This is “Stress, Sex, Status, and Slacking: What Are the Ethics of Making It through the Typical Workday?”, section 7.4 from the book Business Ethics (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

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7.4 Stress, Sex, Status, and Slacking: What Are the Ethics of Making It through the Typical Workday?

Learning Objective

  1. Consider ethical questions attached to several issues commonly arising during the workday.

Bringing the Office Home: High-Stress Work

No book can cover the ethics of everything happening on every job, but four issues arising in most workplaces sooner or later are stress, sex, status, and slacking off. Starting with stress, what happens if the workday doesn’t end when the workday ends? For those enduring—or choosing—high-stress jobsA job in which the anxiety of the workday consistently washes over into the employee’s nonwork life., there’s no five o’clock whistle; even if they’re shopping or watching a baseball game, the job’s effects hum in the background. One simple example—and also one all of us see on the street every day—comes from an article in the USA Today. It recounts an academic journal’s finding that overweight people pack on still more pounds when their work continually produces serious anxiety. If you’re overweight, the study shows, and you’re stressed in the office, there’s a high likelihood your stomach or your thighs are going to keep growing.Nanci Hellmich, “Study: Overweight People Gain More When Stressed by Work,” USA Today, July 8, 2009, accessed May 19, 2011, http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2009-07-08-obesity-stress_N.htm.

One of the central arguments Aristotle made in ancient Greece was that doing right isn’t the highest goal of ethics. The careful understanding of our values and purposes centers on, ultimately, living a good life. Doing the right thing is part of that goodness, but happiness is there too, so one of the issues stress at work brings forward is this: how is my decision to accept stressful employment affecting my happiness and the happiness of those around me? Here are some more specific questions that could be asked on the way to pinning down the ethics of stress:

  • What positive returns, exactly, am I getting from my stressful job?
  • Are there prospects for reduced stress in the future?
  • What are the costs of the stress? Is it affecting my weight, my leisure time, my friends, my marriage and family?
  • Who is affected? Is anyone else suffering stress because I’m stressed out? Are people suffering from my stress in other ways?

Stress at work isn’t only a psychological problem or a medical one—it’s also laced with questions about value. It’s the most fundamental ethics: what’s worth doing and what isn’t? It’s impossible to know, of course, exactly where the line should be drawn and when stress is worth accepting. Any answer that will be justifiable, however, will have to begin with a clear understanding of exactly what the costs and benefits are.

Office Romance

Hooking up at work is one eternal way of making the time fly, but what’s going on in today’s offices is somewhat different from the past. An article from the Wall Street Journal indicates how the meaning of sex in the office is shifting: “Marriage is a priority for most Americans—more than 90 percent of American adults eventually marry—but these days it may not happen, as it so often did before, in the immediate post-high-school or post-college years. The truth is that we’re marrying later.”Christine Whelen, “Older but Wiser,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2006.

When marriages were typically celebrated at the end of the schooling years, work-related romances went hand in hand with infidelities. In that environment, questions arose about the organization’s role in any affair that may be occurring during company time.

The entire context of discussion changes, however, when a large number of people flowing into the workforce are unmarried and are looking to wed. Inevitably, the office is going to become a mating ground—people pass eight hours a day there—and one of the questions young workers are going to start asking when they think about jobs and careers is, will I be able to meet someone if I get into one or another line of work?

The aspiration to connect introduces a thorny dimension to employment decisions made by young people (and some older ones too). If you’re a guy working on a heavy construction job, the pay may be good, but there’s probably not going to be a woman in sight. On the other hand, doing the coursework to earn paralegal certification may be a headache, but getting into the field isn’t a bad way to meet successful and interesting women.

What’s going on here is that as society changes—as marriage and family life get pushed back into time that used to be reserved for work—the factors shaping the way we think about which jobs are more desirable than others simply on a day-to-day basis are changing, and part of your responsibility to yourself is to keep track of what you really want from your 9 to 5 time. One of the standard moral obligations we share is the responsibility to be sincere not only with others but also with ourselves about important decisions touching the business part of life. And if romance is part of what you want from work, then the possibilities have to be taken into account just like salary and other benefits.

Status

Chris Foreman, the media buyer who enjoyed yacht evenings on the Highlander and tickets to all kinds of major events, received a piddling salary. He thought about changing jobs but decided not to. One reason was that all the entertainment added a lot of indirect money to his income. There was another reason too—the special, VIP privileges he constantly received from his benefactors: “There’s a feeling of superiority. When you pass by a line at a screening because you’re on the list you do get that ego boost. You’re thinking, Ha, ha! I’m not a chump.”Sarah Bernard, “Let Them Eat Crab Cakes,” New York, accessed May 19, 2011, http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/media/features/2472.

StatusAs attached to the economic world, the special privileges and respect one receives because one holds a certain position. on the job makes a difference in quotidian working life, but it’s hard to quantify; it’s not like a salary, which is an objective number and can be directly compared with others on a pay scale. How much is it worth, the question is, to wing by others forced to stand in line?

