Humans are susceptible to trends. Even the fiercest individualist doesn’t form her desires and personal goals in a social vacuum. This extends to moral attitudes too. Skirt lengths go up and down with the times, both literally and metaphorically.
The proneness of personal morals to social influence has long encouraged missionary-types to think they should cross the globe to save people’s souls. These days, though, the missionary in your life is as likely to be a manager in your workplace as a Mormon doing speculative house-calls - and certainly, the manager is harder to get rid of. In the last decade in the UK, there’s been an escalation in attempts, both by corporations and public organisations, to alter workers’ moral attitudes. To those who endorse the attitudes in question, the attempts may seem harmless - indeed, they may be practically invisible. But even if you think a given moral agenda is self-evidently correct, I think you should recognise that there are significant problems with your boss trying to push it on you.
It’s the 2010 Equality Act that kick-started the surge in moralisation in workplaces. Among other things, this law says that an employer is to be held accountable for any discrimination and harassment carried out by its employees against people with protected characteristics, unless it can show that it has taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent it. To defend itself, the burden falls on the employer to show that it has introduced adequate internal procedures aimed at prevention. The drafters of the Equality Act apparently conceived this law as a kind of “reflexive” or "smart" regulation: that is, as incentivising organisations to create internal procedures that will meet regulatory standards, where those procedures are to some extent self-initiated and self-driven (treating a sector or organisation, somewhat artificially, as a “self”). With this sort of regulation, then, there is a move away from “command and control” to something more indirect and quasi-autonomous.
In response, many HR departments have taken on the task, not just of getting employees to understand and formally observe their legal duties under the Equality Act, but more ambitiously of getting them to live the underpinning values. If you work in one such organisation, you will be familiar with the script. NGOS (cough, Stonewall) and independent experts have been brought in to set concrete equalities goals for organisations, draw up codes of conduct, and feed workplaces with regular motivational communications. Equalities training, of both compulsory and voluntary kinds, has become ubiquitous. (Indeed, an employment tribunal last year found that equality training must be regularly refreshed in an organisation so it does not become “stale”). Staff equality networks have been formed for those with particular protected characteristics, ostensibly as social networks but also with an accompanying ethical mission: to “educate” other employees about what language and attitudes to take towards those with the characteristics in question.
Perhaps this all sounds perfectly fine to you. But it seems to me that some employers have developed a taste for moralisation that far outstrips the initial motivation to meet statutory obligations. There has been gradual mission creep - quite literally. For once you have invested heavily in a piece of machinery, why would you let it go to waste? And managers and experts with an initially circumscribed task inevitably look for ways to extend it, to keep themselves in a job. So we find that many organisations have started to go further than the letter of the law. As an employee, you may well be asked to demonstrate in job or promotion applications that your attitudes and behaviour are in line with the values of the organisation, where the values in question go beyond legally-imposed ones: “Kindness” or “Inclusion” or “Authenticity” or “Respect", for instance. You may be encouraged to “challenge” other employees who do not manifest the right values. Company-sponsored lanyards and badges have proliferated, advertising to others that the wearer supports something, or is against something else. The working calendar is now as peppered with awareness days as the Catholic calendar is peppered with holy days of obligation and feast days. Training has become more and more elaborate: from “implicit bias” to “microaggressions” to “good allyship” to “being an active bystander” to “role models” and beyond. And then of course there are the activist flags, waving proudly from buildings at various scheduled times of year like banners in the Crusades. Competitive forces and governmental encouragement mean that new norms adopted within institutions ripple out contagiously to other institutions within the same sector, under the guise of dissemination of "best practice”. Attempting to induce moral trends in employees has itself become a workplace trend.
From a progressive employer’s perspective, all of this presumably looks good. It reduces the risk of punitive measures from regulators, and it apparently positively controls the behaviour of employees, helping avoid damaging bad behaviour scandals. It’s also a branding opportunity, allowing an organisation to show off its principles to audiences that care about that sort of thing. As was noted in a 2015 government report: “When engaging in voluntary self-regulation, firms that are highly motivated by reputation may focus more on implementing practices that offer the most visibility and publicity.” It’s no coincidence that companies are often moved to advertise new and elaborate self-regulatory measures in the wake of corporate scandals.
