Imagining and Managing Organizational Evil


In this chapter, we argue that organizational evil (OE) is, at the same time, a fundamentally nonsensical idea and a concern of real importance for those studying or leading organizations. Nonsensical, we believe, because the senses in which the expression “organizational evil” is typically used—to describe a property or characteristic of organizations generally or a form of conduct perpetrated by particular organizations—do not correspond in any meaningful way to actual social or natural phenomena. Genuinely important, however, because the use of the language is subjectively meaningful, and therefore consequential and actionable for a wide range of actors in (and concerned with) organizations.

The chapter is organized into three major sections. First, we make the case that, because organizations and evil are both quintessentially social facts (see Searle, 1995) with no existence independent of their social context, the common ways of speaking about organizational evil as a thing in-and-of-itself (i.e., existing independently of the volition and actions of individuals) are largely nonsensical. Yet organizational evil understood as a contextually contingent, functional social construct is, in fact, a socially meaningful concept. Next, we explore how that understanding helps us to make sense of the very real ways in which scholars, managers, and laypeople respond to acts and actors that seem so egregiously bad as to be morally incomprehensible. Developing a typology of expressive as well as instrumental reactions to perceived evil acts and actors associated with organizations allows us to categorize some familiar historical cases and to see how certain types of reactions can have either destructive or constructive consequences.

Finally, we conclude by noting paradoxically that so-called organizational evil, if properly understood, may (if also properly managed or accommodated) be functionally beneficial, serving to promote constructive moral vigilance and correction among an organization’s members and other stakeholders. We offer as both tentative prescription and research hypothesis the central claim that the ordinary practical ethical reasoning employed by nonsociopaths in their daily life provides a firm underlying basis for the prevention, detection, and correction of actions that would be regarded as organizational evil. This can fruitfully be nurtured by organizations’ leaders, with any tradeoffs of individual ethical empowerment against efficiency and obedience adapted to the circumstances of specific organizations and tasks. Moreover, because ethical reasoning is a learned skill, it can also be further developed in specific organizational environments and task contexts and for specific members of organizations, in appropriate degrees.


Political Science

Publication Date



M.E. Sharpe

Document Type

Book Chapter