It’s easy to rattle off clichés and quotes about having principles and acting ethically. It’s hard to seriously challenge practices and decisions at work that you are uncomfortable with. When I have supported people through these kinds of dilemmas they don’t talk about Plato or social justice, they talk about their mortgage and their kids.
Work can be meaningful, and I think for many people it is. Primarily though we still see work as a means of paying the bills. In this society we have built we all play a part. We sell our labour, our time or our skills and expertise to pay for our needs and those of the people we love. The further we progress in our careers, the more acutely aware we become that the costs of our lifestyles and commitments have grown at least as quickly as our pay packets. Most of the time, this doesn’t cause us a problem and, anyway, it is a hell of a lot better than having costs that outstrip the money coming in.
Where this does cause a tension is where we are uncomfortable with decisions and approaches at work that cause us to query their ethical integrity and how we should respond to them. The weight of being a breadwinner is a heavy one at times and behaving in a way that brings you into conflict with colleagues at work, particularly senior ones, can put your future career at risk. How do you challenge when turning a blind eye or agreeing will maintain the status quo that you have come to rely on to feed the kids and pay the mortgage?
If we are serious about creating an environment in which people can challenge in this new world of work, and bring their human attributes of conscience and values to decision making in the workplace, we need to create an environment that recognises why this is hard and helps people to speak up.
- We need to focus on giving people truly transferable skills and supporting them in building professional networks. It is no coincidence that those who seem most comfortable challenging are those who are eminently employable and know that they have options in the labour market to earn the same or more somewhere else.
- We need to use the power of senior people to draw out ethical challenge by asking questions and making clear that values based opinions, not simply ‘data driven insights’, are a part of what we are paying people for. I used to work for a leader who said that every time you hire a pair of arms and legs you get a brain thrown in for free. In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to remember that every time we hire a brain we get a conscience and ethical perspective thrown in for free so we should be using them.
- We need a platform to support people who want to transition from one career to another in a way that maintains their income. The single biggest productivity killer is people who are stuck in jobs they don’t want to be doing. The answer isn’t to run a shiny engagement survey or give them 2% cashback at Asda. The answer is to get them into a job they do want to be doing but that is too hard for employers to do on their own.
If we can build an environment in the future world of work that means people are able to separate out considerations of whether to challenge from considerations of how they will pay their mortgage we will have a better chance of unlocking those important human abilities that machines will never be able to replace.