Ethics in Employment

Is it immoral to work for companies or industries who do not behave in an ethical manner?

By Ethan Walker

In the late summer of 2008, after years of excessive risk-taking by banks worldwide, combined with questionable hedge fund trading funded through subprime mortgages the world shuddered under the weight of a devastating financial collapse. Mass unemployment, evictions and business collapse followed, with the U.K Chancellor of The Exchequer later admitting that the U.K was on the precipice of a total collapse of society as the market tumbled around him. The causes of such a collapse are of course cavernous and varied, and are still being analysed to this day, yet it was clear upon who the burden of blame had to rest. 

Bankers had been continuously engaging in morally senseless activities, benefitting from the inevitable losses of their clients, with acute awareness that their actions were to the direct detriment of those that entrusted them with their money. Following 2008 the financial industry took a reputation hit, with trust and respect for those within the industry falling to new lows.

However, across the world, banks workforces are swelling under the continuous growth of new additions to their rank, as people continue to be tempted by the high-paying, exciting and titillating world in which the industry operates. These are people who are living in a society which is still picking up the pieces of the fallout of 2008, fully aware of their employers’ actions and aims. The question is, with knowledge of such activity within the industry, do these workers have a moral responsibility to not assist the continued existence of such a system?

The question of whether workers shoulder a share of the responsibility for poor ethics within their industry is a challenging one, with much nuance and a heavily reliance on context. It is unwise to compare a super-wealthy oil magnate whose plans for expansion knowingly and directly devastate the environment, with child workers in the environmentally catastrophic cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While this is certainly a hyperbolic comparison, it helps illustrate the point that there are varying levels of culpability within employment, and by merely working within a damaging system you cannot be unequivocally held responsible for said damage caused. 

The 2008 financial collapse had many individuals who were clearly responsible for the damage done. Individuals at the top of the structure, who were making decisions on company behaviour and strategy. However, the process leading to the crisis was enabled by workers further down the power chain, who were directly contributing to the march towards disaster. For example, while those at all levels of the industry were handing out subprime mortgages with crippling interest rates to households they knew would struggle to ever pay them back, they were doing so as that was the generally accepted behaviour within the industry. Behaviour which was fully encouraged and devised by superiors and which held repercussions for workers who strayed out of line. It’s important to recognise that most salaried workers further down the power structure of organisations are merely cogs in the machine, making decisions not based upon their own moral responsibilities or sensibilities but instead on whoever pays their salary decides is best for their own continued benefit. Therefore, the vast majority of workers, who are not responsible for the continued strategy and practises of their industry, cannot be held accountable for their part in a process which was beyond their level of control.

Following a continual growth of questions surrounding the oil industry, environmental concerns, harsh workplace conditions and allegations of monopolies dictating prices, the perception of the industry is firmly negative across the board. Those within the industry who have faced challenges over helping to contribute to said issues have repeated the same line of argument in response.  People need oil. People also need banks. People also need the resources extracted from mines. People also need big tech companies. The continued running of society is (unfortunately) reliant on these industries, and many others, whose companies comprising the industry are not acting in an acceptable manner. Therefore, it is a credible argument to state that those who choose to work within these areas, regardless of reputation or knowledge of poor ethics, are in fact simply contributing to the continuation of fulfilment of societal needs. As a result, they are employees within a role essential to society and so cannot be viewed in a poor light for choosing such a career path. 

This reliance on organisations with poor practices is an unfortunate truth but is also exactly why society has been allowing them to behave in such a manner. The blame of these actions could theoretically be further expanded to anyone who interacts with these organisations, yet it is easily recognised that that is quite an overstep as many (not all) of them are full necessities in our lives and so we must use them and provide an opportunity of their continuation regardless of our personal opinions regarding their practises. By accepting that these people are not culpable to the same degree as those making the bad decisions at the top, then it lends credit to the argument that workers who are not directly responsible for making these decisions also hold little blame, as they are simply just providing a necessary service.

There is also the issue of lack of better options for workers. The German city of Wolfsburg built in 1938 was built solely for workers of the Volkswagen factory, which has now grown to become the world’s largest car manufacturer. The factory which employs roughly 63,000 workers , over half of the entire city’s population, is clearly the dominant employer in the area, with many faced with no choice but to contribute to their production. Meanwhile, Volkswagen, in a time of increased social awareness of the carnage caused by cars nitrous oxide emissions to the environment, purposefully and greedily lied to the public, investors and authorities about their level of emissions, hiding levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) output that were 40 times higher than initially claimed.(3) This was a purely self-serving action, which further undermined public trust in the organisations contributing to environmental damage. 

Yet, those building the cars in the Wolfsburg factory today, who are fully aware of the damage caused by their employer, surely cannot be held responsible for continuing to ensure the success of the company, and benefit those who were directly responsible for the whole situation. In a town where employment is reliant upon the company, workers can hardly vote with their feet and walk out, where else would they go? Nor can they affect very much real change within the organisation while also being fully reliant on the organisation for their economic security.  For many workers who contribute within these companies and industries which are morally substandard, they are there not out of a great desire of wanting to be within the system, but instead out of very little choice elsewise.

We exist in a world where continuous employment is an absolute requirement for most, and so can we really blame those who have very little choice but to assist the process of moral degeneracy. Surely workers who lack the financial freedom to refuse jobs they need, the workers who make up the majority of the workforce, cannot logically be involved in this debate of morality, and so there is no doubt of their moral responsibilities not being within direct conflict of their employment. 

With the wholly negative light shone upon numerous industries it would be unfair to not accept that (generally) government practises of regulation have managed to crack down on the behaviour mentioned throughout this article and created environments that act in a far more morally responsible manner. After 2008 most nations affected introduced regulatory reform across the board, in a bid to prevent the same issue repeating itself. The U.K introduced reforms, such as the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, which separated retail and investment banking, essentially making it far more difficult for banks to take high risk gambles with customers’ money, and a bank resolution regime which allowed the government to intervene in failing banks and bail-in shareholders.

Strict punishments were enacted on those deemed responsible for the crisis, especially in nations like Iceland where guilty parties were targeted with a heavy hand, ensuring the message that further behaviour of this level will not be tolerated.. Year on year nations pile new environmental regulations onto an already growing pile, targeting everything from high emission vehicles to a continued emphasis on the use of cleaner energy, reducing the energy industry’s damage output. Oil companies face further rules and restriction on the transportation of their materials and on their resource extraction methods, following high-profile environmental and social consequences following decades of cost-cutting and corrupt leadership.

The takeaway from this, is that industries are beginning to step more and more in line with positive social values, and so the idea of inherently morally-bankrupt systems and companies is retreating further into the distance, as regulations and pressure, both legally and socially, increase. To join the industries responsible for the banking collapse, or for the oil spills across world waters, or for the emissions of NOx into the atmosphere, is to join industries undergoing monumental social change. The relics of a more disappointing past are slowly being phased out, and fresh workers with a moral compass are required more than ever to not blacklist these career paths but instead enrich them.

This debate is surprisingly difficult to resolve as it is so contextually specific that it is a challenge to treat it in broad terms, workers exist with such varying situations, that the moral responsibility of one is not the moral responsibility of another. As a general rule, executives responsible for the behaviour of industries and companies as a whole should definitely be held morally responsible for the negative consequences of their decisions. However, for those who work in positions where the opportunity to change the existing behaviour is minimal, there does not exist a moral culpability for the system already in place.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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