Do leaders have moral obligations to their employees?
Thursday, July 11, 2019
When I ask this question to clients, their employees, and my business ethics students, they all answer very clearly yes or no. When it comes to questions about morals and obligations, to have such definitive answers is pretty rare.
In ethics, HR, and leadership, we are used to gray areas. So why is it that the answers I receive to this question are so black and white? Whether you answered yes or no, here are a few things to consider when it comes to the moral obligations leaders have to their employees.
Show me the money
Like any good mental exercise, it is best to start off with something most of us would consider easy. In this case, pay.
As leaders, we can likely agree we are obligated to pay our employees on time, accurately and in the manner to which we committed, adhering to all relevant laws and regulations.
To figure out where we draw the line on our moral obligations, we can consider exceptions to the above. For example, what is our moral obligation to pay employees when we do not have enough funds to cover payroll?
If two employees are in the same role with the same experience, etc., but one is better at negotiating, do we have a moral obligation to pay the bad negotiator the same amount?
If we know one employee is struggling to pay her bills and that struggle is negatively affecting her work, should we help her become more financially literate? Does the answer depend upon how much that costs? What if many of our employees are challenged to pay their bills?
Apples for everyone
Another hot-button topic with readily available applications of this issue is employee health. Most employers are under no legal obligation to provide vacation time for their employees; yet this is a common practice because most of us understand the business case for allowing our employees time away from the office.
That said, we also all understand the argument for everyone to have access to healthcare, though we would not all agree it is or should be our moral obligation as employers to provide it. While in most cases it has now become a legal obligation, it is not a legal obligation for us to ensure our employees are healthy.
Yet, presumably healthy employees, like those that take vacation, are more productive. Thus, while there may be no legal obligation, there may be a business case for it. However, just because there may be a business case for it, are we morally obliged as leaders to understand and articulate the case for ensuring our employees live healthy lifestyles?
While such exercises may seem futile, considering these questions can help us read our moral compass, and the answers can also help us create or refine the connections between the needs of the business and the needs of our employees. Among other benefits, better understanding that link can positively impact productivity, employee health and wellness, and the bottom line. Thus, they are questions worth asking and answering.
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