Moral blindness

by Isabel Wu

The day following the blog post, “HR: Morally Culpable?” an article appeared in the business publication, In The Black, entitled Are You Guilty of Moral Blindness?    Article author, Eva Tsahuridu, writes:

Generally, when we assess unethical behaviour, we tend to see it as rational and intentional. Sometimes it may not be so because of the specific frame we use to see the issue….  Failing to identify the ethical content of an issue leads to moral blindness, which is potentially more concerning than deciding to behave unethically. Moral blindness prevents us from considering the moral consequences of our actions….  Workplaces develop their own frames, which are shared and affect how people generally perceive situations. For example, framing something as an opportunity is very different to seeing it as a bribe. Frames can make something desirable or undesirable. They blind us to some aspects of the issue while emphasising others. They may make things that we would see as unethical and wrong outside the workplace seem appropriate and right.

Frames are necessary because they enable us to deal with the complexity of living. But they pose ethical risks that we must mitigate. One way to do this is to use multiple frames and make sure one of them is an ethics frame. … Failing to see the ethical content of issues increases the risk of unethical behaviour. Remembering that ethics is an inherent part of every business decision can help us avoid moral blindness.

The organisational prerogative to meet targets and/or maximise profits creates the frame through which employers are entitled to treat people as the human resource; to repeatedly quantify workers until they are defined as the sum total of their most desirable parts.  They know which of their inputs (competencies) will produce the required measurable outputs (KPIs – key performance indicators).

Within this frame the objective of employment is to analyse what perfect combination of procedures, activities, skills and knowledge  will achieve optimum productivity.  The typical HR approach applies processes designed to separate work from the workers and workers from the people who enter into the employment relationship.  This objective approach to managing performance using data enables decisions for selecting, managing, training, promoting or reducing staff  to be more accurate and therefore the workforce more effective.  Equally employees, knowing what is expected of them, can leave their employers and find more suitable employment elsewhere, a natural selection process to achieve a workforce ‘best fit’.

The rationale for this approach goes further, that an objective focus on work creates fairness; because the evaluation processes are evenly applied, all employees have an equal chance of success (when people are withing this system they are staff or employees, another indication of the system’s impartiality).  Having their performance measured using set criteria they will thus know which skills should be developed and being successful in these they will experience greater job satisfaction, increased job security and improved career prospects. The increased confidence and morale that follows leads to even better performance and the employment relationship should be long and mutually rewarding.

The narrow frame of ‘competency-based’ employment systems creates the very moral blindness Tsahuridu describes.  Firstly the criteria used to evaluate workers is not applied equally.  People are no more able to be separated as workers than research in behaviour and brain functions show that their workplace assessors are able to be impartial.  Further the criteria the employees are informed affect their employment usually do not mention the technology, changing business/organisational direction, stakeholder interests or outsourcing options, for instance, that are also evaluated for achieving targets and profits.

The frame used to create fairness is possibly responsible for the majority of the unfairness that exists around employment.  The separation of the person from the performance is a significant factor in the rise of workplace bullying.  The ability to justify actions that produce results help managers turn a blind eye, if not actively protect, those whose actions push the boundaries of ethics.  Those who have been involuntarily out of work for any amount of time know full well that no matter how strictly applied a process for evaluating their merit against a pool of other applicants, age, nationality, any visible disabilities and appearances are just some of the other factors that will play a part in the hiring decision.  It is ironic (if not breathtakingly hypocritical) that organisations responsible for assisting the disadvantaged/unemployed to find work, who actively encourage employers to look beyond the exterior and give untapped potential a chance, are as likely to be the most avid proponents of deconstructed work, quantifiable criteria and measuring  performance.

The rights of employers to prioritise their desired results and for people to seek work that suits their abilities and preferences are not the issue.  It is the rational economic frame that people can be dealt with as productive resources that is so morally dangerous.  Dealing with workers as complete people who can contribute beyond the job description will not only potentially result in more ethical employment practices, but in the knowledge economy where work cannot be mechanised, employers stand to gain substantially (future blogs will deal with the hows and whys).  While HR that has built an entire industry around the fallacy that humans are rational resources may have little incentive to dismantle the system, employers have much to gain from increased emphasis on people as contributors to organisational objectives.