Archive for the ‘workplace safety’ Category

Workers vs Machines

A recent item in the NY Times dealt with the fact that many companies these days seem relatively reluctant to invest in new employees, but comparatively willing to invest in new machinery. The evidence for that is mostly anecdotal, but interesting none the less.

Here’s the story, by Catherine Rampell: Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers

Companies that are looking for a good deal aren’t seeing one in new workers.

Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people….

The story gives the distinct impression that the issue here is not just an issue of machines or people; it’s about machines versus people, and machines are clearly winning the hearts and minds of employers these days. On the face of it, that sounds bad. Workers — people — matter, from a moral point of view, and machines don’t. So, other things being equal, it is better to spend money on doing something good for people (e.g., providing someone with a job) than it is to spend money on mere machines.

But two perhaps-not-obvious points need to be made, here.

The first point is that even when employers choose to purchase machines instead of hiring employees, that needn’t be a bad thing socially, nor bad for labour as a group. Machinery tends to boost productivity, and boosting productivity boosts wealth, so from a social point of view (including from the point of view of blue-collar workers) it is good when companies invest in machinery. Even if machines displace workers in a given industry, that needn’t spell trouble for workers as a class. In the early 19th Century, Luddites destroyed mechanized looms in a vain attempt to forestall the effect of the industrial revolution on employment patterns in the textile industry. And yet, in the long run, the industrial revolution did nothing to worsen the lot of labourers. Indeed, it ushered in an era of prosperity that made the lot of labourers as a whole vastly better. To be sure, changes in technology result in unemployment in the particular sectors in which new technologies are introduced. But that tends to be a temporary problem. The standard Econ 101 example is transportation. The advent of the automobile surely resulted in some unemployment among those who had formerly worked in the horse-and-buggy industry. But, in the long run, those workers eventually found jobs in the auto industry, and were no worse off. And so on.

The second point is that, even if we focus on the employees of a particular organization, labour and machines are not always (and maybe not even often) in competition. Machines and tools can make employees’ lives better, and in those cases, certainly, spending money on machines and tools is a good thing. The most obvious case is when the equipment purchased is, say, safety equipment, or when the machines purchased are ones with additional safety features or features that make work less back-breaking.

But purchase of equipment can also be good in another way. Machines and tools of various kinds can make labour more productive, and more productive labour is more valuable. Not everyone realizes that the productivity of labour — the amount of goods that can be turned out per hour of a worker’s time — varies vastly across the globe. An hour of an American worker’s labour, for example, produces far more output than an hour of a Chinese worker’s labour. And the reason has little to nothing to do differences in work ethic or intelligence or talent. The difference lies in national differences in access to tools, and to differences in organizational and managerial strategies. So investing in better equipment can be a way of investing in the productivity of your workers.

Of course, past some threshold, when labour is more productive, employers may decide they need less of it. The most famous example of this is in farming, where one man with a big tractor now often does the work that a dozen men might have done in years gone by. But the devil is in the details. We should at least recognize that investment in machinery is not automatically contrary to the interests of labour.

McJobs, and Height as Bona Fide Employment Qualification

Starbucks cupQuestions of employment discrimination and of what counts as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” are always challenging.

See, for example, this story published yesterday in the Globe & Mail: Starbucks sued for firing dwarf from barista job

The U.S. government is suing Starbucks Corp. … saying the coffee company fired a barista in El Paso, Tex., because she is a dwarf.

When the employee asked for a stool or small stepladder to perform her job, Starbucks denied the request and fired her that same day, claiming that she could be a danger to customers and workers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission….

As several commenters on the Globe story point out, the space behind a Starbucks counter is not a great place for an employee to stand stationary on a stool. It’s a fast-paced workplace in which people work with hot coffee and scalding jets of steam. So, Starbucks is at least not being entirely unreasonable in suggesting that allowing their would-be employee to stand there on a stool. That, I take it, is the key legal question.

