The Ethics of Employment Relations and Human Resource Management: Kohlberg's Seven Levels of Morality

Article excerpt


In the past, the academic fields of employee relations (ER) and Human Resource Management (HRM) have not shown a marked interest in the issue of moral philosophy. An understanding of how ER/HRM relate to ethics can be shown in two ways. It can be viewed from an HRM/ER or an ethical philosophy perspective. This article presents the latter. It extends from previous applications of Kohlberg's Moral Development (Kohlberg 1971, 1981 & 1984) to management to the work of Velasques (2012) as the most recent. This article delivers normative support for these applications underpinned through an empirical study. Secondly, the article extends these applications to HRM and to ER. Laurence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was interested in how humans develop moral understanding. He introduced the Scale of Universal Moral Development which is used to compare the morality of ER and HRM. An empirical case provides supporting evidence for the location of ER (4-6) and HRM (2-4).

Key Words: Ethics, Morality, Kohlberg, Kant, Universalism, Utilitarianism, Management, Labour Relations, Employment Relations, Human Resource Management.

Introduction: Ethics and the World of Work

Ethics is part of philosophy. Ever since the birth of business administration, management, employment relations (ER) and Human Resource Management (HRM), ER and HRM have retained an ethical content (Kaufman 2004; Johnson 2007; Klikauer 2008; Trevino & Nelson 201 1). For the purpose of this article, HRM is seen as the management of people at work (cf. Beardwell & Claydon 2011; Belcourt et al. 2011; Grobler et al. 2011; Jackson et al. 2012; Macky 2008; Patrick et al 2011; Schwind et al. 2010). HRM's intellectual tradition lies in business administration and management as well as the academic discipline of management studies. By contrast, ER refers to a non-hierarchical societal relationship between three actors: employers, management, and employer federations; trade unions; and the state (Dunlop 1958). These three actors operate at four levels (Kochan, Katz, & McKersie 1986; Klikauer 2011): workplace (e.g. offices, workshops, etc.), industry (e.g. car industry, airlines, mining), national (country-wide), and international (e.g. European Union, International Labour Organisation). ER' s tradition is found in labour history, labour economics, industrial sociology, and political science.

In the field of business- and management-studies as well as HRM, ethics has been expressed in numerous academic books, textbooks, and articles. The most common form of dealing with ethics in HRM and ER, however, remains the occasional chapter on human resource ethics and employee ethics in standard textbooks (cf. Kramar, Bartram & De Cieri 2011; Storey 2007; Johnson 2007; Anthony et al. 2006; Redman & Wilkinson 2006; Arnold 2005; De Cieri and Kramer 2005; Torrington et al. 2005; Hatcher 2002; Petrick & Quinn 1997).

Rarely, however, are there substantial articles, monographs, or non-textbooks on ER and HRM ethics. On those occasions when ethics is discussed, it appears as if ER/HRM writers apply fragments of moral philosophy to their field. It is less common that philosophers or experts in ethical theory write on ER/HRM. Hence, a shortcoming of texts from a philosophical-ethical standpoint has been detected (Pinnington et al. 2007:1). This article sets forth a contribution towards the role of ethics in ER/HRM.

The origins of ethics and moral philosophy date back to a time when humans began to organise societal forms that reached beyond the animal kingdom demanding some code of conduct to guide human action (Krebs 201 1; Nowak & Highfield 201 1; Singer 1994). Today, management ethics is well established and discussed primarily under three headings: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and virtue ethics (Velasques 2012; Shaw & Barry 2010; Samson & Daft 2009; Klikauer 2012 & 2010:126-169; Driver 2007; Martin 2007; ShaferLandau 2007; Harrison 2005; Wiggins 2006; Kaptein 1998; Young 2003; Singer 1994; Wood 1990; Weber 1990:689; Gilligan 1982; Kohlberg 1971, 1981, 1984). …


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