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Ethical Principles of Responsibility and Accountability

Responsibility is an ethical concept that refers to the fact that individuals and groups have morally based obligations and duties to others and to larger ethical and moral codes, standards and traditions. Responsibility in a business context refers to “a sphere of duty or obligation assigned to a person by the nature of that person’s position, function or work.”

The roles taken on by decision-makers imply a responsibility to perform certain functions associated with those roles. To be more specific, responsibility refers to more than just the primary function of a role; it refers to the multiple facets of that function, which includes both processes and outcomes, and the consequences of the acts performed as part of that set of obligations. A responsible actor may be seen as one whose job involves a predetermined set of obligations that need to be met in order for the job to be accomplished.

According to Aristotle, moral responsibility was viewed as originating with the moral agent as decision-maker, and grew out of an ability to reason, an awareness of action and consequences, and a willingness to act free from external compulsion. Accountability is the readiness or preparedness to give an explanation or justification to stakeholders for one’s judgments, intentions and actions.

“It is a readiness to have one’s actions judged by others and, where appropriate, accept responsibility for errors, misjudgments and negligence and recognition for competence, conscientiousness, excellence and wisdom.” While responsibility is defined as a bundle of obligations associated with a role, accountability could be defined as “blaming or crediting someone for an action”—normally associated with a recognized responsibility. The accountable actor is “held to external oversight, regulation, and mechanisms of punishment aimed to externally motivate responsive adjustment in order to maintain adherence with appropriate moral standards of action.”

In the professional context, accountability is about answering to clients, colleagues and other relevant professionals. The demand to give an account of one’s judgments, acts and omissions arises from the nature of the professional-client and the professional-professional relationships. For communication professionals, accountability has more specific implications. Recent years have seen more practical and concrete interpretation of the concept of accountability by communication specialists. It is associated with responsiveness to the views of all stakeholders, which includes a willingness to explain, defend, and justify actions.

While tracing the lines of responsibility and accountability can be difficult, in the end, if one is responsible in any way for an action, then one must accept some degree of accountability. On the other hand, if responsibility and accountability are not equitably shared and if the process by which they are assigned is not transparent, then problems will arise. In the corporate world, not every actor is blame-worthy, especially if the actor’s autonomy is limited by structure, process, or circumstance. However, lack of autonomy is not an excuse for avoiding accountability entirely.


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