But such is the momentum of the missionary impulse, some organisations have ended up endorsing procedures positively at odds with existing equality legislation, quite farcically. Since my Mastermind specialist-subject-from-hell is university equality policy, I’ll give you two examples from there.
First: as I write this, as far as I know criminology lecturer James Treadwell is still under investigation by his employer, the University of Staffordshire, for tweeting allegedly “transphobic” sentiments about the importance of female-only spaces for women, and potential problems with self-ID policies. Meanwhile, near identical comments recently have been made by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. (Yes, that’s right, that’s the public body in charge of implementing the Equality Act.)
Second: on Warwick University’s Equality, Diversion and Inclusion pages, you can find the following deathless prose (my italics):
“In the Equality Act, sexual orientation refers to person's attraction towards:
People of the same sex.
People of the opposite sex.
People of either sex.
The definition provided above is that of the Equality Act, but since the creation of the Equality Act terminology on ED&I issues has changed and progressed. Warwick acknowledges that there are many ways that people identify. This is why we use the acronym 'LGBTQUA+', meaning lesbian, gay, bi+, trans, queer, undefined (for those who are questioning or who choose not to define their sexual orientation, in the latter case some individuals may also use the word queer), asexual/aromantic, and identities which are subject to similar forms of prejudice and discrimination.”
In fewer words: in the name of progress, Warwick has apparently abandoned the definition of sexual orientation as given in the Equality Act.
Facts and values
Even leaving aside these extreme cases, there are problems with top-down moralising by employers. The main one is that morality doesn’t work like this. Yes, moral attitudes are subject to social influence, but still, it takes some front to think you could change an individual’s attitudes in a deep-rooted, long-lasting way via a few training days and interactive quizzes.
The underlying vision of morality here is technocratic, seeing it as grounded simply in the presence or absence of certain kinds of information or facts. Once we have all the facts, it’s assumed, sensible people can then come to agree about the right values. Accordingly, the improving of people’s morals is taken simply to involve the furnishing of new information, usually with some sort of scientific gloss to establish its authority. But, as Michael Sandel points out in his book The Tyranny of Merit, what we do with this information - which facts we prioritise or discount, how we interpret them, rank them, and so on - can only be settled by reference to background values in the first place. Facts on their own settle nothing.
Appeal to the “facts” is the standard conceit of workplace training models, which tend to start by presenting the listener with information that, it’s assumed, will do the work of moral persuasion on its own - statistics about how certain protected groups say they feel unhappy at work, or claims about what implicit bias or gender identity supposedly are according to “science”, for instance. These facts then tend to be followed by practical recommendations for organisational behaviour in future. Yet the facts in question - if they are facts rather than sheer inventions, which isn’t always the case - are inevitably cherry-picked to reflect and reinforce a larger pattern of background priorities and values, intentionally or otherwise. If you already share the background evaluative commitments, then the facts as presented may act as levers, reminding you of these shared commitments so that you find yourself nodding along with the recommendations. If you don’t share the background commitments, then the facts on their own will do nothing except underline the basic disagreement, and leave you fuming in impotent silence.
A good example of this is discussed in the book From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America To Same-Sex Marriage by Darel Paul. In 1996, the US Defense of Marriage Act confined the institution of marriage to opposite-sex couples at federal level and beyond, and had overwhelming support amongst elites. Yet by 2003 this support had largely vanished, replaced with fervent espousal of equality ideals in the realm of marriage. Paul describes how, in the interim, professional and managerial elites in US corporations leveraged their class power from the top down to bring about the “normalisation” of same-sex marriage. As he documents, the elites themselves thought of this - and still do - as a cost-free, empathic move in the direction of progress, brought benevolently to the masses from a position of superior moral education. As the wife of a wife, I’ve personally benefited from a similar move in the UK, also brought about by the manoeuvring of elites. I’m very glad of it. But, as Paul makes clear, I would think that, wouldn’t I? - because my approval is rooted in a wider liberal world view, espoused mostly by affluent and college-educated people like me.
