The ethical case for employee participation

The ethical case for employee participation


I’d like to invite you to think about the meaning of your work. What do you get out of your job? A salary, of course. But is that all there is to it? Do you enjoy your job? Or could you imagine a job or career that would be fulfilling? If so, it is probably not only because of the money but also because you enjoy the work itself and think it is worthwhile. Work might also go a long way towards providing a social dimension to your life through relations with colleagues and with clients or customers.

If you thought about the questions I have just posed then you have engaged with the ethical dimension of work. Ethics looks at the building blocks of a worthwhile life and at how these building blocks can be deployed to pursue a life that we would think of as being worthwhile and, in a deep sense, happy and fulfilling. Ethics helps us to make decisions, form plans and make commitments that will develop our personality.

Doing your work well and having at least some say in what is done and how it is done make an enormous contribution to your flourishing and personal well-being. Being bossed around and treated as a cog in a machine are stressful, frustrating and alienating.

If you work in an organisation, as most of us do, there has to be some discipline so that your work can fit into that of the team. But there is still room for personal responsibility and for employees to exercise initiative. In the well-designed work place employees can be entrepreneurs too.

Work as a basic human good

My book draws on Catholic Social Thought to provide the ethical perspective for a study of employee participation.

Catholic Social Thought sees work as being central to human dignity.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam was set to work. Through his work, he was a co-creator with God. Adam, and all human persons, are called to be stewards of creation. We are invited to take care of it, make it productive and improve it.

John Paul II reflected on this idea. He pointed out that work has both an objective and a subjective dimension.

When we work, we make something or we provide a service. That is work’s objective dimension. It obviously goes to the very core of what we mean by work.

At the same time, work will inevitably produce a change (for good or ill) within the worker. We admire people who work hard and well. We think more highly of them. We think that it would be good to be like that.

Work makes us sensitive to the needs of co-workers and of customers or clients.

Work’s impact within the worker is its subjective dimension.

The objective and subjective dimensions go together of course.

It is work well done that improves the worker. A propensity to do shoddy work undermines both the objective and subjective dimensions of work.

The corporation is a community of persons and a community of work

Most of us work in an organisation of some kind such as the business corporation.

Many of the products or services we now enjoy can only be provided by large and complex organisations.

Thus, for many of us it is the organisation that provides and organises work, making us much more productive than we could be if we worked alone.

The organisation brings together very many resources (people, money and know-how). It is a system that makes it possible for employees to act collectively.

Catholic Social Thought sums it up by saying that the corporation is a community of persons. It brings employees, management and finance together.

It is a community of work. Its particular characteristic is that it provides and organises work. It promotes the objective and subjective dimensions of work.

Effective participation v alienation

A central theme of my book is that the way that work is organised is of vital importance.

Work will only be truly fulfilling if it is my work. Even though I work as part of a team or group it is vital that the personal dimension of work is respected.

Suppose that we worked in conditions of drudgery. Imagine that we were told exactly what to do and had no contribution to make but mindless obedience.

We could still make the best of things. We could still work hard.

But work is much more humane if we are able to take responsibility and exercise personal initiative.

Participation in the management of one’s job and workplace promote the subjective dimension of work.

Pure drudgery, being a cog in a machine, alienates us from our work.

The ethical case for employee ownership

Catholic Social Thought has argued for employees to be given some form of ownership of the business that they work for.

Property ownership is a good thing because it gives people security and so enhances freedom and the ability to make longer term plans.

An ownership interest in one’s own business is especially appropriate from an ethical perspective.

It provides a human link between the worker and the object of his work. It obviously also provides an incentive to build up the organisation.

The ethical case for profit-sharing

Similarly, profit-sharing arrangements such as bonuses make a legitimate appeal to self-interest and provide incentives to work hard.

Bonuses have got a bad name at the moment because of the role that bankers’ bonuses are thought to have played in bringing about the financial crisis.

The problem, though, is not with bonuses but with the incentives to which they were attached and, fundamentally, with the philosophy of the human person and human communities on which the bonus schemes were predicated.

Can employee participation really work?

My book acknowledges that there are some serious economic objections to employee participation and explains some of the most important difficulties.

That said, there are businesses that have taken employee participation to heart and, in doing so, have shown that employee participation can be good for business. In the book I look in some detail at the constitution of the John Lewis Partnership.

The constitution is a sophisticated document that puts employee participation at the centre of governance arrangements.

It certainly hasn’t been bad for business. John Lewis and Waitrose are among the UK’s most successful retailers.

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