Another holiday, another holiday-inspired post. Once again, I contemplated not posting because I didn’t want to be insensitive to the occasion or disrupt anyone’s celebration with my writing, including my own. Then a friend who teaches history started talking to me about the founding of America and Social Contract Theory … which got me thinking … then writing … then posting.
Social Contract Theory started with the philosopher, Plato, who said one’s moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. Governments exist only to serve the will of the people and ensure public well-being.
Thomas Hobbes expanded on this centuries later, when he pointed out the strongest citizens will always take control of the power in society and use that power as they see fit to rule over others. Those in charge can choose when to give or withhold power and privilege as they see fit. Once the people give power and authority to another, their right to that power is lost for good. This is the price of protection and the fundamental driving force behind social contract theory. Jean-Jacques Rousseau expanded these ideas further when he wrote about the importance of popular sovreignty and about the people at-large providing direction to the those in charge through the democratic process.
John Locke, whose writings came after Hobbes and shortly before Rousseau, is the one most remembered for his thoughts on social contract theory through his writings in “Two Treatises on Government” because of its influence on the Founders of the United States of America. Locke said that people have a right to preserve their life, wealth, liberty and well-being against all threats, including the threat of control or interference by those they choose to place in charge. When those in charge overstep their authority in such a way that interferes with life, liberty or well-being, the people have a right to revolt in order to restore balance and order.
This got me to thinking about worklife and HR … and I concluded that being an HR professional is a lot like being a Founding Father. Employers are like governments/societies — they are established to provide for a common good to the public at-large and to assist people in achieving their own goals of stability and wealth through cooperative work. People come to work every day and put forth great effort toward achieving the employer’s goal, essentially relinquishing their own power and freedom to the will and word of the employer. In return, employers agree to look out for the people who work for them by providing a safe, healthy working environment.
However, once a person begins working for an employer, their power and influence is lost. They are always at the mercy of the employer’s decision-making and authority; they are bound by the social contract of the employee-employer relationship. The employer, within reasonable boundaries, is able to make the rules as it sees fit, without any feedback or consideration toward what the employee wants or believes is best. And, if the employee doesn’t like what the employer is doing, the only thing he/she can do is revolt!
And when employees attempt to revolt against the evil tyrrany of management, where do they go? That’s right: HR! Our role in the workplace society is to balance the rights of the employee against the needs of the employer. When a grievance of any kind reaches our desk, HR has a duty to receive, research and respond accordingly. Sometimes this means asserting the needs of the employer over the rights of the employee in order to maintain harmony in the workplace and achieve the greater goals of common good. Other times, this means defending the rights of the employee over the employer in order to keep balance and well-being in the workplace society. It is the heaviest burden in the workplace because, in order to be effective, someone is always unhappy with you and the decisions you’ve made.
But that is what being an HR professional is all about! And the very best HR professionals are consistently seeking ways to maintain and improve the quality of life in our workplace communities to ensure employer goals and employee needs are being met. We definitely ruffle feathers, upset apple carts and bruise a few egos along the path. However, our employers and employees are better because of it. At the end of the day, that is all that matters.
So, as our Independence Day holiday comes to a close and we prepare to head back to our workplaces, remember Hobbes, Rosseau, Locke and our Founding Fathers and the great, innovative thinking and work they put in to achieve greater balance of power in their societies. They were revolutionaries. And so are we!
Happy 4th of July!