Business ethics, a solution to the problem of ‘The Big Quit’;

Picture of Pablo Gasull

Nietzsche described the human being as the unfixed animal; Although we are determined by inescapable factors such as culture, time and family, human beings have to deal with the world of possibilities: what I want to study, how I want to live, what principles I should believe in, etc; We are, to some extent, a halfway house; Therefore, character, virtues and habits are not innately possessed, but are acquired through learning. In a moral sense, humanity is educated and, paradoxically, we do not become properly human until we learn and choose to be human..

It is this ability to choose what I want or what we want to be – in society – that makes the world a pleasant or unpleasant place; We can live in a society that is individualistic, detached from the problems of others, or we can choose one that is inclusive, that protects and cares for all equally; We are offered a range of alternatives, and, as Ortega y Gasset used to say, we cannot not choose;

This area of possible horizons is precisely what ethics is all about, and it is always directed towards the same question: where do we want to go? And although some thinkers consider that ethics has nothing to say to the company, the choice of different paths is also very much in the company: how do I want to treat my employees, how do I want to work with my customers, what values do I want to live by and pass on to my stakeholders? The company, like human existence, is a system that is open to the alternative of getting worse or better;

In this world of possibilities lies an idea of great interest: ideas transform life and bring about new realities. Let us not fall into the error of thinking that ethics is an entelechy that only concerns a few philosophers who fly around in the world of ideas without managing to bring them down to earth; Antonio Diéguez and Thomas Sturn explained this idea very aptly in an article they wrote for El Confidencial: “Philosophy may not, as Aristotle pointed out, be sought primarily for its practical utility, but those who present it as a way of understanding reality which, unlike that of the sciences, never leads to or seeks its transformation are wrong; as if its realm were not of this world or its ideas were only for personal cultivation.”.

From this point on, the theoretical conceptions we have of the professional world transform my concrete work and the company to which I belong; Aware of this transformative power of ethics, entrepreneurs are showing an increasing interest in reflecting on issues that are not exclusively economic in nature: work-life balance, employee wellbeing and mental health, the social and environmental impact of organisations, their commitment to certain political causes, transparency and consistency between what they say and what they do, etc. Each of these issues carries with it a way of understanding the company, the relationship between professionals and, above all, human existence;

The big quit, a paradigm shift

Currently, companies have serious problems in attracting and retaining talent, and this challenge, which is still a serious problem for organisations, is fundamentally due to one cause: the way organisations understand work is far from what the new generations want – more flexibility, autonomy, quality of life etc..–. Professionals seek to give meaning to their work, they are in search of a purpose, they want their profession to have an impact and to leave a mark on society. These demands, whether justified or not, are an unprecedented aspiration in the world of work;

A paradigm shift has taken place, giving rise to a completely different ethical framework; Companies that fail to grasp this transformation will lose talent – and a lot of money – in the coming years; We are already seeing the consequences, which have been described under the phenomenon of The big quit, i.e. the abandonment of those jobs that do not fulfil the aspirations of individuals. According toan IESE study, the causes of abandonment are very diverse; These include weariness, meaninglessness, the desire to undertake personal projects or the search for jobs that allow them to spend more time with their families;

In the face of talent drain, how do you transform corporate culture?

Aware of the need to transform corporate culture, companies face a double-edged obstacle, because they not only have to choose what kind of company they want to be, but also how they get there, how, in the end, a company’s corporate values are transformed. And this second point is really the challenge facing business ethics;

In the wake of the 2008 crisis, multinationals, especially in the financial sector, began to worry about business ethics, even though it had been present in universities since the early 1970s; Ethics manuals and training programmes were developed to make professionals aware of the limits and risks incurred when transparency and honesty are lacking; However, these initiatives were based on a certain conception of ethics: utilitarian, since it only examined conflicts that could cause harm to the company, and normative, since it reduced ethics to compliance with a rule; I will elaborate on this last point.

Business ethics manuals aim to establish a set of laws or rules that define right and wrong actions within organisations; Normative ethics tells us that compliance with a norm is sufficient to explain how we act morally, with the personal intention with which the norm is complied with being irrelevant.. Let’s take an example; We have all experienced the painful feeling of paying taxes at one time or another; Normative ethics is content that one pays taxes and considers it irrelevant whether one pays taxes because one is afraid of going to jail or because one really believes that it is good to contribute to the common good of society; However, we all know that the intention, the disposition with which it is done, is very different and that, although the end – paying taxes – is the same, the ethical outcome is not.

We see, therefore, that business ethics is primarily concerned with rules without taking into account the personal intentions, desires and aspirations of each individual; And, going back to the problem of The big quit, this is one of the causes why professionals quit their jobs -at least when we are talking about skilled jobs-, because companies are not taking into consideration the personal ideals of each one. In a moral sense, true corporate transformation is not determined by an ethical manual that externally governs the behaviour of employees, but by an inner conversion that is externalised and reflected in the culture of the company.. Another example; There is no point in a company boasting an environmental policy if the employees themselves do not assimilate, believe in and live an ethic of care for the planet that is not only confined to the professional sphere, but also to their private lives;

Professionals no longer see the company as a place dedicated exclusively to work, but as a transformative force in social life that offers a space where employees can share and realise their innermost aspirations;

Normative ethics, by not considering these personal aspirations, settles for compliance at work and establishes an unbridgeable distance between private life and the professional world; However, Can a company be sustainable without the need for its employees to be concerned about being sustainable in their private lives? More than 2,000 years ago and without having known multinationals in a capitalist market, Aristotle tried to answer this question; For the Greek philosopher, such a separation is not possible, since the values that a company promulgates must be vividly embodied in each employee; Otherwise, they are pure window dressing; Strictly speaking, there are no company values, but personal behaviours; It is this internal coherence that is required of professionals that gives meaning and purpose to the work;.

In short,the great renunciation is a symptom of the ethical disorientation of many companies., who have not given it the importance it deserves or have simply excluded it from the business world as a personal matter; However, professionals are demanding precisely those issues that concern both professional and personal life: work-life balance, social impact, mental health and well-being, transparency and honesty, commitment to certain political causes, etc. Companies in the 21st century will have to be, for survival or moral commitment, more humane and, hopefully, more humanistic;

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