Ethics and Workplace Rights
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I’m skipping a chapter that takes a historical look at the debate over women’s suffrage. Tonight’s chapter, then, is about the workplace and individual rights. Everything above “My Thoughts” comes from notes taken from the textbook, everything in green will be my personal commentary, and everything under “My Thoughts”… are my thoughts!
Once again, the textbook is:
Mosser, K. (2010). Ethics and Social Responsibility. (E. Evans, Ed.) Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/
What legitimate restrictions an employer can put on a worker’s rights, and what limits there are to those conditions.
Argument for broad restriction of individual rights
The main job of a manager is to run a company smoothly and efficiently, create a return on investment, and create profit. A company that cannot create profit will not stay in business. Anything that interferes with that job should be avoided by managers, or minimized as much as possible.
Employees have certain rights, guaranteed by the Constitution or by laws that cover both employees and employers. Employees cannot be expected to work where they are likely to be injured or killed. Employees cannot be expected to work overtime without compensation. Employees cannot be fired for refusing to break the law.
However, there are certain rights that may be restricted. A worker at KFC can have their free speech limited so that he cannot tell Church’s what the secret ingredients in the breading are. This information is called “proprietary information,” and consists of competitive advantages of one company over another. Federal agencies, like the FBI or CIA, can require secrecy from their agents. Airlines can require drug tests. School employees can be required to live in a specific area. Many corporations require employees to act in a manner that does not bring bad publicity to the employer. Obviously working in a place that requires such limits is voluntary. The employee does not have to accept the job, and if they cannot function under those requirements, they are free to leave. (Unless your employer is the Navy…)
“At will employees” may be fired without cause. If they are not working under written contract, or working for the government, they are typically “at will.” It is usually in the company’s best interest to keep workers satisfied, if not happy, to keep job satisfaction up, which keeps productivity up. Employees cannot be allowed to violate conditions of employment or prevent smooth operation of the company.
Example: Jim works for Random Work. He goes on his blog and rants about the crappy work conditions at Random Work, and publishes some critical letters in the paper. Now Random Work’s reputation is tarnished, and their competitors have a new weapon to use against them. Random Work’s profits fall, and Jim gets fired. Is that ok?
Jim was an “at will” employee, so termination doesn’t have to be justified. Even if it did, Jim was wrong to do damage to the company, especially how he did it. So which is more important? Jim’s right to free speech, or the company’s right to maintain a profit? Not only was the company damaged, but all the employees of that company and all the investors in that company were as well. Such restrictions are legitimate and justified to “protect the company’s reputation, profitability, and responsibility to stockholders. ”
Argument for narrow restriction of rights
Workers have rights guaranteed by the Constitution and by labor law. Those rights cannot be violated without proof that restrictions are absolutely necessary for the company to function.
There are still some legitimate restrictions. An employee has no right to divulge proprietary information to a competitor. National security and public safety are also concerns that a small number of workers may have to be restricted to protect. Pilots do not have the right to fly while impaired, so drug tests have been demonstrated to be legal in court. The burden of proof is on the employer to show a legitimate and substantial need for restriction of rights. If they cannot, all “at will” employees retain all rights guaranteed them by the Constitution and all relevant state and federal laws.
Example: Susan lives in a small town with few jobs. She is interviewed by a local nonprofit agency that promotes strict gun control. Susan’s family hunts regularly and owns several shotguns. The agency offers her a job, with the stipulation that she does not own guns, and that she disposes of any that she does own. The agency is worried about the image portrayed if a member does not live by the same lifestyle it is promoting. Can it demand Susan’s agreement?
Susan’s choice is between taking the job, but having what she sees as her 2nd amendment rights violated, or not taking the job and placing her finances in jeopardy. (But not the game show, because that would be awesome!) There is extra pressure on her because there are no jobs in a small community that is already struggling in the current economy.
This is a plausible reason for restriction of rights, even outside the workplace. However, there is worry that those conditions go farther than what is legitimate, and cannot be shown to lead to company damage. In the current economy, the danger of companies overstepping their bounds is even higher, since companies know the likelihood (or lack thereof) an employee would be able to find another job. This fear of being unemployed for an extended amount of time may lead some employees to accepting heinous conditions just to maintain a steady paycheck. This could easily lead to abuse of the worker’s rights.
