Ethics and Diversity: How Significant is Ethics in the Argument for Diversity? Age and ICT: Some Preliminary Observations

Mike Healy


“No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” (Mill 2003)

Applied ethics, particularly in the form of business ethics, is often seen as useful in helping to construct a range of private and public policies. The growth in interest in organisations such as the UK’s Institute of Business Ethics and CSREurope as well as the EU’s support for the European Alliance for CSR, are indicative of the extent to which ethics and associated issues are discussed in the commercial arena. Business schools in a range of educational institutions across Europe are increasingly incorporating teaching in business ethics and/or CSR. (Matten, Moon 2004) Developments in ICT have also prompted a sustained interest in computing ethics.

Similarly, diversity and diversity management have developed as key themes for employers during the past decade at both the European Union, member state, and organisational levels as the EU has sought to influence policy by issuing a number of regulations covering diversity. These regulations have been translated into national legislation (eg, the Directive concerning age and employment) which employers are required to observe. A large number of institutions have also adopted diversity training requiring employees to undertake self-paced elearning modules often culminating in an on-line test.

At the same time, many organisations have developed and sought to implement codes of ethics designed to influence and modify the behaviour of their employees as well as devising and publicising corporate social responsibility programmes. There is a significant body of research concerned with the three themes of ethics, corporate social responsibility, and age and employment. However, little has been done to examine the relationship between these categories to examine how policy initiatives have led to material change. This paper seeks to explore the relationship between ethics and diversity in the workplace in the European context by drawing upon primary research undertaken for the mature@eu project, a pan European project concerned with age diversity in the European ICT sector.

The paper opens with a review of some of the ethical arguments supporting diversity by reference to Mill, feminist ethics and contract theory. The paper then examines the extent to which ethics is used to promote diversity within the workplace by focusing on age and employment. A review is made of the reasoning for age diversity advanced by instututions such as the European Union as well as those made by organisations intimately concerned with increasing employment opportunity for more mature workers. The paper also examines the core concepts underpinning the main arguments advanced by a number of governmental and non-governmental organisations, such as the IBE and the European Alliance for CSR, that have arisen to champion ethical considerations within the business community. In doing so, the paper seeks to determine the extent to which ethical theory plays in significant role in these arguments by using the ICT sector as an example.

Age and employment have been selected as themes of study because current demographic changes affect the whole of Europe and the European Commission has attempted to respond to the challenge by initiating a range of ambitious policies. Since the March 2000 Lisbon strategy was launched with its target of full employment by 2010 and its goal to enable social protection systems to weather the impact of ageing, the EU has developed and sought to implement age diversity policies across all member states. At the same time, the EU has vigorously argued for an expansion of ICT.

Evidence is presented that shows there is a contrast between the ethical case for diversity in general and the specific arguments made by governmental and non-governmental institutions to commercial organisations in an effort to widen diversity. Further, the paper contrasts business case argument with the language used to promote diversity within the workplace is in stark contrast to the opening preamble to the EU Charter on Human Rights which comments that “Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; …”(EU 2006). The paper also presents evidence which seems to indicate that the ICT sector, despite significant skills and shortages gaps, continues to persist in holding onto a negative attitude towards mature employees.

It is always difficult in a paper of this nature, limited by reasons of space, to comprehensively cover every particular aspect of a given area of study. The initial purpose of this discussion is to explore of some of those issues that should cause some disquiet among ethicists and those concerned with ethical aspects of policy making at the European, national and local levels for three significant reasons. If it is the need to make a business case rather than a general ethical viewpoint that shapes the direction of work in this area, it will affect research, publication, and access to funding. Secondly, if the business case for diversity proves to be problematic or the priorities of the European economy change, then diversity will cease to be a priority for organisations and diversity policies will be seen as just another set of paper exercises merely requiring the appropriate boxes to be ticked. Finally, by failing to vigorously promote the ethical arguments for diversity, policy makers miss a significant opportunity to make a long lasting convincing case that could directly influence attitudes towards age and employment for generations to come