A few weeks ago, I was tasked to describe an ethical dilemma seen from the perspectives of universal good (Kant) versus utilitarianism (Bentham & Mill) in 400 words or less for the “Unethical Decision Making in Organisations” MOOC I’m loosely following on Coursera. I decided to describe an issue that I have found as subtle as it is common, generalised it to any demographic issue (e.g. gender, ethnicity, etc.), and wrote it within the 400 word limit. Then I saw the examples they showed and had to rewrite everything in a much, much simpler form; a bit like turning a whole lot of shades of grey in three dimensions into a black and white situation with an ‘invert’ button (hence the dilemma, telling which is the black and which is the white). This was a bit disappointing but I kept my first piece anyway and here it is. If you are interested in ethical dilemmas or demographic-related inequality, read it: it’s short… and any comments on this issue are appreciated.
Imagine the case of a colleague being harassed by someone in a position of authority. The victim is of a demographic minority and the perpetrator of the majority. Letting an individual abuse a colleague is clearly wrong but standing up for the victim publicly comes with a significant personal cost.
The perpetrator of the harassment would see the person standing up publicly as an enemy. When standing up for a colleague, one acquires a label of being someone around whom others need to watch themselves.
It may seem easier to ignore it but any conflict, even if not confronted, impacts group dynamics and can add up to an overall drop in productivity. So the utilitarian view of maintaining the status quo at the cost of a co-worker’s well being may be illusory. There is an additional risk. Once the underlying context of the harassment, e.g. gender- or race-based discrimination, becomes a matter of political correctness, the company may suffer deeper consequences, such as those brought on by a scandal in the media who see a reprehensible corporate culture.
The act that could be universalised would be to stand up for a co-worker who is not being treated fairly. And this is often what organisations try to encourage but because the intangible cost of doing so is often borne by one person, it makes it difficult to cultivate.
Then, there are people’s values.
Colleagues, who are in a similar position and demographic as the harasser, may be insensitive or blind to the issue. They find it difficult to empathise with the victim and may not foresee the demographic context becoming a matter of public debate. They are likely to value the harasser’s contribution to the company over the well being of the victim. On the other hand the personal cost they would bear for standing up is likely a lot less than for colleagues from the minority.
Colleagues in a similar position as the victim may feel the closeness and the threat of harassment. They may feel vulnerable for it. Seeing themselves as members of a vulnerable demographic over members of the company, they grow uncomfortable at work, defeating the perspective that the company’s overall well being remains unchanged but for one individual, by inaction.
This results in a company that implicitly values colleagues of one demographic over another in spite of its best efforts to be committed to equal opportunities.