Knotting matters further, defining exactly what counts as status isn’t easy, and any answer is going to move and slide depending on who you talk to. For some, being a lawyer is impressive and lucrative, for others it’s dirty and, well, lucrative. For some, being a test pilot is exciting and respectable, for others it’s scary and weird. Many people seated in first class on an airplane rush to get on early so that all the economy travelers get to see them as they file past. Some of those people headed toward the back of the plane see the first-class passengers as legitimate power elites, but others get the feeling that most of them are really chumps: the reason they’re in first class is because they used frequent-flyer miles to bump up, and the reason they have a lot of those is because their bosses always make them take the trip to see clients instead of bothering to do it themselves.

More generally, in the world of New York City media buyers, status seems linked with superiority, with being visibly more privileged than those forced to stand in lines. For others, however, status will be quieter. The teacher, the nurse—they find status not as superiority but as social importance.

Conclusion. Status means different things to different people, but anyone looking to get it from a job should ask how much is really there, and how much is it going to help me get out of bed in the morning and want to go to work?

Slacker’s Paradise

Typical ways of getting through the day include throwing yourself into your work (frequently with the hope of a promotion or pay raise), firing up an office romance, and enjoying the status a post allows. Another way of making it from 9 to 5 is by trying to avoid doing work, by working to do as little as possible. This is the slacker reality, and there are two routes into it: Personal slackersAn employee dedicated to doing the least work possible and who adopts the attitude for his or her own reasons. adopt the attitude for their own private reasons. The context slackerAn employee dedicated to doing the least work possible because the incentive system of the labor contract—or some other external factor—encourages the attitude. is dedicated to not working because the incentive system of the labor contract—or some other external factor—encourages slacking off.

Beginning with the personal slacker, the attitude starts with a decision: You take a typical job and make it your project to expend as little effort as possible. The reasons for adopting this stance depend on the person. Maybe there’s a passive-aggressive element, some personal frustration with life or perhaps a somewhat idealistic attempt to make a statement. In any case, the motives behind this kind of behavior should be pursued in a psychology course. Here all that matters is that for one reason or another the private decision gets made to get through the day by working to not work.

The second slacker pathway starts with a context. Here’s an example from an online discussion board: “Haha I worked in a union job and they were there to punch in…take a lunch…take 2 15min breaks…and punch out. They had 0 incentive to work hard because they would get a 0 dollar raise.”Eazy E, “IS it me or are most Union workers lazy?,” Yahoo! Answers, accessed May 19, 2011, http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081008004353AAn1iL7.

The key here is the incentive, the idea that working hard doesn’t benefit the worker because labor agreements are so protective and constricting that, on one side, it’s almost impossible to fire a worker, and on the other, it’s nearly impossible to reward one for superior performance. That means there are islands in the general economy where the traditional rule regarding performance and reward—the rule that doing well gets you ahead—doesn’t apply very well.

One of the curiosities of these islands is that it’s not right to conclude that there’s no incentive to do anything. Actually, there is an incentive system in place even when, as the discussion board poster writes it, “hard work gets a 0 dollar raise.” In this case, the incentive is negative. If union rules (or whatever rules happen to be in effect) mean workers can’t compete against each other with the best performer winning a better post, the workers can still compete. It’s just that since wages are fixed, the competition turns negative: the most successful worker is the one who manages to do the least work. It makes perfect sense: if you do less work than anyone else, and you’re paid the same amount as everyone else, you have, in fact, found a way to win. You get the highest salary; you’re the one paid most for the least work.

Is slacking ethically acceptable? Whether someone is a contextual or personal slacker, when success is defined not as how well you do but how little you do, two basic questions arise:

  1. Is someone or some organization being cheated?
  2. Is there something fundamentally unethical about being a slacker?

The first question applied to those trapped—willingly or not—in contextual slackerism leads quickly to the conclusion that the organization bears at least as great a burden of responsibility as the employee for deficient work motivation. Applied to the personal slacker, the question about whether an employer was cheated becomes more difficult. There does seem to be an element of reneging on implicit or explicit pledges to fulfill responsibilities here, but it’s also true that most employment contracts in the United States (though not so much in Europe where this question would require more prolonged consideration) leave the organization broad latitude for dismissing workers whose performance is inadequate.

Next, is there something fundamentally unethical about slacking off? Most basic ethical theories are going to return some form of a yes verdict. From a utilitarian perspective—one trying to maximize the common good and happiness—it seems like problems are going to arise in most workplaces when coworkers are forced to pick up assignments the slacker was supposed to complete or could have completed easily with just a bit more effort. Similarly, basic ethics of duties include the one we all have to maximize our own potential and abilities, and rigorously avoiding work seems, in most cases, to run against that aspiration. Probably, a satisfying ethical defense of the slacker lifestyle would need to be founded on a personal project going well beyond the limited economic world. Slacking off, in other words, would need to be part of someone’s life ambition, and therefore its questions belong to general ethics, not the more limited field of economic values treated here.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress at work invites ethical considerations of workers’ obligations to their own happiness.
  • Office romance may broaden the range of values applying to career choices.
  • Status deriving from one’s work can be an important compensation, but it is difficult to quantify.
  • Slacking off—working to not work—may result from an employee’s work environment or it may be a personal choice.

Review Questions

  1. What are some of the ways stress at work can cause unhappiness in life?
  2. Why is the office an important scene of romance in today’s world?
  3. What do you imagine the rewards of status to be?
  4. What kind of work contract would encourage slackerism?