Here is a ‘very novel’ concept. Employee Engagement is needed because… it’s good in and of itself. Because work enhances human nature. Because engaging people with their work is a moral obligation of both providers and takers of work, as part of human enhancement. In this model, meaningful, enhancement, enrichment from work is a moral imperative. If engagement is morally right, it also means work that matters to the individual beyond the benefit of the organization. Full stop.
This thinking is so alien to business that it’s likely to be dismissed by many. After all, many people sustain that the organization per se, and in particular the business organization, is an amoral entity. It has undergone moral surgery. Its imperative is not to deal with any morality other than the purpose of the firm and the goals of the owners. Shareholder value is shareholder value. If the firm has a value system, it’s up to management to figure out how to increase that shareholder value within the corporate value frame. Employee/people’s enhancement as human beings, in this thinking, is not here nor there, unless expressed specifically in relation to the value system itself.
For people who don’t ascribe to this model, the above statement ‘engaging people with their work is a moral obligation as part of creating human enhancement’ is a leftist fairy tale.
The ‘ethics of work’ (not the same as the ethics of business) is not precisely a new topic. It’s just that business organizations are busy ‘making other plans’ (as in John Lennon’s ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’).
We have three strong pillars in our modern history. (1) Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic’. (2) The Catholic Social Teaching, a scattered series of documents with detailed development on seven principles: life and the dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; solidarity; dignity of work; rights and responsibilities’; options for the poor and vulnerable; and care for God’s creation. Most of them address ‘work’ one way or another. (3) The Right to Work is treasured within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These three pillars have both followers and critics.
Pros. The model brings back some conversation about ‘purpose’, in which people may agree or disagree, but still, the conversation will be in the air. I still use with my clients a 1990 lecture from the great Charles Handy, with the title ‘What is a company for?’, which challenged many assumptions at the time and which continues to be relevant today.
Cons. It’s hard to bring this conversation in the context of ‘busy people making other plans’. But, if we can have a Cow Model (number 2) I don’t see why we could not have a moral model.
So what? Purpose is back, it’s the new black. Purpose is not the same as this ‘Employee Engagement as moral imperative’, but they are sisters. This model says: when you look at all models, all possibilities, all surveys, all rankings, all happy cows, all air time, could you slot in a possibility that work in itself should be enhancing and (the corollary), if this is the case, then management needs to look at employee engagement also as a employee enhancement? What if we added a moral obligation here, in this model? Would the sky fall?
Next, the final model: (Real) Activists on the payroll. And a summary.