This framing is secular, sees the sexual revolution of the 1960s as basically liberating, and focuses on the couple as a more important unit than the procreative family. If you have this view, and the affluence and education which tend to go with it, then it’s no skin off your nose if the gays get to marry. Some liberals tends to conclude haughtily that any reluctance whatsoever about same-sex marriage or the abandoning of the procreative family ideal must be “homophobic” and “patriarchal”, or - only slightly better in their eyes - a failure of intelligence. Yet in fact, it’s they who seem ignorant of just how deeply their own socioeconomic status and education shapes their values in partisan, arational ways; and of how for non-elites, the procreative family may be more important than the couple for a variety of comprehensible socioeconomic reasons.
Taken in this light, attempts at moral manipulation by employers are like pushing icing around on an already-baked cake. If you don’t like the cake, fancy patterns in the icing will make no difference. Even the most zealous of bosses tends to know when he or she manages a workplace in which the majority of employees are constituted to resist the liberal framing in advance. That’s why - despite the ostensibly universal status of the underlying values in question - you don’t tend to find implicit bias and gender identity training being pushed in workplaces dominated by religious, immigrant, or (other) working-class employees. (Where you do find it, there can be confrontation: as in the fuss around the “No Outsiders” equalities teaching material in a Birmingham community school with a high Muslim attendance.)
In contrast, where most employees and customers are already relatively well-off, formally highly educated, and non-religious - as in UK Universities, for instance - the territory is ripe for managers to spiral off unchallenged into territory formerly reserved for priests, and for few employees even to notice quite how weird and quasi-religious it has all become. The evaluatively disempowered minority in such workplaces mostly keep quiet, because lip service to the bosses’ values is so obviously linked to their career progression, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel furious or defeated about it.
Morals as workplace weapon
A further problem, exacerbating the last one, is that once a favoured set of values is introduced explicitly into a workplace, they can and will be weaponised for personal gain. Many missionaries are utterly sincere, but some are in it as a way to exert power over others. You probably already know the type of person I mean - you’ve met her. She - and in my experience, it is quite often a “she” - has grasped, unconsciously or otherwise, that appealing to attitudes preferred by bosses gives her a competitive edge over rivals. Of course, she doesn’t see it that way - and nor would she recognise that her burning moral mission is at least partly a product of structural conditions set in place by her HR department. She’s adept at speaking in whatever codes and buzzwords the management currently favours, and at striking whatever public poses in support of a victim group that will get her most attention, for least personal cost. The unscrupulous version of this person goes further, undermining rivals by slyly insinuating their lapses on social media, or even outright denouncing them to bosses. Where others express dissent from workplace values, she presents this as a sign of bad character, facilitating their ostracism. Her actions, otherwise easy to clock as motivated by competition and self-interest, are cloaked as admirable and praised as such. Even for those who feel no tension with the liberal worldview, it can be demoralising to witness the rise and rise of this secular fake saint, whilst the working context provides no opportunity to express this sentiment safely.
Demanding kindness from strangers
All of these effects are worsened where the institutional goal is no longer to avoid certain bad behaviours, fairly concretely described, but to inculcate certain good behaviours in employee, nebulously conceived. Genuinely manifesting the virtues, as Aristotle knew, requires sensitivity to context. It’s far too complex for the brute didacticism of HR departments. Properly operationalising “kindness” institutionally, for instance, would require a sophisticated grasp of complication: Kindness to whom? In what way, exactly? At what cost to others? Do we sometimes have to be cruel to be kind? Should we be kind to those who are unkind? and so on. As I have written elsewhere, kindness is a value which, when adopted at institutional level usually degenerates into bland superficiality and counterproductive sentimentality, and can easily be hijacked for personal gain or to shut others up.
