by Sue Choe

When I switched majors from Molecular Biology to Philosophy in college, my rationale was, “Well, when I become a doctor (the original plan), I’ll never get exposure to philosophy, so I might as well learn it while I’m in school. That’s what a liberal arts education is about, after all!” Little did I know then that I would later decide not to pursue medicine, and end up in a career in People/Human Resources. Which, interestingly, is rife with philosophical and ethical questions.

As the Head of People to several tech startups, I’ve found myself drawing from philosophical theories on a somewhat regular basis to make decisions and to define approaches. Here are four of my favorites:

Philosopher Assertion
Hobbes/Rousseau/Locke A social contract is a unifying agreement to form a ‘civil society’.
Kant Treat people as an ends, not just as a means to an end.
Bentham/Mill The best action is the one that maximizes collective utility.
Rawls When considering policies, assume you are draped by a ‘veil of ignorance’ that prevents you from knowing how this policy will impact you — whether you will benefit or lose out.

I’ll attempt to explain each philosophical theory* and how I’ve applied them within the context of People/HR.

*Many apologies to serious students of philosophy who find my explanations simplistic and lacking nuance. It’s been >20 years since I read these philosophers!

Social contract theory

At the advent of civilization, individuals came together to form communities, with an understanding that their lives would be better together than apart. To unify a ‘civil society’, they implicitly consented to a ‘social contract’, in which members commit to adhering to laws and governance in exchange for protection from the ‘state of nature’, which Thomas Hobbes described as a condition during which human lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Theory in practice: As a species, we’ve progressed from individuals to tribes to societies. I believe that self-selected communities with shared values/mission — i.e., companies — are the next ‘step’ in the evolution of society. HR should play a major role in defining the norms and governing principles of a company, including laying out conditions for inclusion and exclusion. In many cases, we have to act as the legislature, law enforcement, and judiciary in creating, enforcing, and overseeing the norms and principles of a company. For this to be a fair ‘social contract’, it’s incumbent on the company to be transparent about what these principles and criteria are, so that the people who opt to join know what they are agreeing to.

Figure 1: Evolution of groups

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In addition, in an environment of many indistinguishable companies and a shortage of strong talent, having a clear, actionable, and compelling employee value proposition (EVP) can be a key aspect of this ‘contract’; after all, people want to know what will be gained by agreeing to the norms and ways of the company. This EVP doesn’t need to be unique; it doesn’t need to even be universally compelling. But it needs to be authentic and a true reflection of the values and decisions made by the company. Think about Netflix, where they promise you will work with a ‘dream team’, and will be candid with you if and when you no longer make the cut; or Bridgewater Associates, where they promise ‘idea meritocracy’, which comes with the delivery of radical transparency, even when difficult. Not every company — just as not every society — is fit for everyone; in fact, once a company strives to appeal to everyone, it becomes an assemblage of the lowest common denominators, or just a mush of genericism.

For companies that advertise a strong EVP in their recruiting efforts, it’s critical to follow through once a candidate has become an employee. To do otherwise can feel like a bait-and-switch, and quickly diminish employee trust. It’s implicitly violating a contract that was agreed to by both parties. I don’t think it would be too extreme to analogize an inauthentic EVP to cutting someone’s salary in half once they’ve joined the company. At least, I feel that way.

Ends, not means

Immanuel Kant proposed that we all have a moral obligation to treat people as an ends, not just as a means to an end. In other words, it’s unethical to use people; rather, we should consider them as whole beings.

Theory in practice: With everything we do as a company, we should think about the impact on the people, not just the business. I know I’m stating the obvious here. But I’ve heard many senior leaders utter the words: “Well, we are paying them, so they should just do what we say/accept what we tell them.” That sentiment suggests that they view their employees as cogs in a wheel, or a means to an end, versus considering the effect of the change on their well-being, psyche, relationship with the company.

This is not a black-and-white filter. As with all things related to People/HR, it requires balancing competing priorities and objectives. And yes, this is a business so we have to think about the health of the business and its impact on all stakeholders, not just the employees. However, as HR leaders, we can apply Kant’s theory when anticipating the broader needs of employees affected by lay-offs (by offering humane severance, assistance in finding their next opportunity, continued health coverage), or when arranging holiday coverage (offering make-up days, allowing to work-from-home, paying a premium), or when turning down a mobility request (sitting down to explain rationale, probing for the underlying reasons for mobility, and problem-solving to find a compromise solution). Ultimately, we should strive to treat people as human beings with feelings, other obligations, pressures, etc., consider their needs, and communicate clearly, directly, and with compassion.

A particularly tough case I’ve seen a lot is when there is someone playing a critical role at a company, working hard because they believe they will get rewarded for their work (some kind of recognition — a promotion, a bonus), although their manager/leader already knows they won’t. In that case, do you let that person continue to work hard, believing they will get this reward, or do you tell them, nicely, that they are doing useful work but that there are no guarantees?

Generally, I’m in the camp of being transparent versus disingenuous (or even being intentionally ignorant or evasive), even when there is a risk that you’ll discourage the person and they’ll leave. I think, at the end of the day, employees appreciate being respected enough to be told the truth. Kant might agree, since in one case we are using the employee solely to serve our purpose, and in the other case we are considering their whole self. If you’ve hired the right types of people and fostered the right culture, I believe most employees will still do the work. On the other hand, if there is any hint that someone was deceived, the toxicity and distrust that develops can be far worse for the organization than losing an employee prematurely.

I’m reminded of the ‘Trust Equation’ (see my previous post on this, and a recent First Round Review article about it; it’s below as a reminder). As a company, gaining trust with employees is so important, yet so easy to lose once Credibility is diminished, and Self-Orientation is increased. That’s what happens when you don’t perceive and treat your employees as whole beings.

