Ethical Realism

May 5, 2011

Moral Implications of the Workplace

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:47 am
Tags: , ,

Our constitutional rights protects us from government interference, but they don’t protect us from private industry. The workplace is allowed to violate our constitutional rights. Nonetheless, the law demands that businesses treat employees with a certain amount of respect. If we assume that people deserve to be treated with respect, that has moral implications in the workplace. We could have moral rights and responsibilities other than what the law demands. I will discuss moral issues concerning the workplace; such as (a) the nature of moral rights and responsibilities in the workplace, (b) personnel policies and procedures, and (c) unions. This discussion is based on chapter six of Business Ethics (Third Edition, 1999) by William Shaw.

The nature of moral rights and responsibilities in the workplace

Workers want to be paid well, have safe work conditions, be rewarded for their productive work, have a chance to get promotions, have free speech, privacy, and so on. There was a time when workers had almost no legal rights in the workplace, but an employer must now treat minorities as equals, pay employees the minimum wage, pay employees more for overtime, and provide relatively safe work conditions. For more information, go here. However, the law doesn’t guarantee that employees will be treated with respect. Employers could have a moral responsibility to their employees beyond what the law requires.

Our actual moral rights and responsibilities are a matter of debate. Mill’s utilitarian theory of justice might be used to justify our responsibility to help people, and employees might have a right to have a workplace that can help them live better lives. However, Nozick’s libertarian theory can’t justify a responsibility to help others. Even so, Nozick’s theory can justify the fact that we have a right to noninjury and employers have a responsibility not to harm their employees. That means that employers have a responsibility to provide employees with safe working conditions and managers have a responsibility not to be abusive to their employees. This could include an employee right not to be verbally abused assuming that verbal abuse is harmful.

No matter what theory of justice we agree to, we have reason to think that employees have certain rights that can’t be taken away. For example, any theory of justice can deny the right to own human beings. If that’s true, then what exactly does it mean to own a person or to sell oneself? It might be immoral to sell oneself to a company, even for limited periods of time (from 9 to 5). Stripping a person of their liberties could be considered to be a form of slavery.

Although there’s an American tradition that assumes that “corporate efficiency requires employees to sacrifice their civil liberties and other rights between 9 and 5,” there’s reason to think otherwise (208). For example, Ewing points out that “the companies that lead in encouraging rights—organizations such as Polaroid, IBM, Donnelly Mirrors, and Delta Airlines—have healthier-looking bottom lines than the average corporation does” (ibid.).

Employers can also be tempted to be disrespectful of employees because it can cost money to pay more for wages, to create safer working conditions, and so on. However, employers have a moral reason to be respectful of employees, and it can be in the best interest of the company. Being respectful of employees can increase productivity by raising morale, help a company hire better employees by making a business more attractive to applicants, and keep productive employees from looking for better jobs elsewhere.

Our moral rights and responsibilities are merely minimal moral standards and only reflect a minimal level of respect. It’s possible for a work environment to respect employees beyond moral requirements. What is moral isn’t necessarily a duty. Sometimes we can treat people in ways that are beyond the call of duty. For example, rewarding employees with a bonus could be a good thing to do, and it could be more respectful than is morally required of a business. Additionally, employers can show appreciation, compliment, and encourage their employees.

Personnel policies and procedures

Personnel policies and procedures determine how a company handles hiring, firing, promoting etc. I will discuss the moral implications of various personnel policies and procedures.


Hiring often involves, screening, testing, and interviewing—and each of these steps of a hiring process have unique moral implications (210).

Screening – Sometimes a great deal of people apply for a job and screening helps a company reduce the list of eligible applicants to be more manageable. People should be screened on the basis of their qualifications rather than discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and so on (ibid.).

Screening includes the job description and job specification. The job description should disclose the relevant details of a job, such as “its duties, responsibilities, working conditions, and physical requirements” (ibid.). The job specification should list all the requirements needed to be hired, “such as skills, educational experience, appearance, and physical attributes” (ibid.). How does this relate to morality? First, if a job description or specification is inadequate, “candidates can waste time and money pursuing jobs they aren’t suited for” (ibid.). Second, jobs must not screen out qualified people on the basis of irrelevant characteristics—and disabilities, race, age, religion (or lack of religion), and gender are often irrelevant to qualification. Even job descriptions that are for “mailmen” could end up screening out women. Instead, gender neutral job titles like “mail carrier” are better (211).

Sometimes discrimination is warranted and sometimes it isn’t. Requiring applicants to have certain educational or physical capacities isn’t always warranted, and discrimination against people with disabilities and other minorities is occasionally justified because the job might have a good reason for doing so (211-212). For example, it can make sense to hire women for modeling positions or to be the attendant in a womens’ bathroom (211).

Sometimes illegal forms of discrimination are motivated by the actual profitability of an employee (ibid.). For example, racist customers might prefer a white salesperson over a black one, and a white salesperson could make more money for the company as a result. Nonetheless, companies cannot discriminate based on the irrational prejudice of customers.

