Who are we now?

Organizational scandal and identity work in the world of finance

 

Johanne Grant, Chefkonsulent

Mail: jg@lead.eu, tlf. +45 23 25 62 51

PhD dissertation
Johanne Grant
Department of Communication and Psychology Aalborg University
July 2021

Supervisors
Claus Elmholdt, Aalborg University Kim Larsen, Danske Bank

Word count: 74.505

Juli 2021

Abstract

This dissertation investigates internal processes of organizational scandal from an identity perspective. Scandal is seen to associate negative social evaluation to an organization as well as a high level of disruptive publicity. This confrontation of sudden negative perception of the organization may threaten organizational members’ collective understandings of “who they are”, thus affecting organizational identity. This dissertation is interested in examining how and in what way this threat affects the identity processes of organizational members on an organizational level, asking: How does organizational scandal affect organizational members’ identity processes?

This is investigated through an organizational ethnography taking place in Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank. Danske Bank was involved in what is assumed to be the world’s largest case of money laundering. This developed into a scandal for the organization from 2018 to 2019, where I was already present in the organization as an industrial PhD student. The development of the events presented the opportunity to study internal, identity-related processes during scandal as the events unfolded. This was done throughout a 2-year-long data collection process that included the use of mixed methods such as interviews, observations, and organizational documents. The study was based on a pragmatic stance to organizational ethnography. The industrial PhD setup and research design gave me the opportunity to be present in the organization and be part of the organizational members’ daily organizational lives. This allowed me to study organizational identities through the ongoing discursive and interactional processes whilst they occurred.

This led to findings proving how negative social evaluation from scandal was experienced by organizational members as persistent and related to the core of organizational characteristics, thus becoming “sticky” for organizational members. At the same time, managers were shown to prescribe emotional displays from employees related to shame that contradicted the employees’ emotional experiences of scandal, leaving the employees in an emotional dissonance. Employees held on to their own emotional experiences as ways to work on their preferred social identities, in this way perpetuating the emotional dissonance. Furthermore, threat from scandal was shown to be a flexible, discursive construct that developed alongside identity work over the course of the scandal. As a whole, the dissertation demonstrates how the identity processes from scandal worked in interaction with discursive threat construction and in contradictory ways: Scandal is interpreted as deeply related to organizational identity and rejected as related to organizational identity at the same time. This left organizational members with opposing constructs of organizational identity—and in a perpetuated tension from this.

These findings advance the current understanding of identity work during threat, arguing how organizational members will endure—and prefer—more pain and tension from identity threat than anticipated in existing literature. The organizational members construct organizational identities alongside discursive constructions of threat in contradictory ways, which perpetuates tension for them— but allows them to work on multiple preferred organizational identities. Furthermore, organizational members are shown to engage in affirming, restructuring, and ambivalent identity responses to scandal. This adds to existing theory on identity responses to threat, since affirming and restructuring identity responses are shown to not be separate processes but work simultaneously and develop with influence from the level of media attention from scandal.

Dansk resumé

Denne afhandling undersøger de interne processes af en organisatorisk skandale ud fra et identitets perspektiv. En skandale antages at associerer negativ social evaluering med en organisation. Denne konfrontation af pludselig negative perception af organisationen, kan true de organisatoriske medlemmers kollektive forståelse af ”hvem de er”, hvilket påvirker den organisatoriske identitet. Denne afhandling udforsker hvordan og på hvilken måde denne trussel påvirker de organisatoriske medlemmers identitetsprocesser på organisatorisk niveau. Afhandlingen stiller spørgsmålet: Hvordan påvirker organisatorisk skandale de organisatoriske medlemmers identitetsprocesser?

Dette undersøges igennem et organisatorisk etnografi som fandt sted i Danmarks største bank, Danske Bank. Danske Bank var involveret i, hvad der antages at være verdens største hvidvaskningssag. Dette udviklede sig til en skandale for organisationen fra 2018-2019, hvor jeg allerede var tilstede i organisationen som erhvervs Ph.d. studerende. Udviklingen af hvidvaskningssagen præsenterede muligheden for at undersøge interne, identitetsrelaterede processer, imens skandalen udfoldede sig. Dette blev gjort igennem en 2 år lang data indsamlings proces og inkluderede en variation af metoder såsom; interviews, observationer og organisatoriske dokumenter. Studiet tog udgangspunkt i en pragmatisk indstilling til organisatoriske etnografi. Erhvervs PhD ordningen og forskningsdesignet gav mig muligheden for at være tilstede i organisationen og være en del af de organisatoriske medlemmers daglige arbejdsliv. Dette tillod muligheden for at studere organisatoriske identiteter igennem diskursive og interaktionelle processes imens de fandt sted.

Resultaterne af studiet, viste hvordan negative social evaluering fra skandaler blev oplevet som vedblivende og relateret til de centrale karakteristika for organisationen for de organisatoriske medlemmer. Samtidigt blev det fundet, at lederne krævede emotionelle responser fra medarbejderne relateret til skam – hvilket stod i kontrast til medarbejdernes oplevede emotioner og ledte til emotionel dissonans for medarbejderne. Medarbejderne vedholdte denne dissonans som en måde hvorpå, de kunne arbejde på deres foretrukne sociale identiteter, der var associerede med at være ordentligt og stolte af deres organisation. Derudover vidste truslen fra skandalen sig at være en fleksibel, diskursiv konstruktion, der udviklede sig sammen med identitetsarbejdet for de organisatoriske medlemmer. Samlet set demonstrerer denne afhandling hvordan identitetsprocesses under skandaler arbejder på modsætningsfyldte måder og i interaktion med diskursive konstruktioner af identitets trussel: Skandalen blev tolket som dybt relateret til organisatorisk identitet og afvist som relateret til organisatorisk identitet på sammen tid. Dette efterlod de organisatoriske medlemmer med modsatrettede konstruktioner af organisatorisk identiteter – samt en vedholdende spænding fra dette.

Disse resultater bidrager til eksisterende forståelser af identitetsarbejde under truslen fra skandaler, og påviser at organisatoriske medlemmer er i stand til at udholde mere smerte og spænding fra identitets trussel, end antaget. De organisatoriske medlemmers konstruerer organisatoriske identiteter og trusler på kontrastfyldte måder, hvilket vedholder spændinger for dem – men gør, at de kan arbejde på multiple foretrukne organisatoriske identiteter. Derudover viser resultaterne at organisatoriske medlemmer benytter sig af både bekræftende, ambivalente og omstrukturerende identitets responser under skandale. Dette bidrager til eksisterende teori om identitets responser under trussel, da bekræftende og omstrukturerende identitets responser påvises ikke at være separate identitets processer, men processer der arbejdet simultant og under indflydelse af niveauet af medie opmærksomhed fra skandaler.