Moral Gray Zones
Side Productions, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant
Anyone who has been employed by an organization knows not every official workplace regulation must be followed. When management consistently overlooks such breaches, spaces emerge in which both workers and supervisors engage in officially prohibited, yet tolerated practices--gray zones. When discovered, these transgressions often provoke disapproval; when company materials are diverted in the process, these breaches are quickly labeled theft. Yet, why do gray zones persist and why are they unlikely to disappear? In Moral Gray Zones, Michel Anteby shows how these spaces function as regulating mechanisms within workplaces, fashioning workers' identity and self-esteem while allowing management to maintain control.
The book provides a unique window into gray zones through its in-depth look at the manufacture and exchange of illegal goods called homers, tolerated in a French aeronautic plant. Homers such as toys for kids, cutlery for the kitchen, or lamps for homes, are made on company time with company materials for a worker's own purpose and use. Anteby relies on observations at retirees' homes, archival data, interviews, and surveys to understand how plant workers and managers make sense of this tacit practice. He argues that when patrolled, gray zones like the production of homers offer workplaces balanced opportunities for supervision as well as expression. Cautioning against the hasty judgment that gray zone practices are simply wrong, Moral Gray Zones contributes to a deeper understanding of the culture, group dynamics, and deviance found in organizations.
Michel Anteby is assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.