Rational Employment Policies (2005 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently a story has been reported and discussed widely by the news media that illustrates a number of important principles in business ethics. The top executives of a health benefits company decided to prohibit their employees from smoking – even in the privacy of their own homes. The executives’ explanation was that this no-smoking policy will promote the health of employees, reduce the company’s healthcare expenses, and contribute to employees’ effectiveness in their jobs.

This story has captured the attention of many commentators who have taken positions on whether the employer did the right thing, what recourse employees who do not like the policy should have, and the extent to which the government ought to become involved in the case. Let us examine some of the ethical concepts that apply.

The members of top management in any company have as their prime consideration the success of the business. Any policies they develop and implement – including policies related to conditions of employment – should be supportive of the business objectives of the enterprise.

How should the appropriate employment policies be identified? The general rule is that upper management should adhere to the principle of rationality. Executives ought to have good reasons for their employment policies – which means that each policy is based on facts about the business and the executives’ best thinking about these facts. Notice that the alternative to using the principle of rationality is to be capricious – where management decides policies on the basis of gut feelings, unexamined preferences, and whims. Management always has a choice to proceed intelligently or to carry on foolishly.

The members of management are on the right track if they have sound reasons for supporting a no-smoking policy in their company. This does not mean that their decision is necessarily correct. They may encounter new facts about the work environment, or they may discover errors in their interpretation of the facts. In such cases they will want to reevaluate their policy and may come to a different conclusion regarding employees and smoking at home.

Suppose an employee wants to smoke at home and wants to stay at the company. He can present his case to management that the no-smoking rule is not reasonable, and his argument may be effective. Alternatively, he may fail to convince management that it is in their mutual interest to permit employees to smoke at home.

If his persuasive attempt is not effective the employee may decide to give up smoking at home or may decide to leave the company. In a free society employment occurs only if both the employer and the employee agree to the terms. If they cannot reach an agreement they may elect not to associate. Even as it is unjust to compel an employee to stay at a job he does not find suitable, it is equally unjust to force an employer to keep a worker who does not meet the job requirements.

Notice that employee entreaties are not the only way that the members of management might be persuaded to amend their employment policies. In the case of the health benefits company a number of commentators have published columns and spoken in ways that are critical of the no-smoking rule. Customers of the company may tell the management team that they do not care to do business with a company that forbids its employees from smoking at home. Of course, commentators and customers might, alternatively, regard the no-smoking rule as a good idea and publicly endorse it.

Several pundits who have commented on the case of the health benefits company with the no-smoking rule have reflexively called for government intervention. Some would urge the government to forbid employers from scrutinizing their employees’ at-home smoking, while others yearn for government enforcement of additional no-smoking rules in the workplace. These types of government actions, while frequently done, are inappropriate.

Government does have a necessary and proper role in the employment arena – to protect individual rights. This means that government should prevent or stop individuals from dealing with one another by force or fraud. Physical coercion and hoaxes should be proscribed by government, and this ought to apply equally to employers and to employees.

By contrast, it is not right for either employers or employees to use government muscle as a tool in bargaining with one another. The just terms of employment can only be realized if all parties involved are legally free to accept or reject the deal. Observers who worry that a private company may have too much power over its employees ought to be terrified of a government capable of tyranny over all employees in all companies.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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