Tests – Tests can measure an applicant’s skills in an attempt to make the applicant pool smaller and efficiently decide which applicants are most qualified for a job (213). Employers have a duty to make sure that tests are valid, reliable, and fair:

  • Valid – Valid tests are relevant to the job. It would usually be unfair to require computer programmers to be sociable or to require diplomats to be good at computer programming.
  • Reliable – Reliable tests make sure that the scores properly assess the applicant’s abilities and that “a subject’s score will remain constant from test to test” (ibid.).
  • Fair – Fair tests must be relevant to job performance and must not discriminate against anyone who is qualified for the job (ibid.). For example, tests can be culturally biased.

Assuring that tests are valid and reliable can be expensive, but it’s morally necessary to protect the rights of applicants, to hire the most qualified employees, and to protect the interests of stockholders.


Interviews allow employers to assess the qualifications of an employee through personal communication, but they can also involve unjust discrimination. An interviewer’s negative attitude around minorities can cause minorities to decide they don’t want to be hired. “Interviewers must exercise care to avoid thoughtless comments that may hurt or insult the person being interviewed—for instance, a passing remark about a person’s physical disability or personal situation (a single parent, for instance)” (214).


Deciding who gets promotions is a decision with moral implications quite similar as hiring new employees. Additionally, seniority, inbreeding, and nepotism are tempting reasons to give people promotions despite not always being good reasons to give a promotion (215). These three factors must compete with the actual qualifications of an employee who is likely to do the best job.

Seniority – Seniority determines how long someone has worked for a company. A qualified person can be insulted if they are passed up for promotion time and time again, but not everyone with seniority are most qualified for a job. It is important that jobs can reward loyalty, but seniority doesn’t always indicate loyalty either (ibid.). Nonetheless, seniority is a morally relevant factor in determining promotions because (a) it’s important that workers have opportunities for job advancement, (b) the actual prolonged contributions an employee makes to a company should count for something, and (c) refusing to give promotions based on seniority has a chance to lower morale (216).

Inbreeding – Inbreeding is when people who work for a company tend to be considered for promotions rather than hiring people from outside of the company. Inbreeding is a relevant consideration to giving promotions to the same extent as seniority.

Nepotism – Nepotism is showing favoritism towards family and friends. Nepotism can be a legitimate factor in justifying a promotion when a company exists primarily for the interests of a family, but it must not disregard the actual qualifications, loyalty, and prolonged contributions of other employees.

Discipline and discharge

Discipline and discharge are necessary measures to make sure that employees stay productive. Discipline involves punishment and discharge involves a separation between an employee and the company, such as being fired. Moral implications to discipline and discharge include the following:

  1. Employees should be notified of infractions privately rather than publicly or not at all (217). Chastising employee in public can be humiliating and is disrespectful, but employees must be notified at some point so they can correct their behavior.
  2. Employees should have chances to correct their behavior rather than being fired for the first minor infraction (ibid.). Infractions can give employees an incentive to be productive and improve their performance, so firing employees too quickly will destroy this incentive.
  3. Discipline and discharge should be given for “just cause,” meaning they should be relevant to job performance (ibid.). Employees should not be punished or fired for having various illnesses, being a minority, smoking cigarettes at home, etc.
  4. How a person behaves outside of work is generally not relevant to job performance, but it can occasionally have a relevant impact on the business (217-218). Our rights to privacy and freedom of speech outside the workplace should be assumed to override the business’s interest to control their workers while they’re off the clock unless we are given good reason to think otherwise.
  5. The job should provide workers with due process—fair and consistent sanctions (218). Discipline and discharge should be administered to everyone equally without favoritism. Those who allegedly violate the rules should be given a “fair and impartial hearing” and there should be “a step-by-step procedure by which an employee can appeal a managerial decision” (ibid.).
  6. Employers must carefully analyze the reasons for dismissing an employee, and “wrongful termination” is a common cause of lawsuits (ibid.). The reasons for discharge should be outlined in an “employee handbook, collective bargaining agreement, or corporate policy agreement” (ibid.). Even if an employer dismisses an employee legally, they might not have done so morally. Employees should not be dismissed without a good reason.
  7. Employers should be careful how they dismiss employees (ibid.). Employees should be dismissed privately, and they usually shouldn’t be dismissed after funerals, “on Fridays, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or the day before a holiday” (ibid.).


When deciding how much workers should be paid, the following criteria seems relevant (220-221):

  1. The law. Workers should not be paid less than the minimum wage.
  2. The prevailing wage in the industry. Knowing how much other companies are paying workers can help us get a ball park figure for the appropriate amount.
  3. The cost of living in the area. It’s more expensive to live in some places than others, and their wage should be higher as a result.
  4. The nature of the job. The required education, skill level, stress level, and danger level of a job can all be relevant to the amount people should be paid.
  5. The security and advancement opportunities. Jobs with high security—a high chance of keeping employees—and good opportunities for advancement require less pay than jobs with low security and low prospects for advancement.
  6. The employer’s financial capabilities. A company that has a great deal of profit can afford to pay employees more than those that don’t.
  7. How much other employees make for comparable work. A company shouldn’t be unfair or discriminatory in how much an employee is paid. The same work and qualifications should determine that two people get equal pay. Moreover, there shouldn’t be huge pay disparities between management and everyone else.
  8. Job performance. Productive employees can be rewarded for their hard work and talent through higher wages.
  9. How the wage agreement was arrived at. There might be a unique contract between an employee and employer that requires higher than usual pay.