But it seems to me that there’s another issue here, which has to do with just how critical this particular job is to this particular person. How critical the job is reveals the extent to which the company’s refusal to accommodate counts as an impediment to the would-be employee’s interests. Consider a different kind of example. Consider a situation in which the job in question is a high-paid unionized job, in a town with few employers. In such a situation, having that job might be really, really important. Or consider an employee who is moving up a corporate ladder. Imagine that the job at the third rung of the ladder (but only that one) requires that the employee receive some form of accommodation. Here, accommodation is crucial not just for the job, but for the employee’s entire career trajectory.

So there are, arguably, jobs for which accommodation is exceptionally important. But (with all due respect to the nice people who make my grande no-whip mocha) most of us don’t think of a job at Starbucks that way. We think of a job as a barrista as basically just another McJob, one which pays maybe a little over minimum wage and which is interchangeable with lots of other kinds of jobs in similar industries.

On the other hand, Starbucks likely doesn’t see its jobs that way, and doesn’t want to. At least, that’s the impression one gets from visiting the company’s Career Centre. So even if it turns out that Starbucks isn’t legally required to accommodate this person, doing so might be consistent with the values they claim to embrace, and the kind of workplace image they want to project.

Thanks to Dominic Martin for showing me this story.

Bullying in the Workplace

Most people think of bullying as a problem of the schoolyard. But increasingly that term is being used to describe aggression in all kinds of settings in which power imbalances are common and in which aggression is problematic. Bullying in the workplace, for example, is far from new, but it has been in the spotlight in recent years.

See, for example, this editorial by Theresa Brown, for the NY Times, on bullying in healthcare workplaces: Physician, Heel Thyself

…while most doctors clearly respect their colleagues on the nursing staff, every nurse knows at least one, if not many, who don’t.

Indeed, every nurse has a story like mine, and most of us have several. A nurse I know, attempting to clarify an order, was told, “When you have ‘M.D.’ after your name, then you can talk to me.” A doctor dismissed another’s complaint by simply saying, “I’m important.”

While bullying may be a particularly dangerous in healthcare, where patients’ lives can easily depend on just how well a team of heal professionals functions, bullying, or even subtler forms of interpersonal conflict, can be common in any kind of workplace. And indeed, while the risks of poor team performance in healthcare are especially vivid, it has the potential to have serious negative effects — effects far beyond the people directly involved — in all kinds of businesses that themselves have significant impact on people’s lives or the natural environment. It isn’t difficult to imagine, for example, bullying being part of the root cause of the kind of poor teamwork that might result in an environmental catastrophe like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.

Brown’s article rightly points to the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ Basically, if the boss is a bully, such behaviour is liable to trickle down the chain of command. So leaders have a strong obligation neither to engage in, nor to tolerate, bullying. But people much farther down the chain of command also face ethical questions with regard to bullying — including especially how to respond to it and deal with it. Those with the least power within an organization are likely going to be the most vulnerable to bullying. Some of the toughest ethical challenges faced by junior people in an organization may have to do with responding to pressure from above, and with the difficulties inherent in being at the bottom of their organizational hierarchies. Younger employees, or ones simply new to that particular workplace, understandably find it difficult — and a source of moral distress — not just to survive bullying, but sometimes to be involved in courses of action that they see as unethical and yet that they are powerless to do anything about. It’s hard to know what advice to give to people in such situations, because sometimes there really is very little they can do. But one thing they can do is to consider, starting right now, how they should treat those beneath them in the hierarchy, if and when they themselves move up it, and how they are going to make sure not to fall into those same, all-too-common, toxic behaviours.

