Ethical Realism

May 10, 2011

Moral Implications of the Workplace Part 2

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 5:06 am
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I have already discussed various moral implications of the workplace in part 1 of “Moral Implications of the Workplace,” and I will continue the discussion here by considering (a) privacy, (b) work conditions, and (c) job satisfaction. This discussion is based on chapter seven of Business Ethics (Third Edition, 1999) by William Shaw.


We have a right to privacy, and a lack of privacy can endanger our livelyhood. We don’t want people to see us during our sexual encounters, we don’t want people to get our credit card or social security numbers, and we don’t want embarrassing facts of our past to ruin our lives. A lack of privacy doesn’t always harm us directly, but privacy is needed to protect us from various dangers.

Corporations have a duty to protect our privacy at least insofar as the privacy is part of our well being, but corporations often disrespect privacy (241). “The data banks and personnel files of business and nonbusiness organizations contain an immense amount of private information, the disclosure of which can seriously violate employees’ rights” and this information is often used to harm employees. Consider the following examples:

  1. “[A] wide range of snoops still manage, legitimately or illegitimately, to get their hands on it” (ibid.).
  2. Many former bosses are “passing on damaging information to prospective employers” (ibid.).
  3. “Some companies routinely eavesdrop on their employees’ phone calls, and many of them read their employees’ email” (242).
  4. Some companies use private investigators to investigate employees who call in sick (ibid.).

Legitimate and illegitimate influence in private lives

Corporations sometimes try to influence the behavior of employees both in or out of the workplace, and this can be taken as an invasion of privacy. Controlling the lives of employees is usually illegitimate when it has nothing to do with job performance or the reputation of the company, such as forbidding black employees from wearing their hair in corn rows (243). Corporations often want to restrict the behavior of employees based on their interest to “protect the company image,” and could be tempted to fire an employee for being a stripper in their free time (243-244). However, corporations must respect their employees (and unique characteristics of their employees), even when the public is prejudiced and could lash out against a company for associating with unpopular characteristics or showing tolerance.

Companies can have grounds to try to control the behavior employees when the behavior violates the following principles:

  1. The employee’s behavior must be compatible with good job performance. Employees that show a significant “lack of judgment” outside the workplace through highly reckless, immoral, or illegal behavior could be legitimately dismissed if their job requires good judgment. For example, a security guard was fired for drawing his gun against an antagonist and the court system agreed that he showed reckless behavior that was incompatible with the good judgment required for the job (244).
  2. Employees must be be minimally loyal to their companies and are not supposed to illegitimately damage the reputation of the business. It is appropriate for employees to be whistle blowers when the company refuses to rectify illegal or immoral behavior, but employees shouldn’t set out to damage to reputation of their company unless there is a good reason to do so. The public has a right to know of illegal and immoral behavior companies are engaged in, so that we have a sufficiently “free market” based on informed rational self-interest that allows the public to refuse to do business companies that don’t meet relevant criteria.

To further assess the moral implications of a company influence over the lives of employees, consider the following three common forms of influence:

Involvement in civic activities – Companies often pressure employees to get involved in civic activities, such as “running for the local school board or heading up a commission in the arts,” but such pressure must not constitute coercion (ibid.). Employees must not be disciplined or dismissed for a lack of participation, and even public embarrassment could be considered to be a form of coercion. For example, “[m]embers of the Army Band… won a suit claiming that the posting of names of soldiers who had not contributed to the United Way constituted coercion” (245).

Health programs – Some companies try to pressure employees to live healthier lives. This is at least somewhat relevant when healthier employees are more productive and medical insurance can be more expensive for unhealthy employees. There’s nothing wrong with educating employees about how to be healthier, but some companies want to make “employees pay more for their health care benefits if they are overweight, have high blood pressure, or don’t exercise. And employees have been fired for smoking or taking a drink at home” (ibid.). This is legal in some states, but it’s not clear that it’s moral considering that punishing and firing employees for being unhealthy invites discrimination against people who are unhealthy—such as people who are overweight or have AIDS.

