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The Return to Work and Ethical Perspective-Taking

Why employees and employers tend to disagree about return-to-work policies.

Key points

  • Employees and employers tend to disagree on return-to-work best practices.
  • Organizations as collective units typically view organizational decisions from a utilitarian perspective.
  • Individual employees typically view organizational decisions from a moral rights perspective.
  • Ethical perspective-taking can help ensure that employees and employers make decisions that are beneficial to both parties.

A hefty portion of organizations had their eyes on Labor Day as the starting point for their return to work roll-out plans. But the rise of the delta variant and breakthrough infections have thrown everyone a curveball. Most employees seemed amenable to returning to the office a few or more days per week, but their primary pushback was about their desire to work from home. Unfortunately, now, they have a new primary concern: Is it still safe to return?

These changes highlight what is likely to be an ongoing problem with return-to-work initiatives—namely, 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 the overarching perspective being taken in determining right from wrong. The ongoing challenges of the pandemic-inducted volatility have caused a never-ending ethics-based debate with no end in sight.

Organizations are designed to view ethicality from a utilitarian lens, whereby they maximize utility for all stakeholders. Alternatively, individual employees are psychologically drawn towards viewing ethically-related decisions from a moral rights perspective. From this view, right and wrong are determined not by the outcomes, but by whether the act itself respects undeniable rights as human beings.

Organizations and Utilitarianism

This is a classic ethical conundrum that has been well-researched using the “trolley car” thought experiment. Imagine that you are a trolley car driver that is hurling down the track. There are five people on the track and it will inevitably run them over. Your only choice is to turn the wheel of the trolley car onto a sidetrack, where it will inevitably only run over one person. Almost everyone reports that they would turn the wheel; saving the five, but hurting the one. It’s simple math. This is the utilitarian mindset.

Organizations are a collective. Their goal is to maximize stakeholder value. This entails considering the needs of all parties—shareholders, employees, society—and then “calculating” what is in the best interest of all of these stakeholders. Just like this trolley car scenario, the return to work positions of organizations aligns with the utilitarian perspective. The decision on what is right or wrong, fair or unfair is a massive matrix of cost-benefit analyses across stakeholders. When people come back to the office, yes, it increases the probability of infection rates. And yes, when people come back to the office is will increase the likelihood that things will be closer to business as usual for all things collaboration and productivity.

In organizations’ toolbox of mechanisms for decreasing the risk of infections are things like mandating vaccination, indoor mask-wearing, air filtration and improved ventilation, distancing and limits on capacity, sanitation of high-touch surfaces and increased hygiene, and temperature screening. Each of these levers has a cost—whether it be financial, employee well-being and goodwill, or otherwise. Each of these levers also has a benefit—whether it be increased collaboration, productivity, or the like from enabling in-office interaction.

Employees and Moral Rights

Consider a second trolley car scenario. This time you are an onlooker, observing the trolley car from a bridge above. You know that the trolley car will inevitably run over the five. This time, however, your only choice for saving the five is to push another onlooker off the bridge and onto the track, reverting the trolley car away from the five. The outcome is the same as the first scenario; you save the five, but hurt the one. Interestingly, even though the outcome is the same, almost everyone reports that they would certainly not push the onlooker off the bridge. What’s so different about turning the steering wheel versus pushing the onlooker off the bridge?

This second scenario represents the moral rights perspective. This perspective suggests that if any decision does not respect everyone’s inalienable rights as a human being, then it is wrong to act. It feels wrong to push the onlooker. They are not inherently part of the trolley car operations. Plus, it feels too personal. While turning a steering wheel (or sending an email) might feel more technical, pushing someone with your own hands feels morally gross.

This is typically the ethical mindset through which employees are viewing return to work decisions. Is it fair to ask me to come back to the office when I’m more productive at home? Is it fair to ask me to work in an environment that isn’t 100 percent safe? Is it fair to force someone to get vaccinated in order to go to work? These questions are moral rights questions to their core.

The Importance of Ethical Perspective-Taking

Ethical decision-making is complicated. The decision on what is right or wrong depends on the ethical viewpoint in which we view the situation. Both parties—organizations and their individual employees—would be well served to understand the other side’s perspective. It might not help solve the problem; it’s unlikely that everyone will fully agree. But if both sides can engage in perspective-taking, they’ll have a higher likelihood of making positive progress together.

In some cases, employees might acknowledge that it is in their best interest to forgo this moral rights perspective. For example, vaccinated employees may recognize that in some settings, returning to work might help the organization thrive, increasing the likelihood that they will have a stable job in the future. The same goes for organizations, such that some organizational leaders have committed to a remote-only work environment until further notice. They recognize that if employees feel that their moral rights are being respected to the utmost degree, they’ll increase employee well-being, and hopefully long-term employee commitment.

Ethics, just like life, is complicated. There’s no such thing as being right or wrong, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. The sooner everyone recognizes this, the sooner we can agree to disagree and begin working towards collaborative solutions that respect the needs of all parties.

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