In legalese, a company is considered a person. Thus, a corporation can be held up to “virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics holds the ideal virtuous person up as a role model for all others to be judged against (sort of like the Christians’ “What would Jesus do?”). So what is the ideal virtuous corporation?
The number one focus of any corporation is profitability. However, acknowledging this goal, it must meet the needs of its employees, stockholders, investors, the community, and any other support mechanisms. A virtuous company “lives” by a Golden Mean, a good balance between all its virtues. A “good” corporate citizen is generous and charitable, supporting charities and other philanthropic work, but cannot give away more than it earns. The company must maintain a balance between worker happiness and profitability. Pay must be competitive, or workers will leave. If pay is too high, it reduces profit. Rights are also in balance. They need to be fair to workers, but also minimize potential damage to the bottom line.
Companies should be honest, with both employees and the community. Lying, cheating and stealing are never acceptable, while too much honestly could lead to competitive advantages being squandered.
Virtue ethics: striking a balance between all virtues to be the best well-rounded person possible.
Deonotology is a Golden Rule school of thought. The fundamental purpose of any company, again, is to carry out its mission, whether for profit or non-profit. There are certain rules that must be followed in pursuit of this mission: treat employees, community, and even competitors with respect. Do not develop strategies or policies that you would determine to be unfair if they were used against you. If an employer wants to develop a set of rules, would he mind working under them as well? People who demand drug tests are typically willing to follow them, so they suit the Golden Rule.
How does the Golden Rule fit unions, specifically the requirement to join a union (or not join a union)? This demand could not be universalized (everyone has to join a union, or nobody can join a union), so it seems morally wrong to demand membership (or non membership) in a union, at which point the notion of a union is pointless. It is also possible that the employers who force membership (or non-membership) would not be willing to work under those conditions, so it does not meet the Golden Rule test.
Therefore, a deontologist would determine that any restriction that cannot be universalized or conflicts with the Golden Rule is unfair, unjust, and immoral.
The virtue ethicist and deontologist don’t really disagree- they both agree that some restrictions are necessary to maintain competitive advantage over other corporations, and that the main goal in a company is to make profit. The argument comes from where along the slider a company has the right to limit individual rights.
Example: Random Arms gets most of its profits through government contracts, and has a close relationship with Senator Smith. Senator Smith is from the state where the corporate HQ is located. Senator Smith tries to reward Random Arms with government contracts whenever he can influence the outcome. The company and Senator are mutual beneficiaries of their relationship. Senator Smith is up for reelection, and the CEO of Random Arms is the director of his campaign. Anne works for Random Arms, and is a supporter of Senator Smith’s opponent. She contributes money and quite a lot of time, outside work, to the opponent’s campaign. What can the company do about this?
Can the CEO ask Anne to remove a political sticker from her cubicle? Can he ask her to remove her bumper sticker, since her car is in the company parking lot? When a company picnic/Senator Smith fundraiser is planned, attendance is $25, and clearly attendance is not required, but expected, should Anne refuse to attend even though she feels she will be passed up for promotion if she does?
I must admit, I’m not really sure where the line is supposed to be drawn between the two arguments. Obviously it makes sense that companies should be able to protect their secrets. My default, as I’ve said before, is to lean towards more freedom, more individual rights, and less restriction, which to me is the common sense answer in most cases. I suppose I would need a particular example to really choose a side. For Anne, I think she should be able to express her political views as she wants to, within certain common sense limits. For example, when I was in the Navy, I was allowed to say that I support one candidate over another, however, I was not allowed to go on TV in my uniform and say the same thing, because it would appear as though the Navy was endorsing a particular candidate. We were not allowed to march in protests or anything else like that while in uniform, or really identify ourselves with the military. I think that makes sense. You shouldn’t shop in Target wearing your Wal-Mart greeter vest. I don’t see a problem with the bumper sticker or cubicle sticker because it is private or within the realm of the company itself. Outsiders don’t see her cubicle, and can’t see her disapproval.
As for Susan (and the example about joining an animal rights group and having to give up eating meat), I would have to be in some pretty severe conditions to take a job that goes against what I believe. I wouldn’t take a job with Greenpeace, PETA, Planned Parenthood, or any anti-gun organizations, just because I know I wouldn’t be able to keep that job for long anyway. I’d be way too tempted to mouth off about my personal views, and the likelihood of being fired would go up daily. Don’t work for companies if you don’t agree with them. It is a recipe for personal disaster.