Ethics are agreed upon rules, and therefore, can be cross-cultural. Morals are based on individual experience and while there may be shared morals across all cultures (don’t kill your coworkers), morals don’t always allow for class or cultural variances.
Recently, the internet went a little nuts or maybe carrots with a report that WeWork execs declared itself to be a vegetarian only space. The discussion about how workplaces encourage wellness and better behavior sparks something important for how employers and plan sponsors may want to think about their own activities in encouraging saving for retirement.
Encouraging wellness at work is nothing new. Since the 1990s, more and more workplaces have taken responsibility for worker health through various programs. Overtime, workplace wellness moved from limiting occupational health hazards (think, mold in the air vents) to encouraging weight loss and mindfulness. There is now a days-long conference on mindfulness at work with speakers from Cigna, SAP and Patagonia. And there is also an increased push towards more ethical behavior at work. More regulators ask for corporate training departments to include ethics training in their corporate compliance training sessions.
But ethics and wellness are systems that encourage workers to make better choices. Moral decisions, like food supply are different. Ethics are rules of conduct in a specific group. Morals, on the other hand, are principals about right and wrong conduct. The key differences: Ethics are external, morals are internal; Ethics are enforceable, morals are not. And it goes deeper than that. Ethics are agreed upon rules, and therefore, can be cross-cultural. Morals are based on individual experience and while there may be shared morals across all cultures (don’t kill your coworkers), morals don’t always allow for class or cultural variances.
Applying that same sense of ethics vs. morals to wellness programs would mean that wellness programs would have to have some flexibility for cultural differences to have an effect on behavior. If wellness programs moved into the moral realm, they’d lack cultural competency. Which is where the furor over the WeWork vegetarian decree begins.
WeWork is a company that creates spaces for people who need spaces to work. And it’s headquarters decided that it would no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, nor would it reimburse employees for certain lunch options bought on work related trips. The decision was based not on wellness, i.e., health, but on morals, i.e., concern for the environment and animal welfare. In doing so, some authors likened WeWork’s decisions about meat to Hobby Lobby’s decision not to allow their healthcare to cover birth control. By way of contrast, Google implemented changes in their cafeteria towards healthier options, but those were aimed at smaller plates and better food options. Google offered options, WeWork made a decree. The question with WeWork is whether it enforced moral codes on its workers.
Employers urging participation in retirement funds have also stepped up their efforts in similar ways. Many have started to automatically enroll new hires on their enrollment dates. Some continue to discuss retirement options, and note who has and hasn’t enrolled in the retirement plans. Some companys do not allow employees to stop payments into plans at off times, thinking this keeps employees from getting distracted.
Can employers overstep their roles as encouraging good behavior (saving for retirement) into the WeWork realm? If employers stick to a wellness based system, that is, encouraging better choices by making those choices as easy as possible, they most likely will stay away from WeWork’s potentially big brother approach. But if employers stray into the ethics versus morality realm, where they mix the moral element of saving into a rule (like an ethical code), then they risk lacking cultural sensitivity and impacting negatively on their employees.
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