Critical Action Learning: Workplace-Based Case


The present paper is devoted to the critical action learning (CAL) that was carried out to resolve a workplace-based issue related to the development of organizational ethics in a multinational organization. It provides the background to the case, problematizing process description, a literature review on the issue, the definition of CAL and the application of the notion to the case, and a conclusion concerning the current results and future plan of actions. It is concluded that the CAL helped to problematize the problem and achieve the results that can inform future activities, but additional CAL is required for the resolution of the newly defined workplace-based problem.

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Background to the Workplace-Based Case

I am working at a large international company that holds leading positions in the oil and gas sector. It has the impressive number of 100,000 employees who work at 88 locations worldwide, which means that the population of the company is very diverse with various sociocultural backgrounds. As a result, the process of developing the organizational understanding of ethics has been a challenge that has lead to issues and conflicts in the past. The conflicts allowed us to determine that the globalization and workforce diversity did not help but hindered the ethics development, and the subsequent literature research proved that the issue is not exclusive to our company. Apart from that, it was determined that globalization is capable of introducing issues, in particular, outsourcing, which my company uses predominantly in African countries. The challenges of ethical outsourcing include, for example, the notion of fair salaries and wages. Similar issues make the aim of balancing the business needs and ethical conduct more difficult for our organization.

Problem Identification

In the CAL that is being described in this paper, the problematizing process was prolonged and affected by the literature review and other activities. As a result, it appears more logical to describe it below. Concerning the initial problem identification, it defined the mid-level managers as the key actors, and the primary topic of research included their personal strategies for resolving ethical dilemmas with the insufficient tools that the ethical guidelines of our company have proved themselves to be.

Literature Review

The topics related to ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and sustainable development have been paid increasingly significant attention in the business literature of the previous fifty years, and the result of the extensive research allows providing a solid informative basis for the workplace-based problem exploration (Kolk, 2016). As a result, the literature review contributed numerous insights into the issue, helped to problematize the workplace-based problem, and offered a context for the development of research tools and the interpretation of the interviews and set team discussion results.

Universalism, Relativism, and CSR

The question of whether ethics is a requirement for modern business receives an affirmative answer nowadays, and the international business is not an exception, even though modern researchers highlight the difficulties that are related to the development of the international ethics (Raufflet, Cruz, & Bres, 2014; Verhezen, 2010; Zutshi, Creed, Sohal, & Wood, 2012). The general approaches towards international ethics include absolutism or universalism (the idea that ethics must be universal) and relativism (the belief that ethical principles are relative from the point of view of the community and various situational aspects) (McDonald, 2010). It is noteworthy that both approaches can be radical, but their nexus appears to be the most promising framework for an international organization as it proposes the existence of fixed core principles and local adjustments or “cultural interpretations” as termed by Verhezen (2010, p. 190).

However, while uniting the advantages of the approaches (stability and flexibility), the middle approach also inherits their disadvantages (the difficulty of determining the absolute principles and the challenge of interpreting while preserving the core ideas), which does not discredit the theory but makes it more difficult to implement. For the time being, there are few known successful frameworks for the middle approach, but supposedly, the notion of such a universally applicable and flexible code of ethics can be illustrated by the notion of CSR (Raufflet et al., 2014; Warren, 2011). CSR has some basic principles (business responsibility for the consequences of its actions and the avoidance of causing harm), but it can be interpreted in a variety of ways (Zutshi et al., 2012). The existence of this framework suggests that the development of an international ethics code is possible.

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The Role of a Leader and Manager

Zutshi et al. (2012) demonstrate that the role of the managers in ensuring the ethical conduct of a company is central, but challenging as it presupposes finding the balance between profitability and the international and local ethics. Zutshi et al. (2012) choose the example of outsourcing for their research and describe the balance using the words “selflessness” and “self-interest” to define ethical conduct and profitability. The authors prove that outsourcing is not bound to be unethical, but the balance between making it beneficial for the employees of the host country and the company itself (the rest of the stakeholders, which is also a responsibility of an organization) may be difficult to find.

