The Moral Perspective on Duty of Care
Part IV: The Moral Perspective on Duty of Care
Duty of care is frequently defined as an organisation’s moral and legal responsibility to protect employees against threats and risks when they act globally. Following our last article, which revolved around the legal perspective on duty of care, in this article I will examine the moral angle.
As the above definition implies, there are two distinct motivations that drive duty of care in organisations – the legal and moral. That is not to say that these are the only drivers behind duty of care; in fact, that’s far from it. However, it is these perspectives that often dominate the conversation. In order to comprehensively understand this concept, we need to explore how this manifests when duty of care is operationalised.
To begin with, we must examine the moral obligations of organisations. Without diving deeply into moral philosophy, the basic definition is, an obligation that arises out of considerations of right and wrong. To this end, an organisation must examine the goodness of the effects of an action, policy, or procedure, and the goodness of an action, policy, or procedure itself. When enacting duty of care, the moral perspective should be seen as a guidepost to decision making.
In many respects, moral considerations are subjective and will vary depending on an organisation’s principles, as well as operational context, including industry and geography. However, the moral perspective plays a very important role. As we established in the previous article, there is no law that dictates the content of duty of care. Rather, duty of care is determined by organisations and the ruling social norms.
As a multitude of business scandals have demonstrated, laws are not enough. Despite working in fields that are highly regulated, the Danske Bank Estonia and the BP Deepwater Horizon scandals exemplify the fact that regulations do not guarantee responsible behaviour. There needs to be an underlying principle (read: morality) guiding organisations. Similarly, when it comes to duty of care, it is important to understand the fact that compliance is not enough. You have not fulfilled your obligation if your actions are simply compliant; you have to be able to demonstrate that you have acted to the best of your ability and knowledge in ensuring the wellbeing of your employees.
Duty of care becomes particularly important for global organisations that operate in geographically disparate locations. Regardless of whether the organisations are profit seeking, non-profit, or governmental, it has become the norm to deploy employees as business travellers and expats to different places in the world. This cross-border movement of people brings individuals to places where the challenges are different than the ones that they normally face. This results in a change to their risk profile, and in many cases, increases their vulnerability in terms of safety and security. The fact that employees are globally mobile and operate in destinations that they are not used to is one of the main reasons why organisations carry an increased responsibility regarding duty of care. Employees should not have to undertake increased risk when fulfilling their responsibility to the organisations that they work for.
The risk exposure that a traveller faces is a combination of the actual threat level at the given destination and the vulnerability of the traveller. The risk level varies according to the profile of the employee, the type of industry, the work performed, as well as the locations where they operate. It is not possible to change the threat level, as this is determined by external factors. However, by applying layers of security, the organisation can reduce the vulnerability of the traveller, and thereby also reduce the level of risk. In this respect, at the most basic level, duty of care is the organisations responsibility to offer the traveller appropriate mitigating measures to reduce their vulnerability. This can only be achieved if the organisation has access to sufficient analytical tools to evaluate the given threats at the destination and then subsequently apply the appropriate operational measures that would effectively reduce the vulnerability. This would reduce the overall risk level faced by the employee and better fit the actual risk appetite of the organisation and traveling employee.
Lisbeth Claus, professor of Management and Global Human Resources, has completed an extensive benchmark study of duty of care, where she collected data from 628 organisations and 718 respondents worldwide. The study shows that the perception of threats and risks is unique, differing between organisations and individuals. Moreover, the study finds that organisations are starting to be aware of duty of care as a concept, and while moral obligations are weighted heaviest, organisations acknowledge legal requirements at the same time. Statements such as ‘We care about the health, safety, and security of our traveling employees’ and ‘It is the right thing to do for our employees’ are mentioned as the most important reasons for investing in duty of care. 3
The cornerstone of duty of care, from a moral perspective, is to place the employee at the centre when addressing travel security and crisis management policies and procedures. To ensure the wellbeing of travelling employees and establish that the level of security and safety are justifiable necessitates that an organisation takes certain precautions. Not all risks can be assessed or calculated, and some arise unexpectedly and have a major impact. Nonetheless, it is the organisation’s responsibility to manage the risks in order to ensure optimal circumstances for employees who have to act globally.
As a still emerging concept, the value of which is still not fully maximised by organisations, there are no well established best practise standards or laws that describe the content of duty of care to guide decision making. This is a difficult position for employers to be in, because even if you have the best intentions, without a precise roadmap, it’s difficult to determine the extent required to fulfil one’s duty of care responsibilities. Further complicating decision making is the fact that it is only known whether the implemented mitigating measures are sufficient after something has happened. In my experience, this often manifests in one of two ways: 1) organisations act in blindness without having a concrete agenda, or 2) they choose not to do anything because it is too complex to concretise their responsibility. It can end up being very costly if you err too much on the side of caution, or, conversely, if your measures were insufficient. Often, it is the public court of opinion that determines whether your organisation has acted morally or done enough. While the fines that you can incur are significant, if the public opinion is against you, the reputation damages are much more substantial than anything else.