Ethics of Doing Business in Libya

Amidst the upheaval in Libya, questions arise about foreign companies doing business there. Many firms, of course, are pulling out and evacuating any employees currently on the ground, for obvious reasons related to safety. But there are apparently still a few reasonably safe places in Libya, places far from the major cities that are the focus on the current fighting. And certainly business done from afar is still an option. So, that leaves companies with choices. Should Libya be considered entirely off-limits? At this point in the conflict, various governments have issued orders that put restrictions in place. But that doesn’t mean that Libya is, from a legal point of view at least, a no-go zone. (Canada’s government, for example, has clarified that Canadian firms are still allowed to do business in Libya, generally, but not with the Libyan government or with the Libyan Central Bank.)

I’m sure many will be tempted to say that foreign companies should pull out entirely. But then, it’s not clear that such a blanket prohibition does much good for the people of Libya as a whole. Note, for example, that Libya currently imports about 75% of its food. Stopping doing business with Libya would mean starving its population.

Of course, even before the current crisis, Libya was a dubious place to do business — at least some kinds of business. Note, for example, that a Canadian company has faced questions about its role in building a fancy new prison for the Gadhafi government. (From the Globe & Mail, see: SNC-Lavalin defends Libyan prison project.)

(An interesting side-note: SNC-Lavalin was recently ranked as one of the best-governed corporations in Canada. Note also that the companies shares are down, apparently because of worries not just about Libya, but about the entire region. About a quarter of the country’s income comes from the Middle East and Africa.)

Building a prison for use by a dictatorship is exactly the kind of project that is likely to draw fire. But that’s not entirely fair, either. As the G&M notes, Libya has been under international pressure to modernize its prisons. And if it is a legitimately good thing for a dictator to upgrade his prisons, then it’s hard to claim that it’s unethical for a company to make a profit by helping him do so.

Employment, Smokers, and Fundamental Ethical Conflicts

I’ve seen two interesting stories recently about smokers — of various kinds — facing trouble with their employers. Both stories raise difficult, perhaps intractable, ethical difficulties, because in both cases the objectives sought by employers are, on the face of things, entirely reasonable; and yet the freedoms sought by employees in these cases are also, I think, very reasonable ones to seek.

First, this piece by A.G. Sulzberger for the NY Times: Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban

…More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living….

I’ve blogged about this issue before. (See: “Smokers Need Not Apply”, from January of 2009.) My conclusion back then was that an employer, no matter how well-intentioned, has no right to tell employees what to do on their own time. They have a right to demand a certain level of performance on the job, and that might have implications for what employees do at home. But what employers have a right to is performance, rather than to a particular lifestyle in pursuit of that performance. Besides, there are lots (and lots and lots) of things employees can do at home that will limit their performance at work. I don’t see smoking as being unique among those, and letting employers screen for (and monitor?) all such behaviours would obviously constitute a massive invasion of privacy.

And then there’s this Reuters piece, reported by Clare Baldwin: Wal-Mart employee fired for medical pot loses case

A federal judge in Michigan on Friday upheld Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s dismissal of an employee for testing positive for marijuana, even though he was using the drug under the state’s medical marijuana law.

Former Wal-Mart employee Joseph Casias said he was using the marijuana to treat pain from an inoperable brain tumor and sinus cancer, and was doing so legally, with a medical marijuana registry card…

This one is trickier because the implications of marijuana — cannabis — for workplace performance are much clearer. Pot (even pot prescribed for very good reasons by a physician) is very likely to affect judgment. And the effects of smoking it can last 2-3 hours — so smoking just before work, or during a break, could reasonably be expected to have a negative impact on performance. But in the case above, the employee involved had what sound like very good reasons, if ever there were any. Wal-Mart is a company that is trying hard to polish its image, and firing people for trying to deal with the pain from their inoperable brain tumor seems inconsistent with that objective.

For me, this is one of those short news stories that immediately makes me wonder what’s really going on here. Is the employee one of “those” employees that a company looks for reasons to fire? Or was his manager an unsympathetic jerk? Or what? Because surely this is an issue that could have been sorted out among reasonable adults, without resorting to lawyers. Could the worker be moved to a position where the possible effects of at-home cannabis use would not be as problematic? Could the employee agree to limit the hours during which he would use cannabis, in return for an exemption from the company’s testing regimen? I don’t know the answer. But living and working together means that we find ways of getting along together, even when we cannot find ways of agreeing.

