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Ethics and the Job Market

The job market has come under pressure of late as the economic shake-up continues. We are reminded that the world of the past, in which workers held one job their entire lives and slowly ascended the corporate ladder until retiring with complete security, no longer exists. This is probably a good thing to the extent that it represents a new economic vibrancy. In the world of economics, another name for complete security is economic stagnation.

Still, changing jobs can introduce great challenges in a person's life. Internal family pressures increase, and there are many opportunities for despair and recrimination. This is where economics and ethics meet. So let's examine the nature of the wage contract to see what it is that people owe each other.

For an employee to force an employer to continue in a contract is not morally different from an employer who forces an employee to work against his or her will. We rightly look at the latter case as a form of servitude. Slave labor is something condemned by everyone all over the world. Well, the other side of the coin is that it is equally a form of slavery to demand that employers be forced to pay employees who are not contributing requisite value to the firm. Like dancing the tango, the employment contract takes two parties to make it happen in a way that is profitable for everyone.

There are good and bad ways to go about reducing the size of a firm's work force, just like there are good and bad ways to quit your job. It is customary to give two weeks notice, for example, and it makes good sense to prepare the way for your successor. Contracts must be kept. This is not only the decent thing to do; it is also good for the reputation of the employee for the future.

It is the same with employers. Wholesale firings do not take into account the well-being of the employees raise ethical concerns. They also hurt the reputation of the business firm. No one wants to work for a business that treats its employees callously. The forces for reputation are so powerful here that there is not a need for government regulation. Government regulations only end up reducing the flexibility of all parties and raise their own ethical issues.

What needs to be avoided is precisely what the law seems to encourage these days: acts of vengeance by the employee against the former employer. These can take the form of lawsuits, smears, attacks, and other attempts to somehow punish the employer for failing to continue the contract. These are not only counterproductive; they feed an inappropriate form of resentment that can be spiritually and psychologically injurious. We must remember that the work contract is one of mutual agreement. Both parties are benefactors of the other. In Dante's vision of hell, the people who are treated worst are those who betray their benefactors. This applies equally to the employer who betrays the employee, and the worker who would seek reprisal against the employer who trusted the worker to pursue the best interests of the firm.

Tight labor markets are more than a macroeconomic phenomenon. They profoundly affect human lives. Sadly, the conditions tempt people to impose coercive interventions to affect certain results. But we all have an interest in keeping labor markets fluid and free. This is what is best for everyone in the long run.