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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics and Tough Decisions for Workers

workers protest outside company building for better protection against coronavirus

workers protest outside company building for better protection against coronavirus

Questions to Consider Before Re-entering the Workplace

Don Heider & Joan Harrington
Paul Sancya/AP Photos

Don Heider is the executive director, and Joan Harrington is the director of Social Sector Ethics, both from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

Thinking about going back to work? There are probably a lot of questions and worries you have. Some of those might be ethical questions, whether you know it or not. We’re going to try to guide you through some of those questions so you can make better decisions about going back to work and think about what you should expect or ask for when you return.

Your Safety

One ethical principle that helps guide us is the fairness or justice approach. A general principle to keep in mind is, even in the midst of a pandemic, all workers should be treated equally—or if unequally, then based on some standard that is defensible. The primary issue facing workers is staying healthy, and under the fairness or justice principle, workers should be thinking about what their employers can do to keep all workers safe from contracting Covid-19.

Workplaces vary greatly, from places where workers can easily have social distance, to others where people work shoulder to shoulder. Some workers never interact with the public, others have hundreds of interactions with the public every day. In some workplaces it will be relatively easy for employers to transition to safe, productive work for employees; for other workplaces it will be much more challenging. Despite these differences, under the fairness and justice approach, workers should be treated equally with respect to keeping them safe from the virus.

There are also many differences among workers, with respect to their health, their living situations, and their responsibilities to family and friends. Specific risk factors have emerged and you or some of your co-workers may be at high risk to contract Covid-19. Are you 65 or older, do you have a compromised immune system, do you have asthma or emphysema or any other underlying medical condition that makes you more vulnerable? If that’s the case, what chance might you have of contracting coronavirus back at work? You might ask your employer if they are willing to make some reasonable arrangement which will offer you added protection. 

1. What else you can do to protect yourself?

Protecting Others

Or perhaps you are at low risk for contracting Covid-19, but you live with relatives or others who are high risk. Do you live with or provide care for elderly parents or other relatives? Does your spouse or partner have an underlying medical condition that make them more vulnerable? If you go to work and bring the virus home:

2. By working on site, are you threatening the lives of people you love and live with? 

Ask what you and your employer can do to provide extra protection because of those you live with or provide care for.


Another concern for you or your co-workers might be children and day care. Many workers have children, and for now schools and daycares will not be reopening. If your children aren’t old enough to be left home alone ask: 

3. What might you and your employer do to help with workers who have children at home? 

How are workers and employers going to resolve these multiple equity issues to create a safe working environment for people? A justice approach to ethics suggests that all of us should be treated equally. 

Another ethics approach that might prove helpful in making these decisions is utilitarianism, which would guide us to ask in each situation, how can we maximize good and minimize harm for all those who are affected? How can we best get people back to work, earning wages, but at the same time not expose folks to a life-threatening illness? Millions of people are feeling the impact of lost wages, so the idea of getting people back to work, helping people get paid again is clearly a good thing. Are there enough protections in place to allow us to do that without sacrificing more lives?

This question raises the issue of what employers can actually do to keep us safe. Consider the following: 

4. What is reasonable for employees to ask? 

5. Is my employer providing protective gear for all employees?

6. Can shared workspace be kept truly disinfected? 

7. Is the workplace set up to allow for social distancing? 

8. Could the workplace be reconfigured to allow workers to have more space? 

9. Could the hours of some employees be shifted to allow for fewer people in the shared space at the same time? 

Applying utilitarianism, how can we do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the current reality of this pandemic?

Contributing to the Solution

Yet another principal we might apply here is the virtue ethics approach, which asks us to think about how you can be the best person possible; the best employee, the best citizen, and the best family member? You may have new definitions of what these mean after weeks of sheltering in place under the threat of the pandemic. How you define the person you want to be may impact how you will go back to work and what you might need from your employer. You may ask yourself, am I going to be the best employee possible if I feel like my health and safety are compromised? 

10. What is reasonable for me to ask of my employer, and still stay in good stead as an employee? 

There are tremendous challenges facing employees going back to work. Ethical solutions are going to require communication and cooperation between employers and employees. One approach may be to suggest to your employer a council or working group of employees and managers that could help set Covid-19 safety standards for the business. This group could also field questions or concerns from employees and establish a path for resolving these concerns. 

Even as the virus begins to subside, there are going to be a number of very difficult decisions ahead. If you want to learn more about how ethics can help with those decisions, you can find our ethical decision making framework here

Apr 27, 2020