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Thematics :

The moral and ethical values of frontline workers in social enterprises have an impact on the communities they engage with. Rose Bote – a researcher at NEOMA – and her colleagues have looked at how competing demands and interests influence their decision-making. The study opens up possible ways to improve the support they receive in their day-to-day work.

Social enterprises play a vital role in the quest for a more just and ethical society, tackling specific social, environmental or community issues. Several of these firms are committed to sustainability, for instance, or workers’ rights, fair access to resources or developing ethical products. They straddle two goals, combining the pursuit of economic profitability with a social agenda.

Since social enterprises strive to promote the common good, it is accepted that they are inherently ethical or honest. In reality, however, these organisations sometimes facilitate social injustice and inequalities. And it is this “dark side” that has led to a number of criticisms about the way social enterprises operate in the field. It is against this background that Bote and her fellow researchers focused on the oft-neglected role of frontline workers, those key players who sit at the interface between communities and social enterprises. To a certain degree they are the architects of social change; at the same time, they face potentially contradictory demands. Although these workers are disposed to help their communities, they are also obliged to comply with the directives issued by their superiors. This creates fertile ground for moral ambiguities, which then have an impact on the decisions they take. How do the workers handle these competing interests on a day-to-day basis?

A crucible for moral ambiguity

The researchers set about studying this moral dimension by interviewing loan officers in a microfinance organisation in Cameroon, a company that provides financial services to people on low incomes. The officers’ job is to decide whether or not to grant loans to claimants who belong to the same tribe as them. The fact, however, that they know the potential beneficiaries outside their work context complicates the task enormously, and the subjectivity of the officers does indeed have an influence on their decision-making. They draw in particular on their relational ties to justify granting loans to applicants who fail to meet the necessary criteria. The same dynamic is at work when officers decide not to allocate funds to individuals who, in their opinion, are “bad pupils”. This subjectivity is double-edged: it can result in decisions that are biased towards or against specific groups.

Frontline officers adopt three rationalisation strategies as a way of handling the conflicting requirements of their company and the local community. The first sees them disengage emotionally from their decision-making. They have to remain professional and award affordable loans even though they are often faced with desperate cases. The second instinct is to safeguard their self-interest, in particular their status. When they are responsible for a mistake, they would rather not admit it to their superiors even if it penalises a beneficiary. The third solution is for workers to use what they know about an applicant to bypass the rigid framework imposed by their company.

Scaling up the support given to workers

In this study, the researchers challenge the moral idealism often ascribed to people working in social enterprises. These professionals do their utmost to find compromises so that everyone’s requirements can be met. However, their self-interest – in particular their need to keep hold of their jobs – may unwittingly set the stage for nepotism and increase the marginalisation of some social groups. This approach is not designed to cause harm: it stems from the ambiguous nature of the workers’ position as employees and members of the wider community.

The researchers underline the need for social enterprises to pay more attention to the challenges faced by their employees. More consideration should be given, they argue, to the moral aspects of the work by incorporating training on stress management into their jobs. The research team also encourages the creation of discussion groups between the loan officers and, in parallel, they suggest that the power of organisational hierarchies be routinely reviewed.

Furthermore, the study underscores the active role of communities in the decision-making process of frontline workers. The researchers urge social enterprises to integrate them into their operations to a greater extent. The cooperative nature of these organisations would also facilitate partnership programmes with community members. Finally, the double community and professional embeddedness seen here reflects the case for several local social enterprises in Global South countries. In this context, the research outcomes could apply equally to businesses that centre on social ties.

Find out more

Bote, R., Wang, T. & Genet, C. You Say Social Agenda, I Say My Job: Navigating Moral Ambiguities by Frontline Workers in a Social Enterprise. J Bus Ethics (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-023-05526-6