Intense workplace culture

The workshops on the future of professional ethics that I am organizing this academic year include these three (still in process):

1. Professions and professionals in society: Service first, money second
Professions and other occupations exist because they serve human needs. The degree to which professions strive to meet vital needs vary across professions, within professions and organizations, and across time. There can be no doubt that in the United States today, many vital needs are not met, often because providing those needs is not profitable. Providing pro bono services and taking up specialties that serve underprivileged people or underpopulated areas are not practical for many young professionals who are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. What mechanisms could be created or rehabilitated to fill the niches of need that are currently underserved by professions? How can we identify and overcome stumbling blocks, including those laid down by government, culture, universities, and other powerful forces?

2. Committed professions: Recognizing and overcoming obstacles to service
How can professional corporations, businesses, and organizations uphold the ethical principles that guide their work when regulations and laws, de facto professional norms, or behaviors and beliefs of society at large undermine key ethical responsibilities? What options and obligations do they have to reform ethically dysfunctional forces? What role can individual professionals play in reformation?

3. Navigating professional careers: Challenges in a shifting economy
Young professionals can expect to acquire continually new knowledge and skills, move often between organizations, and acculturate quickly to various professional environments (e.g., the public, private, and non-profit sectors). They will be under pressure to develop a “personal brand” and to map their own career trajectory. How can educators prepare them for logistical challenges as well as the ethical challenges they will meet?

A good deal of professional ethics concentrates on workplace behavior: Do you accept bribes? Do you ignore or break laws or regulations? Does your boss order you to cheat in one way or another? And so on.

The workshops described above are different; they are not so much behavioral as environmental or structure. One might ask, “What is it like to work at Amazon, why does it matter, and can the culture be considered unethical?” If the New York Times piece, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (August 15, 2015) is more-or-less accurate, I would have to say that there is an ethical problem here. But what is it, exactly?

It might have something to do with inhumane work conditions, but the ready response is that the employees are not slaves; they don’t have to work in those conditions. They are free to leave.

Quitting, of course, means looking for another job, hoping that better, or at least less damaging, jobs are available, and hoping the tattered social safety net isn’t too weak. I’d call this an issue of social justice, which is an ethical issue.

There might also be an ingredient of ignorance, as Dustin Moskovitz argues in his post, “Work Hard, Live Well

The research is clear: beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative.

Sometimes hard work conditions cannot be avoided, but harming employees is bad, and doing it based on a false premise that the hard conditions are productive seems cruel, stupid, and unethical. Professionals sometimes have to harm people – as when a surgeon cuts into a patient – but ethically they do it only when doing so is expected to have a net positive effect.

Ken Pimple
August 23, 2015
6:30 pm EDT

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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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