The Role of Leadership in Dangerous Work

A Job That Should Not Be? The Ethics of Exploitations and Workplace Safety

Back in October 2020, Dr. David Dick kicked off the first session of the Ethical Leadership in Business Speaker Series by discussing Business Ethics and the Separation Thesis. On November 20, 2020, he moderated the second session that featured Dr. Robert Hughes, Assistant Professor at the Wharton School of Business, who is known for his expertise in moral and legal philosophy. Dr. Hughes’ discussion for the afternoon, which was attended by 30 enthusiastic Master of Management students, focused on the ethics of exploitation and workplace safety in the context of the pandemic.

The event began with opening remarks from Dr. Dick, who then introduced Dr. Hughes as the speaker for the day. Dr. Hughes jumped right into his topics by talking about what have historically been the most dangerous workplaces in the world, ranging from mines to grocery stores. He highlighted skilled transport as one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada and logging as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

He then shifted his focus to the pandemic and noted that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are now at the forefront of the most dangerous jobs. He discussed two principles: “It is ethical to hire people for physically dangerous work only if the work has social value that goes beyond the satisfaction of consumer preferences” and “Employers cannot justify omitting expensive safety measures by paying employees more, even if the employees prefer higher pay to greater safety.”

While discussing the differences between foreseen and intended risks, Dr. Hughes brought forth the ‘doctrine of double effect’ by emphasizing the Kantian principle that it is wrong to treat other people’s humanity as a means to an end. This allowed Dr. Hughes to argue that it would be wrong for both employers to offer and employees to accept higher wages in exchange for lower safety measures, since this intentionally treats risks to human lives as a means to greater pay, violating that Kantian principle.

As Dr. Hughes reached the conclusion of his topic and was imparting some final thoughts and ideas, a student asked “What if a person enjoys climbing and is inherently good at it? The wage might inspire one specific climb, but not the overall behaviour.” This question was related to his discussion on the topic of payment, risk and intent. His response to the question called to the attention, the importance of motive and that it might be acceptable if it is not the risk that the person pursues. The doctrine of double effect permits risks that are merely foreseen and not intended. The event came to an end with some valuable lessons from Dr. Hughes regarding the safety measures that are ethically necessary.

Alex Mckenzie a Master of Management student at the Haskayne School of Business had the following to say about his experience:

”I thought that Dr. Hughes did a phenomenal job in fostering a conversation around ethical business leadership. His talk really focused on applying these ethical practices to real-world scenarios, and it got me thinking about how I could apply these principles to my own instances of leadership. The Ethical Leadership in Business Speaker Series provides immense value to me, and really highlights the importance of ethical considerations being top of mind as I transition into future management roles.”

The Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business will be hosting following sessions of the Ethical Leadership in Business Speaker Series in Winter 2021.