Death by Pizza Delivery: Domino’s Korea

During most of the 80’s (starting in 1984), customers of Domino’s Pizza in the U.S. enjoyed the benefits of a catchy promise of speedy delivery: Domino’s promised to deliver your pizza in “30 Minutes Or It’s Free.” The only problem: soon after the slogan was introduced, a rise in deaths due to accidents involving Domino’s drivers was noted. The assumption was that drivers were facing pressure to make good on the promise, and were therefore driving faster, which meant they were more likely to have accidents, some of which were fatal. Lawsuits ensued. Big ones. As a result, the “30 Minute” delivery promise ended back in 1991, in the U.S. But apparently the same can’t be said for Domino’s Korea.

Here’s the story, by blogger Lee Yoo Eun, blogging at Global Voices: South Korea: Backlash After ‘30 Minute’ Pizza Delivery Death

A popular Domino’s Pizza marketing strategy promising pizza delivery within 30 minutes of an order has met with a public backlash in South Korea, following the deaths of several young delivery personnel.

The Young Union, the union For Occupational and Environmental Health (FOEC) and several labor unions held a press conference on 8 February, 2011, in front of Domino’s Pizza’s headquarters in South Korean capital Seoul, pressuring the company to abolish the ‘30 Minute’ delivery system….

Here’s another version of the story, from the Korea Times: Quick delivery jeopardizes drivers.

In often discuss the story of “30 Minutes or It’s Free,” as it played out in the U.S., in my business ethics class. I use the case to illustrate 3 key points:

  1. A simple business decision can have large and unforeseen consequences, ones that result in a major ethical challenge for a company. In this case, a simple (and frankly brilliant) marketing slogan resulted in Domino’s executives being called killers and the company facing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
  2. The ethical thing to do is not always obvious. We spend a lot of time chastising companies for bad behaviour, but in at least some cases it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. In the Domino’s case, my students are typically unified in the opinion that something had to be done to reduce the rate of accident-related deaths involving Domino’s drivers, but they’re typically deeply divided on a) how far the company needs to go and b) just what strategy they should adopt.
  3. Putting an ethical decision into action can be very difficult. Back in the late 80’s, there were several thousand Domino’s pizza franchises in the U.S., and tens of thousands of drivers. Any decision made by Head Office was going to have to be implemented by all those franchisees and acted on by all those drivers. Making that sort of thing happen is anything but straightforward.

As for Domino’s Korea — frankly I’m stunned to find out that the people in charge of the Domino’s brand haven’t done more to make sure that a lesson learned 20 years ago, at great expense, is reflected in their international operations.

God-Washing Davos

Can religion save the soul of the world’s economic system? What does religion have to do with ethics? In particular, what does religion have to do with business ethics? There’s certainly no necessary connection. You’ll notice an utter lack of theological arguments in this blog, for instance. But many people see a connection, and perhaps a necessary one.

For example, see this piece by Dan Gilgoff, for CNN’s “Belief” Blog: How Davos found God

…Since the banking crisis shook global markets more than two years ago and contributed to a worldwide economic slump, the annual Davos summit has invited dozens of religious and spiritual leaders to hash out issues like business ethics and the morality of markets in the company of presidents and corporate titans….

This worries me for two reasons.

First is that religious leaders have no particular expertise in the questions at hand. One clergyman quoted in the story says the key question is “how do you embed values in the culture of companies in a way that would change behaviors?” Good question, but it’s not one about which most religious leaders are likely to have any real insight. Most, for example, won’t know much about the workings of corporations, or about corporate culture, or about (for example) what the criminological literature says about the real causes of wrongdoing. Sure, talking about values can be a good thing. But there’s no good evidence that religious values, or organized religion as a way of inculcating values, does anything in particular to make people more ethical. And certainly there’s no reason to believe that “40 minutes of guided meditation” is going to play any role at all in fixing the problems faced by the world’s economy.

