N.B. — This article is third of a several-part series outlining the pros and cons of various ethical paradigms when they occupy the commanding heights of a given workplace.
There is a particular class of employee who relentlessly does the “right thing” and seems to never get too upset at workplace drama. He is motivated by a powerful sense of duty: The boss expects X, so he delivers X. No complaints, no whining. Just performance.
Sometimes, rote performance — and therein lies the problem.
Duty ethics gets lumped under terms like “deontology” or “Kantian ethics” by specialists. The gist is simple: The “right thing to do” is that action which most conforms to your duty. Duty may have several meanings, including the ideas of contractual obligation or respect for hierarchy or strict adherence to law and regulation. In a more abstract sense, Kant’s Categorical Imperative — to honor any maxim of behavior that you could wish to be universally honored — plays a role here. Since it’s reasonable to wish that people be honest and do their jobs well and respect their superiors, a good Kantian will do these things that expects everyone should do, and refrain from doing things that everyone shouldn’t.
Duty-based ethics brings a lot of value to the workplace. In organizations like the U.S. Army, duty consists of a complex package of ideals that roll up into martial virtue; indeed, duty is a very strong motivator. In many private enterprises, a dutiful employee will freely note compliance problems and can be trusted with important tasks that require honesty, like cash control or auditing; they rarely require direct supervision to ensure performance. Dutiful employees almost always “meet expectations.”
But “meeting expectations” and “exceeding expectations” aren’t the same thing. When dutiful employees are presented with clear instruction, they will get the job done. When the instruction is vague and aspirational, they’ll often struggle. Commands like “delight the customer” prove vexingly difficulty to translate into a consistent set of behaviors. Duty-based ethics practitioners excel when there’s a clear rulebook that everyone follows very carefully.
Furthermore, a dutiful employee’s typical respect for hierarchy means that open and critical feedback up the food chain gets muted. For a person whose motivation is, “I do what I’m told by my boss in exchange for a paycheck; I’ll do my best, but I won’t make waves,” means that dutiful employees are often cogs in the machine whose wheels rarely squeak.
And because they do their best in exchange for a paycheck, its rare to find an hourly employee who will work off-books to advance the company goals.
If you supervise employees who evidence a strong inclination toward deontological decision-making, it’s helpful to ensure that guidance is specific and achievable (SMART goals are great for this) and that you provide ample one-on-one time to solicit ideas for improvements. Dutiful employees are often the most perceptive employees when it comes to identifying process weaknesses, but they’re often reluctant to share their observations without a specific invitation.
Dutiful employees sometimes get a reputation for being resistant to change. More probably, they’re open to change provided the reasoning is sound and there’s a good outcome attached. Change in the “by the seat of our pants” mould may irritate dutiful employees because the rulebook is now littered with ambiguity. As such, when changes come, ensure that communication stresses the rationale and expected benefit, and that procedures and flowcharts are complete and accurate.
Dutiful employees provide a strong backbone for any business. Their special needs for clear rules and firm expectations should inform business communications. Treated well, this population advances the bottom line. Treated poorly, you’ll end up with a workforce that outwardly conforms but develops cynicism about the enterprise.
For more background info about duty ethics, check out a good write-up by the BBC.