The means of facilitating the process include the creation of ethics codes for ethical dilemmas and the development ethical organizational culture as an informal way of enforcing ethical rules that are not connected to actual force, punishments, and encouragement but are concerned with the development of a trustful, transparent, and ethically aware environment (Verhezen, 2010). This aspect is also of importance in defining the role of the employees who do not occupy managerial posts. The role of higher-level managers in the development of organizational ethics is well-established (Tran, 2010; Verhezen, 2010), but nowadays, the idea of the participation of the lower managerial levels, as well as non-managerial staff, is promoted (Rawwas, Arjoon, & Sidani, 2012; Thite, 2013). In particular, a form of lower-level management involvement in ethical culture is the whistle-blowing practices and their protection and encouragement. An ethical organizational culture involves the employees of various levels in the maintenance of ethical conduct, and the increased transparency and trust should help them to engage in the process of developing organizational ethics.

Steps Taken to Address the Problem

The literature research presented above was one of the steps that were taken to address the problem, but this “stage” of the CAL was prolonged and has not been terminated yet. Other steps included the interviews and set team discussion that were aimed primarily at the analysis of the situation and that were carried out with the help of the tools, the creation of which was informed by the literature research. The interviews and discussion were planned to avoid disrupting the working process and to complete the analysis within the time limits; as a result, one interview was missed. Later, the literature research also helped to interpret and summarize the results of the interviews and set group discussion.

Critical Action Learning

Literature research

Action learning (AL) can be broadly defined as an educational approach that involves continuous and collaborative reflective learning, which requires working with “real issues with the intention of getting things done” (Yeadon-Lee, 2013, p. 984). The notion has been redefined and reconsidered, and in the past five or six decades, several directions have developed within AL (Brook, Pedler, & Burgoyne, 2012). In particular, CAL is a form of AL, which unites AL format with critical social theory insights and, as a result, highlights the importance of critical reflection throughout the process of AL (Brook, Pedler, Abbott, & Burgoyne, 2015). In particular, CAL is concerned with underlying ideas and assumptions as well as power dynamics, relationships, and contexts of the individual actors within AL, which, among other things, can result in facilitating or hindering of the learning process.

Application of CAT to the problem: interviews and set team discussion

To ensure the collaborative nature of CAL, the interviews and set group discussion were carried out, during which ten mid-level managers (seven males, three females) were interviewed. The interviewed managers come from different continents and countries, including the Americas, Europe and Russia, and Africa, which means that they have different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, it may be suggested that their backgrounds are suitable for the current CAL, and their diversity is likely to suggest insights into various viewpoints. The set group discussion was carried out only in one African location, and three of the mentioned managers participated in it together with a fourth one who was not interviewed individually. The interviews and set group were predominantly discussing the same questions from the previously developed questionnaire with some variations that depended on the topics raised by the participants, which could be classified as location-specific cases. Also, the individual interviews and the set group discussion demonstrated the existence of a pattern that can be used to summarize the responses gained and, possibly, consider them to be representative of the majority of the mid-level managers of our organization. The following summary of the responses can be provided.

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All the participants believe that the implementation of CSR ideas differs from their “paper” version, and while the majority of them describe the latter as “great,” they all find the former dissatisfactory. Also, the participants agree that CSR cannot satisfy the company’s needs, and they believe that the key reason for this issue consists in CSR’s failure to remain profitable during the recent recession. As a result, the participants believe that CSR is viewed by the majority of managers as an extra burden that hinders the company’s sustainability rather than helps to build it, and they think that limiting CSR ventures is advisable.

