The ethical employee: what we bring to our business
In part 4.2 of this nine-part series on ethics in the workplace, Luke Andreski asks what it is we bring to the businesses within which we work? Are we merely ‘work delivery units’ or are we something more?
Let’s begin this part of our analysis with a brief thought experiment…
Imagine, just for a moment, that there is a part of you that is nothing more than a ‘work delivery unit’ (WDU).
This is the part of you that fulfils your contract of employment to the letter. It’s the part of you that does the job, nothing more.
Now imagine that this is the only part of you that goes to work. The picture emerging in my mind when I see myself in this way isn’t pretty - but it doesn’t have to be.
The ‘WDU you’ is the lesser part of what you bring to the organisation that employs you – and the more personal characteristics are the greater part.
This is the work-focused, functional part of me, nothing more. I’m seeing the robot from the first Terminator film. The ‘WDU me’ is programmed and not empathic. The rest of me (the part with the subtlety, the soft edges) is locked away at home.
Now imagine what the workplace will be like when you get there, with only the WDU you, and only the WDUs of all the other people you work with.
It will be utilitarian. It will be rigidly task-focused. There will be no laughter. It will be an empathy-free environment: unwelcoming and cold.
That, at least, is the direction in which this thought experiment takes me. Does your WDU-world look like this too?
What you bring to the workplace
This thought experiment suggests that the ‘WDU you’ is only a limited part of what you bring to the workplace.
Let’s hazard a list of the more human features that accompany the ‘WDU you’ when you come to work. You bring:
- Your world view, which you then apply to the more focused world of work.
- Your individual way of liaising with other people, of listening to them, of engaging with and responding to them.
- The way you ‘read’ the people around you, and how you judge their actions.
- The way you express or reflect your judgements and decisions.
- Your particular approach to work – decisive or cautious, imaginative or methodical.
- Your commitment –enthusiastic or reluctant, time-keeping or pace-setting.
- Your sense of irony or humour or playfulness.
- Your personality as a whole – whether you’re ebullient or quiet, outgoing or solitary, easy-going or demanding.
- Your physical self, the way you inhabit the office space (even in a virtual office).
Imagine again a business populated only by WDUs, without the many other aspects that make us what we are.
The inevitable image this conjures up of a cold and utilitarian environment illustrates how significantly the characteristics listed above contribute to the workplace. Take any away and your contribution is powerfully diminished.
In fact, I would argue that the ‘WDU you’ is the lesser part of what you bring to the organisation that employs you – and that the more personal characteristics outlined above are the greater part.
These traits create the ‘human capital’ available to a company, and the more they are encouraged and allowed to flourish, the more dynamic, robust and successful a business is likely to be.
The importance of the total you
I have a further defence of the ‘full you’ up my sleeve. It comes from the perspectives of complexity and systems theory introduced in my previous article.
Systems theory shows us that all the parts of a ‘complex adaptive system’ are connected with all its other parts, something that applies to organisations of all kinds.
Systems theory also indicates that the nature of each part of the system contributes to the nature of the system as a whole. This applies to us as colleagues.
The full nature of each of us, as outlined above, contributes to the nature of the businesses in which we work – and it is the whole of us that contributes, not just the part of us that does the work and fulfils our contracts of employment (the WDU).
Complexity theory shows us that even our smallest contributions to the workplace can potentially cause dramatic effects.
Similarly, complexity theory shows us that even our smallest contributions to the workplace can potentially cause dramatic effects.
This is the case even with contributions as seemingly trivial as our sense of humour, our consideration for others or our thoughtfulness.
This small-effect/large-impact phenomenon is not guaranteed. In fact, the structural checks and balances of most organisations work against it.
It is, however, an ineradicable potential, and therefore cannot be ignored.
Thus the total you is important, both in terms of the effect of your personality, morality, humour and creativity cascading outward through the business, and in terms of even your most minor contribution to the workplace having the potential for major impact (the ‘butterfly effect’).
The importance of us
Many if not all of the great codes of ethics emphasise the miraculous nature of the individual: we are each of us, in ourselves, wonders of nature.
From a moral perspective it is essential to recognise this in yourself and therefore, by simple inference, in others.
We are each extraordinary. Each of our colleagues is an astonishing example of complex life.
If an alien David Attenborough were watching us, he would describe each of us as fascinating and extraordinary instances of our fascinating and extraordinary species.
From this viewpoint – ‘the Alien David perspective’ – we are all equal. We are all equally valuable, equally wonderful and equally worthwhile.
Let’s take this celebration of us a little further. It took 3.8 billion years to make us. We are clearly biological marvels.
Each one of us has 37.2 trillion cells (more or less) in our bodies. These cells cooperate - all 37.2 trillion of them. Cooperation is at the heart of being human.
We have 100 billion neurons in our brains. Our brains have allowed us to conquer our world. We throw satellites into space. We fly through the air and power through the sea. We sustain huge cities where millions of people cooperate. We engineer genes. We develop medicines that save millions of lives.
In his documentary about humanity, Alien David would be ecstatic, and his conclusion would be unavoidable: we are extraordinary – both in the mass and as individuals.
The ethical colleague, taking Alien David’s lesson to heart, will strive to see the extraordinary in the people they work with - in their managers, in their peers, in those reporting to them, and in those they struggle to get on with as much as in those they find it easy to like.
The ethical colleague will strive to remember that none of us are just WDUs - we are all equally deserving of nurture and respect.
The ethical colleague will reflect this consideration in their actions as well as in their words.
My next article concludes our discussion of the ethical colleague by asking which of the building blocks of our personalities are moral and to be encouraged, and which are not.
We’ll then finish by considering the key traits of the ethical colleague and how these might impact on career progression and personal success.
In the meantime, please join me in my investigation into the ethics of the workplace.
Are there questions about workplace ethics that you would like to ask? Challenges you’d like to share? Please leave comments below and I will respond as quickly as I can.
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Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in HRIS implementations and change management. More recently he has focussed on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.
He has published two books on ethics: Ethical Intelligence,...