Ethical Workers

The Working Catholic: Workplace Behavior
by Bill Droel

In response to recent disclosures of predatory behavior in several workplaces, human resource departments around the country are redistributing employee handbooks. Likewise, managers are everywhere huddling with employees to review proper deportment.
Rule books and company policies are important. They represent an advance over the arbitrary decisions of a boss, even a benevolent boss. Rule books provide a basis for equal treatment. They are often written after some employee input, either through a personnel committee or a union and thus these personnel policies carry a degree of assumed consent. It is, admittedly, difficult to deal with specific personnel incidents like persistent tardiness, suspicions of addiction, internet surfing, gossiping and harassment. Likewise, written company policies add a layer of procedural wrangling or maybe nitpicking to each incident. Nonetheless, those policies benefit the company, its brand, its managers, its lawyers, its insurance policy and importantly, its employees. To operate any business today on a case-by-case basis is asking for additional trouble.
Let’s be clear, however. To have a refined and fully-accepted employee handbook is not the same as having an ethical workforce and ethical managers. A rule book cannot dispose workers to see the sacred on the job; it cannot help a worker imagine her job as a vocation. A rule book does not establish decorum or, to use an old word, reverence in the office. It is incapable of fostering compassion. And please be aware, a rule book cannot give any manager or any employee his or her dignity.

Workers, writes James Drane in Becoming a Good Doctor (Rowman Littlefield, 1988; $16.95), “shape the ethical narrative of their lives by the ways they do ordinary things over and over.” His book is directed to medical schools and hospital administrators, but as Drane says, its argument relates to all occupations and professions. “The whole medical ethics enterprise has been conceived in terms of logic, principles, patient rights and procedures,” he notes. Medical ethics, like other topics in medicine, is taught by using case studies. The result is “an abstract, analytical style.” This approach for doctors, nurses, technicians and many other workers results in licensing requirements, continuing education requirements, renewals, charting, written policies, patient consent forms, information-sharing regulations and lots more. All of this is necessary, perhaps.
This dominant approach to education for and delivery of health care does not consider the worker’s personal virtue or character, Drane continues. “Attention to a young doctor’s personal traits or character is out of place” in medical education or in hiring. The dominant approach assumes that personal character—the product of doing ordinary things well, over and over—has no place. Putting character outside the bounds of hiring criteria and evaluation, Drane contends, contributes to the disease of agnosia. That is, health care workers might lose the ability to see the face of the person being treated or to respectfully appreciate the people they work with. A hospital, to continue the medical example, might have a doctor or a nurse who has completely memorized the procedural handbook. That doctor or nurse might be nearly compulsive about observing all the required dos-and-don’ts. None of this, however, guarantees that such a doctor or nurse is any good; that such a doctor or nurse treats patients and families holistically or respects the inherent dignity of each colleague.

There’s a reason that human resource departments, executives and others don’t traffic in virtue. Modern business has no binding standard for conduct, except the law. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and others, tried to develop a modern approach to ethics that did not depend on revelation or religion. But, under the weight of too many particulars, the objective rationale behind the modern approach to business and public ethics is easily ignored, even explicitly dismissed. The situation in recent years is worse, as a post-modern approach to public life has gained fashion. It harbors an ironic contempt for objectivity itself.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior Counselor to the President and, by the way, a Catholic, says “There are alternative facts.” This is a stunning example of post-modern relativism. If she is correct, there is no ethics.

U.S. Catholic bishops, to offer a current situation, do not err in restating or re-framing canons pertaining to deviant personnel. They go in the right direction by requiring their employees to judiciously report deviance. But as intelligent bishops should know, even the most comprehensive personnel guidelines will not sufficiently influence an employee who is short on virtue.
Entertainment executives, to mention a second current example, are not wasting time by requiring all employees to read company personnel guidelines. This pertains even to the biggest stars in the industry, maybe especially the stars. But intelligent executives should know that it takes more than a guidebook to have a culture of respect in the studio or the newsroom.
How can virtue be acquired? To be continued…

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