Under these circumstances a workplace can get structured into three tiers: a cadre of loud, unreflective missionary-types, wielding power in a way that’s difficult to argue with; a small number of disempowered dissenters, feeling alienated and resentful; and a larger group of quiet-lifers, nodding along and suppressing any qualms. Instead of a sincere and thorough-going embedding of positive values in the heart of organisation, there is mere compliance - at best through prior agreement, and at worst through fear.
The importance of free speech
One thing that emerges from all of this is that the oft-heard worry that freedom of speech is in tension with the pursuit of equality and other morality goals is unfounded - and in fact, the opposite is true. (Indeed, the claim that free speech threatens certain goals is often just another expression of class interests, since it controls who gets to speak and so can consolidate the claimant’s power). Freedom of speech on the one hand, and achieving moral goals in the workplace on the other, are not competing aims to be weighed against each other - for freedom of speech is essential to any serious collective moral inquiry. So, as Simon Fanshawe makes clear in his excellent recent book, if the aim of an employer is to go further than mere legislative compliance into attitude-remodelling, there will have to be extensive freedom of expression there, detached from the threat of professional losses. This will permit people with competing world-views to question received wisdom, talk frankly about what matters to them, and slowly reach an accommodation.
Equally, if employers want to know what their employees really think - as opposed to what, employees believe, they will be disapproved of by others if they are not seen to think - anonymous polling should be used instead of open hand-shows or the use of reps. Internal processes also should be developed to positively discourage the hijacking, virtue-signalling, whispering, denouncing, and other power grabs that explicit moral talk in a workplace makes possible, and that intimidates dissenters into continued silence. (Basically: let’s bring back a healthy degree of stigma for acting like the class sneak).
This all sounds very time-consuming and resource-intensive, though. And managers are never neutral arbiters, and always have vested interests in the direction of the discussion - otherwise they wouldn’t have instigated it. The disproportionate power that managers wield in discussions about preferred values will inevitable create its own counterproductive dynamics, making some participants overly keen to please, and others resentful and alienated. We also need to remember that some disagreements between people are probably intractable. Their underlying value systems are too different, and too core to their cultural and class identities, for the differences to be ironed out even through extensive discussion. The only reason many people in progressive workplaces don’t notice this, is that it is their cultural and class identity in the ascendency.
Superb analysis! Thank you. I'm currently working on a piece with a similar theme, specifically focusing on HR Departments' encouragement of the practice of declaring one's "preferred pronouns" (PPs) in one's email signature. This is clearly part of the broader EDI program and exemplifies the problem that you describe so succinctly:
"Properly operationalising “kindness” institutionally, for instance, would require a sophisticated grasp of complication: Kindness to whom? In what way, exactly? At what cost to others? Do we sometimes have to be cruel to be kind? Should we be kind to those who are unkind? and so on. As I have written elsewhere, kindness is a value which, when adopted at institutional level usually degenerates into bland superficiality and counterproductive sentimentality, and can easily be hijacked for personal gain or to shut others up."
The ostensive motivation for encouraging the use of PPs is "kindness." The problem is that the effects of this kindness include persuading people that sex is less important than gender identity. This is a pernicious, albeit socially condoned, lie. Among other ill effects, it teaches people to disregard their own knowledge and instincts, with regard to the obvious sex of people with whom they interact. The many evils of gender ideology don't require elaboration here, obviously, but the important point is that this is a *counterfeit* of kindness. It purports to be morally good, while, in actuality, it actively promotes a serious harm with many morally objectionable features.
This insertion of a counterfeit version of morality undermines the social fabric of trust in shared values. In my forthcoming article, I liken this fabric to the general economy, with moral tokens as a metaphor for capital. When counterfeit currency circulates, the trust in the official currency becomes diluted.
Another related feature of abuse of the general economy is repurposing the profits of illegal activities, aka money laundering. A slight extension of this metaphor leads me to the conclusion that the entire EDI edifice, and PPs in particular are its moral equivalent.
I think we'd be safe to recognize that HR departments that encourage using PPs, along with their institutionalized propagation of EDI in general, is actually *lie laundering*.
This is fascinating and compelling. I recognise the power-grasping missionary all too well... Also, I have to say, Sussex's loss is our gain.