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The Employee as ‘Dish of the Day’: The Ethics of the Consuming/Consumed Self in Human Resource Management

Abstract

This article examines the ethical implications of the growing integration of consumption into the heart of the employment relationship. Human resource management (HRM) practices increasingly draw upon the values and practices of consumption, constructing employees as the ‘consumers’ of ‘cafeteria-style’ benefits and development opportunities. However, at the same time employees are expected to market themselves as items to be consumed on a corporate menu. In relation to this simultaneous position of consumer/consumed, the employee is expected to actively engage in the commodification of themselves, performing an appropriate organizational identity as a necessary part of being a successful employee. This article argues that the relationship between HRM and the simultaneously consuming/consumed employee affects the conditions of possibility for ethical relations within organizational life. It is argued that the underlying ‘ethos’ for the integration of consumption values into HRM practices encourages a self-reflecting, self-absorbed subject, drawing upon a narrow view of individualised autonomy and choice. Referring to Levinas’ perspective that the primary ethical relation is that of responsibility and openness to the Other, it is concluded that these HRM practices affect the possibility for ethical being.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Throughout the text I use ‘Other’ capitalised to indicate Levinas’ reading of the Other as the radical alterity of another being, who is ultimately irreducible to self and sameness.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank those who have commented on this article: the participants at the Workshop on ‘Ethics and HRM: Theoretical and Conceptual Analyses’ sponsored by EABIS and Monash University in April 2011, especially Carl Rhodes; the organisers of the workshop, Gavin Jack, Jan Schapper and Michelle Greenwood for their encouragement; the three anonymous reviewers for their perceptive suggestions; and Martin Brigham and Nestor Delgado for help with the Aviva case. The responsibility for the article is of course entirely my own.

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Correspondence to Karen Dale.

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Dale, K. The Employee as ‘Dish of the Day’: The Ethics of the Consuming/Consumed Self in Human Resource Management. J Bus Ethics 111, 13–24 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1437-9

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Keywords

  • Autonomy
  • Choice
  • Consumption
  • Ethics
  • Human resource management (HRM)
  • Identity
  • Performance
  • Levinas