Figure 2: Trust equation (applies to the relationship between companies and employees)

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Utility maximization

In the late 1800s, John Stuart Mill popularized a theory that the best action is the one that maximizes collective utility. In other words, when comparing two actions, the one that you should select is the one that leads to the most ‘utility’. Several versions of this theory debate what ‘utility’ actually means — pleasure? happiness? well-being?

Theory in practice: If I could only focus on one element to maximize, it would be employee’s professional fulfillment, not happiness nor pleasure nor even total well-being. Regardless, in order to apply utilitarian theory effectively at work, it must be tempered by two conditions: fairness and a long-term orientation. Otherwise, a company will end up taking actions that have short-term value for employees, e.g., outlandish policies like paying employees vast sums that would damage the business, or promoting people prematurely.

An area where I have had to apply a utilitarian approach is in determining perks and benefits for a company. As any experienced HR professional knows, removing perks can be a minefield. Those free lunches, snacks, happy hours? Try taking them away, and you could face mutiny-like conditions. At a recent company, I learned that we offered in-office yoga 2x/week, costing us about $25K/year. $25K is not an insignificant amount of dough for a startup, and when I later discovered that only ~8 employees consistently attended the classes (out of a population of 250, or ~3%), I was determined to make a change. There was a surprising amount of resistance from many sides, including the CFO (!), and we ended up compromising by reducing the cadence to 1x/week and for only 1 hour, instead of 1.5 hours, effectively saving us about $14K/year. The rationale I used was that this ‘employee engagement budget’ could be better utilized to benefit more people, and while the yogis were not pleased, they got the logic. Even looking back now, it’s not super cut-and-dry, as we had other perks such as the in-office bar where a group of 20 regulars would cluster around the taps at the end of the day. We continued to support the bar, because it provided a social outlet for large swathes of the population and was welcoming to all.

Veil of ignorance

To make truly fair and equitable decisions, John Rawls proposes that when considering policies, assume you are draped by a ‘veil of ignorance’ that prevents you from knowing how this policy will impact you — whether you will benefit or lose out. By not knowing, you automatically approach the problem with an empathetic, unbiased lens, putting yourself in everyone/anyone’s position, and exploring your (company’s) values.

Theory in practice: One of HR’s jobs is to ensure fairness and consistent alignment with company values. There are many areas where actions or policies threaten to conflict with those values, and applying the ‘veil of ignorance’ can help suss out whether or not we are doing the right thing. I’ll go through several real and fictional examples below:

  • “Coffee is for closers only”. You might remember this Alec Baldwin line from his “ABC — Always Be Closing” diatribe from Glengarry Glen Ross, when he was chewing out a ragtag group of real estate salesmen for failing to close shady deals. (Watch this if you don’t know it — it’s iconic.) If you were to apply the ‘veil of ignorance’ to this ‘policy’, you might find yourself agreeing that — for a sales company — those who close deals should be rewarded by receiving special treatment and rewards, and those who fail shouldn’t even get a free cup of coffee. That could very well be consistent with their values.

At a company that I know, coffee was distributed in the following manner: each week, during a large meeting of 30-40 employees, an executive assistant would walk in, balancing 5 Starbucks coffees, and distribute them to the CEO, CPO, CFO, CTO, and CMO while the other 25-35 people looked on with envy. If we were to apply a ‘veil of ignorance’ to this, would we agree that C-suite should get special treatment? Possibly. It depends on a company’s values, and there are many companies that value hierarchy.

This is the same company that threw big parties for C-level birthdays. This type of behavior perpetuates a belief that C-suite employees are special and should be treated as such. Through my efforts, I eliminated those C-level birthday celebrations, but definitely ruffled some feathers through that process.

  • “Will employees really find out?” I hear this a lot, and it usually signals something is unfair. (And generally, assume that yes, they will find out.) For example, when determining severance pay for departing employees, it can be tempting to give one person special consideration because of XYZ reason, but unless we can articulate a consistent and values-based approach through a ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment, I steer away from individualized decisions. In a recent case, a company was laying off a division due to a change in the strategic direction of the company. Two similarly-situated employees (same tenure, level, performance) were being let go, but one had a particularly strong relationship with the CEO and had requested additional severance, which the CEO supported. I protested, saying that that felt unfair. That’s when the question, “Will the other employee really find out?” came up. We discussed our company values, fairness, and ended up creating and using a consistent calculation to determine severance that all parties felt comfortable with.
  • “But I don’t have kids.” With the recent changes to paid family leave in New York, several companies have expanded their parental leave policies, some going as far as offering a full year of leave (partially paid). It’s incredible and uplifting to see companies going far beyond what is legally required to support the new parents on their staff. However, rather than being happy about these changes, some employees have asked, “Well, I don’t have kids, and now I have to take on more of the burden of my team member who is going out. That’s an unfair policy.” While I can understand their narrow view*, I would ask them to think about what kind of company they would want to work for — one that skimps and gives the minimum leave allowed by law, or one that is willing to spend its own resources to offer employees more time to bond with their newborn. There are probably people who prefer the skimping company if they place a strong value on frugality and steering resources to revenue-generating activities. Again, the ‘veil’ enables us to really explore what matters to us and our values.

*Their view was colored by having to do more work, which is the root issue. We addressed that.

As I mentioned earlier, HR can play a significant role in presiding over the values and principles of an organization. It’s therefore natural for ethics and political philosophy to have a place in the day-to-day operations of HR. We have to make a lot of difficult decisions each day, and having some understanding of philosophy can provide helpful direction — even though some of the approaches can conflict!

Sue Choe is an advisor for PeopleTech Partners.

Originally published at


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