When most people think about unethical actions, they think about actions that cost the company money and bad publicity. But while money is replaceable, and reputation is rebuildable, some outcomes are seriously damaging personally. I have spent more than a decade investigating this personal damage in the form of how unethical behavior impacts the well-being of people at work. After investigating this phenomenon through a book and several articles, what my co-authors and I conclude is that unethical activities have profound implications for the psychological, physical, and job-related well-being of people at work.
It is not simply that people victimized by unethical acts at work have their well-being impacted, but that research shows that those who observe them or engage in unethical acts do as well. Research shows that unethical actions, such as those creating injustice, degrading employees, and disregarding employee rights are often the kind of unethical acts that are most corrosive to the well-being of organizational workers.
We know that such unethical acts occur with some level of frequency across organizations internationally. But we also know that when times get tough, desperation can unravel the judgment of decision makers in organizations and encourage unethical behaviors designed to keep themselves and their organizations afloat. Now in the midst of the most challenging times in recent history, it’s clear that the current coronavirus crisis has motivated organizational leaders to keep their organizations afloat by engaging in the kinds of unethical acts that will undermine the well-being of workers. For many workers, these actions will not be unexpected because they were treated this way before. But for others, the sense of betrayal and abuse will be palpable and even more damaging because the sudden unethical treatment will be unexpected. They will learn, as Ritu Ghatourey once wrote, that “It is during the worst times of your life that you will get to see the true colors of the people who say they care for you.” Work in the time of coronavirus will allow employees to meet their real employers, unmasked.
Work in the time of coronavirus will allow employees to meet their real employers, unmasked.
In many cases, the faces are not pleasant. These are the faces of leaders who did not provide personal protective equipment, time for employees to wash their hands or space for social distancing—leaving the employees to feel abused and treated unjustly. They are the faces of leaders who claimed their companies provided an "essential service"—and did not shut down during lockdown, opening up employees to COVID 19 risk. They are the faces of leaders who claimed they stood for exemplary values and social responsibility—but used the pandemic as a way to make expedient cuts and changes that were antithetical to those values.
They are leaders who created turmoil with salary cuts, benefit cuts, layoffs and firings that employees knew could have been avoided; the faces of leaders who asked workers to work from home but did not reimburse them for the additional heating, cooling, electrical or connectivity costs associated with working from home. They are leaders who in the face of a tumultuous environment, where fear and death predominate the news cycle, knew they could escape the detection and censure of stakeholders; so, they abrogated promises and ignored contractual obligations. It is in these leaders of injustice and opportunism, of abuse and degradation, where we will see the most veiled and corrosive unethical acts undermine employee well-being.
In the future, the eyes of our students and historians will reflect that what many organizations did was more about our individual and collective integrity than on our ability to navigate a pandemic. The eyes of the future will not simply be looking at the chronology of the COVID catastrophe, but at the ways companies handled the stakeholder aspects of the pandemic. They will look with reverence to those organizations that held themselves to a standard that exceeded financial well-being; those who selflessly asked not about themselves, but about those stakeholders whose well-being they impacted. They will not look kindly on those organizations who used the pandemic as a convenient excuse to pad their coffers as others suffered and even died.
When the “fog of war” is over, when we collectively reflect back on the justifications organizations used to expediently deal with the situations organizations confront today, we will soberly reflect on how organizations’ unethical actions undid the physical, psychological, and job-related well-being of its employees and stakeholders—the cura personalis we in Jesuit institutions live by, but so many organizations do not. We will look back and find that the Jesuit magis we live by, that great strive for excellence so many organizations claim, was narrowly redefined to mean excellence in financial matters alone.
In the end, business historians will recount how the pandemic was not solely about a microscopic organism, but about the microscopic integrity of some organizations who damaged the well-being of their employees and other stakeholders.
Robert A. Giacalone, Ph.D.
The Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics
Director, The Ginn Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility
Boler College of Business
John Carroll University