A theory of ethical behavior, utilitarianism holds that an action is "right" to the extent that it benefits people or society, either by creating happiness, improving well-being, or reducing suffering. Utilitarianism in the workplace focuses on ethics, democracy, rights and responsibilities within the business environment. Work in the 21st-century workplace is no longer merely a means to an end; it is meaningful and calls upon people’s ambitions, beliefs and passions. The traditional concept of work was more individualistic than the contemporary concept, which considers work to be something done collectively and in collaboration to realize communal good.
Utilitarianism rests on what is known as the “golden rule” of workplace ethics. According to this rule, an individual is responsible for, and concerned with, the well-being and happiness of others. The golden rule holds that ethical individuals are those who avoid causing harm and seek ways to help others. Utilitarianism is therefore concerned with actions that produce benefit and avoid harm. Utilitarian workplace values include honesty, keeping promises, professionalism, caring for others, accountability and avoiding conflicts of interest.
There are two basic types of utilitarianism that are applied in the workplace: rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism concerns itself with fairness, while act utilitarianism is concerned with doing good for the benefit of others. A rule utilitarian, for example, looks to benefit the greatest number of people though the most just and fair means. An act utilitarian chooses the most ethically correct action for the benefit of people.
Utilitarianism sets stringent ethical standards in the workplace that influence the behavior of all its members. It forms the basis of an ethical program that defines workplace conduct, ethical conduct training and advice, disciplinary action for ethical violations and the like. Utilitarianism in the workplace is associated with numerous advantages, including enhanced teamwork and productivity, positive public image and an improved society.
Critics of utilitarianism claim that it is an overly optimistic theory that fails to take into account motivations, focusing entirely on actions. Moreover, workplace utilitarianism is difficult to achieve and sustain if it is not supported by written policies, procedures and a strong ethical culture in the organization. Top-management support is imperative, as are ongoing training programs in ethics and workplace morality.