Instruments or Individuals?

Last week we introduced the timeless “seven deadly sins” and indicated that we would go through them, one-by-one, through the lens of business ethics. This week, we are going to start at the bottom of that list, with number seven: Lust.

Now, on the surface, you might think that we would get into sexual harassment, or some other forms of inappropriate behavior. However, I’m willing to extend enough credit to our audience to know that we needn’t go there.

Rather, we should peel the onion further, and address the true moral wrong behind this human tendency. Indeed, it is not as much about untempered desires, as it is about the objectification (and subsequent dehumanization) of another person. 

How does this relate to our businesses and workplaces?

Not long ago, a friend of mine shared an experience he had with a previous employer several years ago. The company was a medium-sized, family owned business (third generation), with a couple dozen employees, both hourly and salaried.

The experience began with the death of the wife of one of the employees who worked in the warehouse (apparently it was the result of a long-term illness). The employee whose wife had died had been with the company for more than ten years. When my friend asked one of the owners about sending flowers to the funeral home, the owner quickly—and rather coldly—dismissed the notion. The rationale: since the surviving employee did not work in the office, no flowers—or respect—was merited.

In my opinion, this story is extraordinary. While it may be extreme (and hopefully uncommon), I do think it gives a clear insight into the thinking of the business owners (at least one of them) in how they regard some of their employees. Indeed, despite the years of service that the warehouse employee had given to the company, the owner had little regard for the human dignity of that person. To the owner, the employee was regarded much like a machine… just a body to show up, do their work, and leave.

While this example has nothing to do with sexuality, it is still an illustration of the dynamic of one person using another for their own gains, and doing so in a way that is void of respect or recognition of human dignity. And that, at its heart, is the crux of the matter.

This is a common “ethic violation” in business today, and has been for as long as I can remember. Even while countless organizations tout expressions in their messaging consistent with “Our people make up our greatest resource,” far too many of them keep that idea to mere lip service.

Some of you might be reading this and wondering about how you may have objectified other people, especially if you have many working in your organization. In fact, we can all slip into that pattern of thinking and behavior of treating people as instruments, rather than individuals. But as the late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper once famously said, “You manage things. You lead people.”

So what do we do with this? What’s the corresponding virtue that we can leverage? Traditionally, the virtue to lust is chastity–which begins with respect and recognition of not just the other person, but of one’s self. In some cases, it may require you looking at the culture that you have helped foster in your business or workplace. Does this culture encourage mutual respect for the dignity and feelings of others, or is it fueled by narcissism?

Complicated questions…or not? The late Rear Admiral had it right: it is not an issue of management, but of leadership. 

Yes, I know—it sounds vague. So here is a great place to start: take the advice that Kaylene Matthews shared here on MLJ just last November: start with being, and expressing, your gratitude for the people with whom you work, and for their service and contributions! You will see up close how little things can make a big difference.

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