Intensive group experience – Some businesses pressure employees to undergo “personal growth” to help people “realize their potential for perceiving, thinking, feeling, creating, and experiencing” (ibid.). There are many different kinds of intensive groups and companies often use “team-building groups to facilitate the attainment of production and related goals as well as to provide opportunities for improved human relations and personal growth” (ibid.). Again, intensive group experience can improve productivity, so it is relevant to job performance. However, employees should not be punished for refusing to participate.

Obtaining information

Companies not only store private information, but they can sometimes attain private information without the consent of their employees. Issues concerning employee’s privacy rights can involve (a) informed consent, (b) polygraph tests, (c) personality tests, (d) monitoring employees on the job, and (e) drug testing. I will discuss each of these topics.

Informed consent – Although attempts to attain private information from employees (and other people) is coerced for the person at gunpoint, there are more subtle forms of coercion (246). Companies can punish employees for refusing to give private information, and all applicants can be required to give private information. Additionally, informed consent requires that employees and applicants “understand what they are agreeing to, including its full ramifications, and must voluntarily choose it” (247).

Polygraph tests – Polygraph tests, also known as “lie detector tests,” can not only be an invasion of privacy, but it’s not clear that they are ever appropriate ways for a company to gather information. Polygraph tests are used for many reasons. For example:

  1. To verify the information provided by a job applicant (ibid.).
  2. To make sure a job applicant is honest (ibid.). This is often a measure taken in an attempt to stop hiring employees who steal from the company.

Polygraph tests are only justified given three contentious assumptions, and these assumptions are not necessarily warranted:

  1. The test only detects lying. However, the test only tells us that a person is disturbed by a question rather than why they were disturbed (ibid.).
  2. The test is reliable. However, that is highly disputed. David T Lykken argues that three credible scientific studies found the test was only accurate by 63%, 39%, and 55% (248).
  3. The test can’t be beaten. However, this is disputed. For example, Lykken has argued that “covet self-stimulation, like biting your tongue” during the control questions would destroy the test’s credibility (ibid.).

Finally, polygraph tests must meet the following moral requirements to have a chance of being a warranted invasion of privacy:

  1. The information attained from the polygraph test must be sufficiently relevant to the job (ibid.)
  2. There can’t be significantly better options to accomplish the company’s goals other than the polygraph test. “Some persons contend that among the reasons must be the fact that the polygraph is the only way the organization can get information about significant job-related matters” (249.). Invasion of a person’s privacy can lead to abuse and often threatens a person’s livelihood, so it should only be done as a last resort. Whenever we do something that can harm or threaten the well being of others, we should choose the least harmful option.
  3. We should consider if the information gathered is too embarrassing or personal, if the people who have access to the polygraph results will violate the person’s privacy rights, and if the polygraph test results will be disposed of in a way that doesn’t violate a person’s right to privacy.

Personality tests – Personality tests are used to help screen job applicants. Companies use personality tests to know if applicants are trustworthy or have the right personality traits for the job. Some employers screen employees based on their emotional maturity and sociability (ibid.). Personality tests can reveal personal and embarrassing information, so they can be a violation of an applicant’s privacy rights. Additionally, it’s not entirely clear when using personality tests is morally justified.

The use of personality tests can’t be justified without at least one assumption—“all individuals can usefully and validly be placed into a relatively small number of categories in terms of personality types and character traits” (ibid.). However, this is not obvious. Shaw insists that “people rarely represent pure personality types, such as the classic introvert or extrovert. Nor is the possession of a character trait an all-or-nothing thing. Most of us possess a variety of personality traits in various degrees, and social circumstances often influence the characteristics we display and talents we develop” (ibid.). A company can decide not to hire someone thinking she’s an introvert when she could perform perfectly well on a job requiring human interaction.