My second worry is that the inclusion of religious leaders is a distraction, a way of deflecting criticism by including a few dozen people who a large portion of the public are likely to associate with the idea of being a good person. It’s symbolic. It’s a way of signalling to the public that the business world really is concerned about doing the right thing — without engaging anyone who actually has the relevant expertise. It’s a feel-good move. It’s like greenwashing, but with religion rather than environmentalism as the focal distraction.

Intellectual Property and the Chilean Miners

Last month I posted about some Ethical Issues for the Chilean Miners. There, I pondered the moral force of the contract that the 33 trapped miners signed while still underground, promising each other to share equally the eventual profits of any future publicity. This month, I’m quoted in an article on that same topic, in Canadian Business. Here’s the online version: Intellectual property: Underground dealing in Chile, by Angelina Chapin

The story of “los 33,” the Chilean miners stuck underground for 69 days has all the makings of a good narrative: complication, action, mystery and a happy ending. Presciently, the miners made a pact while they were underground to share whatever profits come from telling their story and are rumoured to have decided to collectively author a book. According to The Guardian, they even had a lawyer send down a contract to make the “blood pact” legal, meaning when Hollywood producers come knocking, they’ll have a whole group to bargain with.

Not much is known about its content, but the circumstances under which the contract was signed have experts wondering about its validity and whether the specifics should be abided by now that they’ve survived the rescue….

The article gives the last word to Toronto-based lawyer Calin Lawrynowicz, who makes a simple, practical suggestion: rather than wonder about the force of the subterranean contract, the miners ought to sit down to talk about it:

Lawrynowicz says, since the miners don’t have 33 lawyers explaining their individual rights, the group should reconvene with an arbitrator to make amendments to the contract, allowing for reductions and benefits in terms of the wealth distribution.

“It’s like a shotgun wedding in Vegas,” he says. “You may be able to have a great relationship after the fact, but have to reconfirm why you got together in the first place.”

Ethical Issues for the Chilean Miners

On August 5, 33 miners went down into the San José copper-gold mine; over two months later, 33 entrepreneurs emerged from the mine. They were labourers once. Now they’re businessmen, and celebrities.

Their fame is already being used by major corporations for public relations purposes. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Apple has sent each of the miners a brand new iPod.

But the miners themselves will have decisions to make, about how (and indeed whether) to make use of their new fame. Hollywood will surely come knocking, for instance. Book deals have already been announced. How will they (and how should they) handle fame and fortune? And the miners have already made a good start on their entrepreneurial careers. While still down in the mine, they drew up a contract “ensuring they will equally profit from the lucrative media deals they expect to secure for sharing the story of their two month survival in the hope that they never have to work again.”

But a question arises about such a contract. Is it, in fact, legally binding? To get an indication of why that’s a real question, see this piece by Andrew Potter: Chilean miners: That far down, who decides what’s law?

What is striking about the situation in Chile is how much it resembles one of the most famous thought experiments in the philosophy of law, known as “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers.” Written by the Harvard law professor Lon Fuller and published in 1949, the paper explores the fictional case of five men who embarked on the exploration of a system of caves in a country known as the Commonwealth of Newgarth. When a landslide covers the entrance and traps the men, they sit down to await rescue….

In Fuller’s thought experiment, the miners are eventually driven to cannibalism, in order to survive. Fuller’s article is about whether such cannibalism would rightly be considered illegal, under those circumstances. Fuller makes the case that it is (at very least) possible to argue that it would not be. Laws are social artefacts, and miners trapped underground for an extended period are effectively cut off from, and hence no longer part of, any particular society. Andrew notes:

…trapped miners are living in what amounts to a mini society of their own. All sorts of problems could arise in such a cramped space, from disputes over the allocation of food and medical supplies to rules over respect for privacy to procedures for dealing with crimes like theft or assault. If sovereignty is defined by the ability to exercise a monopoly over the use of force, then whatever legal authority currently exists in the San Jose mine, it is not the Chilean government.

