Return to work and an ethical perspective

Much of the organization had their eyes set on Labor Day as the starting point for their return-to-work plans. But the rise of the delta variant and the revolutionary infections have shocked everyone. Most employees seemed willing to return to the office a few or more days a week, but their main refusal was about their desire to work from home. Sadly, now they have a new main concern – is it always safe to come back?

These changes highlight what is likely to be an ongoing problem with return to work initiatives, which is that organizations and their employees are doomed to disagree for the foreseeable future.

The ongoing conflict is not tied to any specific decision per se, but to the overall perspective adopted to determine right from wrong. The current challenges of pandemic-induced volatility have sparked an endless ethical debate with no end in sight.

Organizations are designed to view ethics from a utilitarian angle, through which they maximize utility for all stakeholders. Alternatively, individual employees are psychologically drawn to reviewing ethical decisions from a moral rights perspective. From this point of view, good and bad are not determined by the results, but by the fact that the act itself respects undeniable rights as human beings.

Organizations and utilitarianism

This is a classic ethical conundrum that has been the subject of much research using the “streetcar” thought experiment. Imagine that you are a tram driver hurtling down the track. There are five people on the track and it is bound to crush them. Your only choice is to turn the wheel of the streetcar onto a detour, where it will inevitably hit only one person. Almost everyone reports that they would turn the wheel; save the five, but hurt the one. It’s simple math. It is the utilitarian state of mind.

Organizations are a collective. Their goal is to maximize stakeholder value. This involves taking into account the needs of all parties – shareholders, employees, society – and then “calculating” what is in the best interest of all of these stakeholders. Much like this streetcar scenario, the organizations return to work aligns with the utilitarian perspective. The decision on what is right or wrong, right or wrong is a massive matrix of cost-benefit analyzes among stakeholders. When people come back to the office, yes, it increases the likelihood of infection rates. And yes, when people get back to the office, it will increase the likelihood that things will get closer to the status quo for everything to do with collaboration and productivity.

In organizations’ toolkit for reducing the risk of infections, there are things like mandatory vaccination, wearing a mask indoors, air filtration and improved ventilation, distancing and capacity limits; sanitation of high contact surfaces and increased hygiene; and temperature control. Each of these levers has a cost, be it financial, employee well-being and goodwill or otherwise. Each of these levers also has an advantage, whether it’s increased collaboration, productivity or otherwise by enabling interaction in the office.

Employees and moral rights

Consider a second tram scenario. This time you are a spectator, observing the tram from a bridge above. You know that the tram will inevitably pass on all five. This time, however, your only choice to save the five is to push another spectator off the bridge and onto the track, pushing the streetcar away from the five. The result is the same as the first scenario; you save the five, but hurt one. Interestingly, even though the result is the same, almost everyone reports that they definitely wouldn’t push the viewer off the deck. What is so different about turning the steering wheel and pushing the spectator off the bridge?

This second scenario represents the moral rights perspective. This perspective suggests that if a decision does not respect the inalienable rights of everyone as a human being, then it is wrong to act. It’s wrong to push the viewer. They are not an intrinsic part of tram operations. Plus, it seems too personal. While turning a steering wheel (or sending an email) might seem more technical, pushing someone with their own hands is morally disgusting.

It is typically the ethical mindset through which employees view return-to-work decisions. Is it fair to ask me to come back to the office when I am more productive at home? Is it fair to ask me to work in an environment that is not 100% secure? Is it fair to force someone to get the vaccine to go to work? These questions are questions of moral rights in their essence.

The importance of the ethical perspective

Ethical decision making is complicated. The decision on what is right or wrong depends on the ethical point of view in which we see the situation. Both parties — organizations and their individual employees — would be well served to understand the other party’s point of view. It might not help to solve the problem; everyone is unlikely to fully agree. But if both parties can engage in perspective taking, they will be more likely to make positive progress together.

In some cases, employees may recognize that it is in their best interests to waive this prospect of moral rights. For example, vaccinated employees may recognize that in some contexts, returning to work can help the organization thrive, increasing the likelihood that they will have stable employment in the future. The same is true for organizations, so some organization leaders have engaged in a remote working environment only until further notice. They recognize that if employees feel that their moral rights are fully respected, they will increase their well-being and, hopefully, their long-term commitment.

Ethics, like life, is complicated. There is nothing like being right or wrong, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. The sooner everyone recognizes this, the sooner we can accept to disagree and start working towards collaborative solutions that respect the needs of all parties.

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