Large companies not only have control over the world’s resources, but they have the machines required to make goods. This all makes companies much more powerful than individuals. Workers have little choice but to get jobs at companies to get enough money to buy food and other goods, they are often willing to work for very little money in unsafe working conditions when there is no better alternative available to them, and no better alternative is guaranteed to be available. Workers are supposed to be grateful to get jobs, no matter how poor the pay. Unions exist to help empower workers and help eliminate the disparity in power between large companies and workers. Unions allow workers to team up to help them demand more from companies. If all workers refuse to work for low pay and in unsafe working conditions, then companies will have no choice but to comply.

“In an attempt… to redress the balance of power in their dealings with employers, workers band together. In acting as a single body, a union, workers in effect make employers dependent on them in a way that no individual worker can” (225). Unions allow workers to use “collective bargaining” to negotiate with businesses as a larger and more powerful group.

Even Adam Smith, one of the founders of Capitalism, agreed that there is an unfair disparity in power between workers and companies. Consider that he says,

The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily… We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer… Though they did not employ a single workman, [employers] could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not immediate. (ibid.).

Unions are not always the enemy of businesses. Instead, they can be beneficial to them. For example, using thousands of studies concerning the effects of labor unions the World Bank found that worker unions could “improve productivity and efficiency, promote stability in the workplace, and make government less likely to meddle in the labor market” (225).

Union tactics

Unions are a part of a worker’s right to association and can benefit many people, but there are many moral issues concerning union tactics, and not everything unions do are ethical. I will discuss some of these issues.

Direct strikes – Unions can refuse to work unless an employer meets their demands. Strikes are a powerful tool, but can be harmful to a company and should not be used unless certain criteria is met. First, there must be “just cause,” a legitimate reason to strike, such as inadequate pay or unsafe working conditions (226). Second, there should be proper authorization. Workers should (a) agree to strike on their own without being coerced and (b) strikers must attempt to attain union backing (227). Third, strikes should be a last resort. Workers should try to negotiate and communicate their grievances before having a strike because “we should always use the least injurious means available to accomplish the good we desire” (ibid.). Four, strikes should be nonviolent, noncoercive, and nondestructive.

Sympathetic strikes – Employees can strike at a grievance experienced by other workers—who don’t necessarily even work for the same company (227). Sympathetic strikes can be justified in the same way as direct strikes when the workers who are wrong work for the same employer, but it is much more difficult to justify a sympathetic strike against another employer because the strike can harm innocent people who have no connection to the people who are wronged (227-228). However, a separate company could implicitly endorse the workers who are wronged by doing business with the “enemy.” In that case workers can refuse to do business with the abusive company as part of a sympathetic strike.

Boycotts and corporate campaigns – Union workers can refuse to buy products from companies who refuse to give into the demands of unions. A primary boycott is when union workers and their supporters refuse to do business with a company, and a secondary boycott when union workers and their supporters refuse to do business with any companies doing business with the abusive company (228). Secondary boycotts were made illegal from the Taft-Hartley Act. Boycotts can be justified in much the same way as strikes and it’s not clear that secondary strikes are always immoral, even though they are illegal.

Corporate campaigns are tactics unions use to put pressure on a company by enlisting the help of the company’s creditors in an attempt to get their demands met (ibid.). Financial institutions could in turn be pressured with the threat of mass withdrawals and cancellations of policies” (229). Some critics have called corporate campaigns “corporate blackmail,” but supporters insist that it is sometimes needed to get companies to be willing to behave ethically—especially when considering that corporations have “been so successful at exploiting labor laws and regulations to undermine unions and thwart their recruitment efforts” (229).


The law and unions can both fight to protect workers from abuse, but companies should treat employees with respect whether that is required by the law or not. In fact, it’s quite possible that we can treat people with greater respect than morality demands. It might be immoral to outright hurt an employee, but risking their well being in unsafe working conditions, treating them with disrespect, and unjustly showing preferential treatment could also be forms of harm. Employers and union members make many decisions with moral implications, and I have briefly touched upon them here. However, this is not a conclusive discussion of moral implications and the workplace and there’s much more to be said.



  1. Can anyone advise this scenario?……Does a non union freight carrying company operating in Michigan have the right to offer over time work to a lesser seniority employee over a higher seniority employee when both have signed up for the same overtime work?

    Comment by Craig Roe — December 5, 2015 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

    • You have the right in my view, but that doesn’t mean you should do it. One question is why you would do that. Is the other person more qualified, even though they don’t have seniority? Are you trying to save money by paying lower wages?

      Comment by JW Gray — December 5, 2015 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

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