Perhaps one of the most questionable common practices using personality traits is when it’s used to test “organizational compatibility.” Organizations often pressure employees to obey and conform to the organization’s rules and traditions, and that’s a threat to the employee’s individuality (250). Tests used to reject applicants for failing to live up to an organization’s ideals threatens our individuality even further.

Personality tests can be morally justified in much the same way as polygraph tests. Such potential violations of someone’s privacy can’t be justified if the information provided is unreliable, insufficiently relevant to the job, or a better alternative is available.

Monitoring employees on the job – Many employers monitor the performance of their employees through video surveillance and the employee’s use of computers or telephones (251). Monitoring employees should not be done without the employee’s consent, and many employers “confuse notification of such practices with employee consent” (ibid.). Monitoring should generally be avoided even when consent is attainable because sensitive and personal information can often be attained, threatened, and violated; and employees could feel coerced to agree to being monitored to keep their job.

Again, justifying monitoring requires the same kinds of justification as polygraph tests. Monitoring employees must be relevant to job performance and the best interests of the company, and there must not be a better alternative available.

Drug testing – Drug testing tends to be used to check if employees are using illegal drugs (ibid.). This is often done because it is widely believed that employees taking illegal drugs have worse job performance, greater absenteeism, and higher rates of theft. Drug testing is unjustified without informed consent or sufficient relevance to job performance. Additionally, it’s not always clear when drug testing is relevant to job performance (251-252). Steroids could be relevant to to performance of football players, but it’s probably not relevant to the performance of accountants. Finally, the proper response to drug addiction is not obvious. Shaw suggests that addiction warrants “medical and psychological assistance rather than punitive action” (252).

Working Conditions

Working conditions involve health and safety concerns on the job, styles of management, maternity policies, and day-care.

Health and safety

Health and safety precautions must be taken by businesses (ibid.). There are already laws protecting employees from working in dangerous work conditions, and businesses must take those laws seriously even when it would be profitable to ignore them. Companies should also keep an eye out for dangerous working conditions that are not yet covered by the law. Safety laws tend to only be passed after people are injured or killed. Finally, workers have a right to be informed about dangers on the job and workers should give informed consent before they are assigned dangerous work.


The 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act has given the federal government the responsibility to regulate businesses to “ensure so far as possible every working man and woman in this nation safe and healthful working conditions” and resulted in OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (254). The federal government has fined companies for reckless and negligent working conditions that violate the law, but it has been criticized for been too soft on companies with very low fines and negligence. Companies now try to use OSHA as a shield by arguing that being punished by the federal government “legally preempts state criminal prosecutions,” and this argument “has met with success in some state courts” (ibid.). Companies that succeed with this argument could refuse to pay the full amount of the actual damage done by their recklessly or negligent unsafe working conditions.

New health challenges

Shaw argued that businesses and OSHA will need to find ways to address various health and safety issues, such as repetitive strain injury and work shifts that cause fatigue.

Repetitive strain injury “results from the constant repetition of awkward hand and arm movements” and can cause a great deal of pain from doing menial tasks (255). Since then president Bush repealed a law that would require employers to report stress related injuries and OSHA has given voluntary guidelines to help companies avoid stress related injuries.

Many injuries on the job are caused by fatigue, which can be caused by improper work hours. “[A] team of scientists from Harvard and Stanford universities believes that the health and productivity of 25 million Americans whose work hours change regularly can be measurably improved if employers schedule shift changes to conform with the body’s natural and adjustable sleep cycles,” and Shaw informs us that “fatigue is a leading cause of industrial accidents” (ibid.). Little to nothing has been done about this issue.

Management styles

Morality requires that bosses respect their workers, but a study found that “millions of workers suffer from bosses who are abusive, dictatorial, devious, dishonest, manipulative, and inhumane” (256). Additionally, almost no contemporary management theorists agree that bosses should try to bully workers to maximize productivity. Instead, they advocate more respectful management styles. Finally, no single management style should be rigidly adhered to because employees all have unique personalities and needs that should be taken into consideration.

