Empowerment as an Ethical Endeavor

By the 1980s empowerment was a very popular concept influencing the actions of all sorts of powerful companies. Everywhere corporations—from Kodak to Wal-Mart to Kentucky Fried Chicken—were implementing employee empowerment programs. Books extolling empowerment were selling millions of copies in a general atmosphere of corporate doubt and fear. Many fine ideas—freedom, dignity, and self-governance—swept into corporate boardrooms and on to factory floors. Yet the concept has remained enigmatic, with definitions and understandings pounded out on different forges (participatory management supporters, Total Quality Management (TQM), corporate culture theorists, organizational learning advocates, organizational development proponents and a stray socialist or two).

The critical and empirical literature casts considerable doubt on managerial claims to empower workers through various kinds of programs and projects. The gap between the rhetoric of empowerment and the reality for most workers is immense. Certainly management’s pushing of decision-making lower down the corporate order may enable some workers to acquire new skills and competencies. Some may even increase their feelings of self-worth and efficacy. But the evidence is overwhelming that the companies are not introducing empowerment strategies because it is the “right thing” to do. In fact, management-induced empowerment is essentially an adaptive strategy for organizational survival and image-making. To do so, management focuses on making workers “feel” empowered.

Can we make a convincing argument for empowerment as an ethical endeavour? Can we argue for empowerment as a human right? Can we make the case for non-instrumentally oriented empowerment? Harry van der Linden provides us with an argumentative structure in “A Kantian defense of enterprise democracy” (in J. Kneller and S. Axinn [Eds.], Autonomy and community: readings in contemporary Kantian social philosophy [1998]). Kant’s famous categorical imperative affirmed that moral law had to be universal and that humanity had to be treated as an end in itself.

We were only free if our moral perspective was universalizable. This axial Kantian idea pertained to the individual’s freedom to be self-determining and able to adopt a critical stance towards moral norms and social practices. Thus, the very notion of critique assumed that the institutions we inhabit are pre-constituted and may disenable our ability to be self-determining in our daily interactions. However, Van der Linden believes that we can affirm that to be individually self-determining requires that we be co-legislators in the political and economic realms. The political system must “guarantee for all the conditions that enable one to be a co-legislator.” This requires constitutional democracy, the protection of basic civic and political rights. But the pedagogical procedures enabling participation must be in place (the latter is the missing dimension of liberal democratic regimes). In the economic context, the main focus of our attention, van der Linden argues that the categorical imperative requires that “all workers become co-legislators in their companies and have various economic rights that protect their conditions of participatory autonomy or co-legislatorship…”

He thinks that employees are usually treated as “means only” because they are “systematically denied the opportunity to co-determine the rules governing their company and work.” The absence of the right of co-determination undermines the well-being of the workers. And the interest of the employers—the corporate managers—may also violate the public interest. It is in the “realm of ends as the ultimate end of the moral law [that] makes the ideal of enterprise democracy imperative.” But the objections to enterprise democracy are often raised. Workers are said to lack the competence to manage firms, and they have insufficient motivation to participate in decision-making. Van der Linden’s retort is that, in fact, workers do manifest sufficient motivation to engage in decisions pertaining to the day-to-day conduct of their jobs (work pace/schedule, distribution of specific tasks and so on). They also participate in many of the particular decisions concerning grievances and other personnel matters.

They have the incentive at these levels. The main problem pertains to their competence and motivation to engage in decisions that affect the entire enterprise (introduction of new technology, distribution of profits, investment and product diversification). Here, matters are more complex and challenging. Indeed, empowerment advocates will not even pose the haunting question of ownership. And those proposing the transition from private to social forms of ownership offer a bewildering array of scenarios and practical experiments. But the just learning society framework (see my Designing the just learning society: a critical perspective [2005]) would, minimally, goad companies and workers into “creating relations between workers and experts in technology and business [so] that the idea of enterprise democracy can still be upheld.”

Why bother? Van der Linden argues that self-respect, self-realization and improved material conditions are the intrinsic rewards of democratic decision-making itself. He recognizes that persons can achieve self-realization and gain self-respect outside the work domain. As well, some workers may just travel along for a “free ride” on the efforts of others. But the question of “active participation” at all levels of work organization, he argues, ought to be understood as a responsibility. Each of us, then, has the moral duty to be committed to the welfare of others. It is our “duty to help to shape both the internal and external decisions of one’s firm so that the autonomy and happiness are promoted in general.”

Within the Kantian moral framework, non-participation signifies that “one’s fellow workers are not positively respected as co-legislators.” We do not usually consider that when opt out, remain silent, mute or deaf to the other, that we are not being morally responsible. Van der Linden  counsels us to perceive the “autonomous self … as co-legislative.” Van der Linden states forthrightly  that enterprise democracy “requires that private productive property ownership be socialized.”

One can only imagine how that message would play in the Harvard School of Business luncheon seminars with Fortune 500 executives. He thinks that democratic firms would “provide all workers with the opportunity for decision-making and thus enable the development of participatory autonomous individuals.” A radical shift away from the idea that the “business of business is business” is thus required.

The problem with leaving the big picture decisions to exorbitantly paid executives (the ratio between their salaries and the average workers has increased exponentially over last few decades) is that the corporate interest cannot pursue policies that are universal in import. In Rawls’ language, executive decisions make the “better off” better off; workers remain “worse off.” Van der Linden thinks that the “interests of the workers are more representative of the interests of most consumers and citizens.” If workers had “more control in democratic firms”, van der Linden avers, they would be enabled to “take increased moral responsibility for, and awareness of, possible economic harm.”

The firm must be transformed into a “social good” (P. Davies and A. Mills, “Ethics, empowerment and ownership.” In J. Quinn and P. Davies [Eds.]. Ethics and empowerment  [1999]). Davies and Mills argue persuasively that the “term ‘empowerment’ shall also be considered in terms of justice (as well as control) particularly from the point of view of a human being’s inalienable right to be treated with dignity, as well as the individual’s perception of justice arising out of their experience of the organisation.” Anyone out there listening?

They resist, then, the notion that empowerment is something to be easily cast aside at first sight of a new management fad or twist in the economic climate and ethos. They add their voice to the growing chorus of international voices that challenges the transnational corporation’s right to dispose of people and goods and services any way their managers see fit. Thus, current company law unjustly divorces ownership from responsibility: the “requirements of justice and participation in industry are seriously lacking.” The results of this great divorce are devastatingly evident everywhere in the world.

Davies and Mills (with van der Linden) believe that “as long as the law effectively sanctions the huge reward and decision-making power between those who contribute their capital, and those who contribute their work, then empowerment can only remain denuded of any real meaning.” Distributive justice calls for the “just distribution of decision-making.”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.