When considering the ethical issues of the organization, the employees indicated that the organization emphasizes the importance of profit over other values, which pushes the line of ethical conduct. Several managers expressed concern over the issue of discarding the experienced employees because of their wages that are typically higher than those of the inexperienced ones, which is both harmful and unethical. The managers believe that the layoffs, which the organization has been forced into lately, were the result of economic considerations that often pushed aside ethical concerns. A form of such practice that is unethical and bordering on discriminatory is the age limit which was introduced specifically for after-recession layoffs. The issue of outsourcing did not attract similar concerns of the managers, possibly, because the layoffs are a more recent issue.

Despite the fact that the managers find fault in the current ethical practices of the organization at their location, they do not seem to be eager to propose or push changes. They explain that it is not their responsibility as mid-level managers. Despite this, the majority of them suggested that the ethical guidelines had to be reviewed in order to update them to reflect the new realities of the organization.

The participants believe that ethics and CSR play a significant role in their personal practice by helping them to stay out of “trouble” and facilitating the progress in their careers as well as building their reputation. Also, all the managers understand and appreciate the importance of diversity management and recognize the existence of similar ethical “grounds” among the people from the same community.

Unfortunately, the majority of managers (especially those from the set team discussion) believe that the organization fails to produce the ethical guidelines that would apply to their community. However, they all speak about adapting the organizational ethics in order to provide the local managers with an acceptable tool for managing their departments, which implies that the managers find a way of resolving this issue. They do mention, though, that the implementation of an unedited guidance can lead to “witch-hunt,” implying that such situations occurred in the past.

When describing the tools and means that had helped the managers to resolve ethical dilemmas, they pointed out that tools for such cases could be found, referring to the ethical guidelines and their accommodated local versions. Apart from that, the managers specifically mentioned their personal experience, the need for balance, and the “fear of justice” from structures outside the organization as the factors that might help in the resolution of the issues. They also highlighted respect for human dignity and life and the responsibility connected to it, which involved valuing human life more than economic benefits or personal profit. However, according to the managers, this aspect can be beneficial as well as harmful for dilemmas resolution.

Current status/outcome/conclusion: problem identification progress

The development of the problematizing process involved noticeable reconsideration of the aim of the learning and, in fact, the CAL activities resulted in the problematization evolvement. The initial problematization defined the key actors to be mid-level managers, and the primary topic of the discussion was concerned with their personal view of organizational ethics and their strategies for resolving ethical dilemmas with the help of the tools provided by the organization. This focus is visible in the questionnaire and responses to it. It was initially assumed that international ethical guidelines remain dissatisfactory and locally inapplicable, which was to a large extent confirmed during the set group work and interviews, even though the managers demonstrated the ability to use the tools. However, the assumption that the development of an internationally acceptable tool was practically impossible was not confirmed during the literature review (Raufflet et al., 2014; Warren, 2011), and the participants revealed that they had found a way of adapting the organizational ethics to their local needs.

They did not accept CSR as a suitable ethics framework, though, and indicated multiple issues in the current CSR practices. The managers also demonstrated that a review of the existing guidelines had been long overdue while also showing that they could not consider themselves to be fit to take this responsibility due to being mid-level and not higher-level managers. This aspect can be regarded as a negative underlying belief that hinders the learning process. Additional literature research proves them wrong and demonstrates that, in fact, the focus of the current CAL may also be shifted from the managers to incorporate managers and workers (or, rather, representatives of the latter) (Rawwas et al., 2012; Thite, 2013). As a result, the final problem statement consists of the review of the current imperfect and obsolete ethical guidelines that can be found at the organizational and local levels, and the following preliminary plan is being suggested for future CAL steps.


In order to complete CAL and resolve the issue, a more extensive CAL needs to be carried out. However, given the scope of the problem, it appears logical to limit it to the African location and later spread the improved version to other ones.

First, it is necessary to use the lessons learned from the first stage of CAL and the prior as well as additional literature review to inform the creation of new tools that would reflect the new problematization of the workplace-based case. It is apparent that the current tool cannot guide the future CAL; moreover, the experience of its application suggests that it is possible to introduce a feedback section into it to allow continuous development and improvement. In the meantime, the African location group should be contacted and informed about the intent to involve worker representatives in the process.