Day care and maternity leave

The number of women in the workforce has dramatically increased despite that they continue to usually bear the primary responsibility over their children, so the need for day care and maternity leave is increasingly important (257). Additionally, “[m]any families are unable to make satisfactory child-care arrangements, either because the services are unavailable or for the simple reason that the parents cannot afford them” (258). Many people think that it would be morally preferable for businesses to do what they can to make sure that children aren’t neglected, even if it’s not morally required; but “very few companies do much to help with employee child care” (ibid.). Moreover, companies can do much to help with child care, such as set up child care facilities, and it’s cost-effective large businesses to do so.

Although a company could provide child care facilities with the assumption that it’s the moral thing to do, employers who offer child care can be benefited from doing so because it can decrease absenteeism, boost morale, and increase loyalty.

Job Satisfaction & Redesigning Work

Many people are dissatisfied with their job. They might feel that the work is unfulfilling, they might feel alienated, and they might feel exploited or unappreciated. It is possible for companies to try to make jobs more satisfying, and many people think it is morally good to do so.

Job satisfaction is not just a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one. Workers who are more satisfied are likely to be more productive. “As early as the 1920s, researchers began to realize that workers would be more productive if management met those needs that money can’t buy” (260).

Dissatisfaction on the job

A study conducted in the 1970s by the federal government had illuminating findings that are still relevant now (259). For example, consider the following three common sources of job dissatisfaction mentioned by the study (260):

  1. Many workers are assigned to simple, monotonous tasks in an attempt to increase production. (At the very least, companies can try to rotate such simple tasks between employees.)
  2. Many people lack opportunities to become their own boss. (Some jobs have better advancement opportunities than others, and they can provide more opportunities for employees to have unique oversight, responsibilities, or leadership roles involving various projects.)
  3. Many people work for large corporations and the enormity and depersonalization of the business makes them feel “powerless, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement.” (Such companies can make an effort to be more personal and show appreciation to their employees. For example, companies can set aside some funds to spend on food and parties for employees.)

Quality of work life

Solutions to job dissatisfaction generally involve an attempt to improve the quality of work life, and QWL programs are attempts to do so (261-262). QWL programs often attempt to increase worker participation in the production process by seeking their ideas. For example, companies can use “quality-control circles” where workers meet with supervisors to discuss quality improvement (262). Such circles made suggestions that saved Westinghouse millions of dollars. QEL programs could be morally preferable, and they are believed to be able to “improve attendance, motivation, and performance” (ibid.). There is no guarantee that QEL improvements will increase productivity, but it does at least some of the time (263).


The importance of privacy rights can be justified by any theory of justice insofar as a violation of privacy can be harmful to a person and every theory of justice grants us a right to noninjury. Improving work conditions and increasing job satisfaction can also be justified by any theory of justice that recognizes property rights, such as Nozick’s libertarianism, insofar as doing so can increase productivity and profits. Additionally, improving working conditions and job satisfaction can be justified by any moral theory that recognizes the importance of helping people live better lives and increasing happiness, and almost every moral theory recognizes that helping people is a good thing.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Moral Implications of the Workplace Part 2 (via Ethical Realism) Posted: May 10, 2011 | Author: southwerk | Filed under: business ethics | Leave a comment » I have already discussed various moral implications of the workplace in part 1 of “Moral Implications of the Workplace,” and I will continue the discussion here by considering (a) privacy, (b) work conditions, and (c) job satisfaction. This discussion is based on chapter seven of Business Ethics (Third Edition, 1999) by William Shaw. Privacy We have a right to privacy, and a lack of privacy can endanger our livelyhood. We don't want people to see … Read More […]

    Pingback by Moral Implications of the Workplace Part 2 (via Ethical Realism) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog — May 10, 2011 @ 6:44 pm | Reply

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