March 30, 2021

What is the role of workers in a business?

A discussion on power imbalances in the workplace
What is the role of workers in a business?

On March 12, Dr. Nien-hê Hsieh, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, launched the fourth session of the Ethical Leadership Speaker Series hosted by the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business (CCAL). The topic of the event was “The Role of Workers in Business”.

Dr. Hsieh was introduced by Dr. David Dick, CCAL fellow and an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary. Dr. Hsieh kicked off the event by outlining recent events with Google walkouts and how they connected to the role of workers in business. This brought up the philosophical question of why do company boards not have employee representation, but shareholders do?

To address this question, Dr. Hsieh brought up the philosophical framework of John Walls. This framework is a mixture of liberalism and egalitarianism and can be used to look at a worker’s role in business. The framework identifies four arguments that can be used to help answer this dilemma. The first is the argument of meaningful work. This concept states that people have a right to meaningful work. The counterargument for this was that some people may not want to do meaningful work and they cannot be forced to.

The second argument is the parallel case. This idea draws a parallel between citizens of a country who have free speech, and employees of a firm who are restricted on what they say. The difference is demonstrated depending on how easy it is for people to leave, wherein it is hard to leave a country but easy to leave a firm, thus firms do not need to give freedom to employees.

The third argument is civic formation. In order to be a free citizen, there are certain habits a person needs to have such as a sense of self-worth. This is not innate but learned over time and can be enhanced or degraded based on the environment that the person is in. If employees are always being told what to do, they will lack the opportunity to develop those skills that will affect their freedom.

Finally, the fourth argument is non-domination. This is the concept that everyone should be free from domination, be it in the political realm, their household, or work. Thus, restrictions are placed on what managers can do. An objection to this argument is that it extends to all stakeholders, customers included. This means that a business cannot succeed if it extends this right to all stakeholders since it would not make a profit from customers. All these arguments make it difficult to answer an employee’s right to representation on a company board, or a worker’s role in the business.

Another question Dr. Hsieh brought up was “are workers special?” To answer this question, he first made the distinction between work and labour. Labour being work that does not require a lot of critical thinking and is repetitive. Work being the opposite, which requires time and cognitive power from the employee along with critical thinking. Similar to how shareholders invest money, thus being represented on the board, employees who work make an investment of their own and should be represented.

To conclude, Dr. Hsieh explained various frameworks used to address the question of the role of workers in business. The key takeaway from the event was that making a decision on what a worker is entitled to is a complicated task. Each decision has a trade-off, and there is no ‘right’ answer for how best to engage and represent employees. Leaders need to weigh the options and consider what is important to their workers, shareholders and other stakeholders, within the context of their organization.

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