This decision can be carried out during another meeting when the harmful underlying belief will be contested. If the managers cannot believe that they are capable of contributing to the organizational ethics development, they are likely to be skeptical about workers’ involvement, which is why the issue needs to be addressed. After the meeting, some additional changes may be made, but for the time being, the next steps will include planning the group discussions, carrying them out, improving the discussion tools, and preparing the summaries of the suggestions concerning the local and organizational ethics development. The literature review stage is to be prolonged and used to inform the future activities, which corresponds to the idea of continuous learning that is aimed at fixing a “real” problem.

Results and Conclusion/Further Research

From the information presented above, it is apparent that the status of CAL is far from over, and additional CAL is currently being planned for the African location. Despite this, the current CAL has brought several positive outcomes, including the better understanding of the underlying reasons for the workplace-based case, which resulted in more efficient problematizing, as well as the identification of a harmful underlying belief in the mid-level managers, which hinders the future learning. Apart from that, some of the assumptions have not been proven, including the aptitude of CSR as an international ethics tool, but it was discovered that the managers are capable of ensuring the localization of the organizational ethics. Finally, the CAL revealed a significant problem with the current organizational ethics: the latter has not been updated for a long period of time, which is why it appears to be a most important issue that causes the workplace-based predicament, and it is going to be addressed.

Reflections on the Action Learning Process

The scholars and practitioners of CAL have been discussing a number of its significant aspects, but for this work, the most applicable concepts of CAL are those of unlearning, non-action, and the related but opposite term “inaction.” “Learning inaction” can be defined as a specific type of hindering the process of learning that consists of neglecting issues and avoiding the change, which cannot be regarded as productive. It should not be confused with non-action that consists of a constructive and grounded choice to avoid action, which is beneficial for the situation. An important CAL concept is also unlearning, which was introduced to “contest the idea that learning is an unequivocal good” (Brook et al., 2015, p. 375). It is noteworthy that unlearning and non-action have been receiving less attention from theorists and practitioners. Nowadays, the ideas of unlearning (discarding the previous knowledge that is proved incorrect or unusable) are beginning to be considered as important as learning, and in the past decade, it has also been argued that constructive non-action can be as beneficial as constructive action (Brook et al., 2015, pp. 373-375).

Inaction, on the other hand, is only harmful, and it tends to occur in the cases when the power dynamics of the actor’s context prohibit or restrict action (for example, the relationships within the set team or in the organization). Inaction results in the neglect of the problems and issues, and it can be, in a way, compared to the outcomes of the culture of silence, which involves discouraging lower-level employees from participating in the ethical issues of an organization and even voicing their ideas or whistle-blowing (Verhezen, 2010). It is apparent that non-constructive lack of action is harmful as it can result in issues being overlooked and ignored. In my view, the predominant underlying attitude of the managers towards their personal ability and responsibility to affect the organizational ethics can hinder the implementation of the future steps of the plan and may be regarded as inaction. As a result, the managers need to be empowered, for example, through the discussion of the literature research outcomes and extended discussions (Rawwas et al., 2012; Thite, 2013). Since, for the time being, the African location is regarded as the spot of future action, a focus group meeting can be held, and the difference between constructive non-action and unconstructive inaction can be brought to the participants’ attention.

Apart from that, the current CAL involved multiple cases of learning as well as unlearning. In my personal progress through the CAL, the unlearning processes were concerned with the problematizing development, which included getting insights into the underlying issues of the problem being discussed. My previous works described the problematizing process in detail; basically, it may be suggested that the current outcome of CAL includes the more detailed and action-related problematization. While it is not the only outcome, it is the key one, and it can be summarized as the shift from the focus on the managers to that on the managers and employees, the change of the primary topic of importance from the decision-making to the organizational ethics, and the consideration of the current need for change as an opportunity for improvement, which requires further action research and work with the African location and, possibly, with the organization as a whole in the future.


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