may also affect the stance of an entire organization. Picture a charity like Oxfam forging ahead with an inspiring purpose and a stirring vision, intent on doing meaningful work. The organization as a whole may feel to operate on such high moral grounds that it may start sliding into complacency when it comes to managing its culture and ethics practices. Reports about questionable behavior by staffers are discounted; moral liberties taken by senior leaders are ignored; ethical challenges are treated in a simplistic way; systems are not set up correctly etc.
This negative chain of events — the hallmark of a bad culture — is not prevented by the existence of values and purpose. In fact, it may even be accelerated by the formal embracement of ambitious ethical principles—a risk that non-profit and for-profit institutions face alike.
Far from being a piece of ethical insurance, purpose and values should be treated as an additional ethical responsibility. This means that the ethical challenges, goals and commitments of an organization become all the more multi-layered when an inspiring purpose and lofty values are endorsed. In terms of best practices, the implications are equally significant, starting with how principles of conduct are chosen and continuing with the individual accountabilities and behavioral norms created as a result of them. This is why organizations that go for a high purpose and noble values accrue ethical debt until they can prove they are living up to the ethical standards they’ve officially espoused.
Caterina Bulgarella, Ph.D., pictured above, is a member of Ethical Systems’ core team and a collaborator of SAI Global. She’s a culture architect and ethics expert who advises senior leaders on culture change and ethical challenges. She can be contacted here.