Now, Andrew’s hypothetical is about the reach of Chilean criminal law. As it turns out (as far as we know) no significant violence erupted among the 33, so that question remains hypothetical. But, as I noted above, other kinds of legal questions arise, including the bindingness of the contract the men made while down there.

I won’t speculate further on the question of legality, but even if the legality of the contract were to be successfully challenged, the question of whether the contract is morally binding would remain a live one. After all, 33 men gave their word, and honourable men should want to keep their promise. On the other hand, if we consider the circumstances under which the contract was arrived at, we quickly see that those circumstances were very far from the ideal circumstances for giving free and informed consent. Many things can render a contract both legally and morally suspect, including such things as undue influence and duress. It’s easy to imagine that men trapped, in close quarters, half a mile underground being subject to both of those.

At any rate, my aim here is not to cast a pall over what seems, so far, to be a happy ending to the miners’ ordeal. My aim is simply to point out that, as newly-minted celebrity-entrepreneurs, “los 33” will face a range of ethical issues. What they have to learn, and what we have to learn from them, did not end when the last man finally saw the light of day.

Chilean Miners: What is Rescue Worth?

Happily, rescue crews seem to have made better progress than anticipated toward rescuing 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground since August.

Here’s a recent story giving details, by Alexei Barrionuevo and Christine Hauser writing for the NYT: Drill Reaches Miners in Chile, but Risks Remain

As the rescue proceeds, most of us will (rightly) be focused on the human side of this story, the ordeal those 33 men have gone through. But this story also has an important business- and economic component. Last month, I blogged about whether the trapped miners ought to be paid, and by whom. But another issue is that the rescue effort itself is likely to be exceptionally expensive. What should the companies doing the drilling be paid? Back in April, after a mine collapse in West Virginia, I blogged about the Ethical Obligation to Save Trapped Miners, and pondered the extent of the financial obligations of the mining company and the government in the face of such a disaster. Today, I’d like to look at the question from a different angle. How much should drilling companies involved in such a rescue be charging for their work?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about the actual companies involved.
Brandon Fisher, founder & president of US-based Center Rock Inc., the company that made the drill used, is reported to have nobler motives:

He says the Chilean government is paying for his time and equipment — “that’s the plan anyway.” But he is not at the Mina San Jose for the money. He is there for the miners.

“I don’t know that there’s 10 minutes that you’re out here that you don’t look down there and think, ‘There’s 33 guys 600 feet below our feet,’ ” he said. “Whenever you’re tired, it’s real easy to think, ‘Hey, I’m out here seeing sunlight and breathing fresh air. It’s time to suck it up and get these guys out of here.’ ”

It’s also worth noting that, in fact, this is a competitive arena — there are apparently quite a few companies with relevant capacities, and they’re likely competing with each other to bid for the work. Perhaps they’re even charging less for this high-profile job than they normally would, because it’s good advertising. But let’s set that complication aside for the moment.

So, a thought experiment: what if there were only one company qualified to do the rescue work, or only one company available locally? What should that company charge?

A few quick options:

1. They should charge whatever the market will bear, which would essentially amount to charging the most the Chilean government and/or the mining company involved are willing to pay.

2. They should charge nothing. They should be happy to be involved, and to charge anything would be to put a price on human lives, which is unacceptably exploitative.

3. They should charge just enough to cover their own costs — machinery, fuel, and maybe their own workers’ wages.

4. They should charge exactly the same to drill this hole as they would to drill any other hole of similar size, depth, and complexity. No more (that would be exploitative), and no less (that would be foolish).

Do you favour one of those four? On what grounds? Or can you suggest another principled answer?

Addendum: I found a story that offers the following relevant detail: “Local newspaper La Tercera reported that the rescue efforts, expected to last three to four months, will cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.”

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