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Latest News & Blog | Business Ethics | GMJ Associates

Here’s a taste of some of the latest news and developments that caught our attention.

18 Nov


Addressing the Imbalance of Power in ‘Zero Hours’ or ‘Banded Hours’ Contracts

18th November 2015 | By |

Dunnes Stores Strike Poster

Dunnes Stores Strike Poster

The issue of so-called zero hours contracts has appeared frequently in the Irish and British media this year with the strike in Dunnes Stores strike in April, protests against Sports Direct in the UK, a recently published study by researchers from the University of Limerick on the prevalence of such contracts in Ireland and a sharp rise in their use reported in the UK

Zero hours contracts strictly mean that a worker has to be available to their employer but gets no guarantee of any work. More common in Ireland are banded hours contracts which guarantee a minimum number of hours per week but not necessarily when those hours will be rostered or how many hours will be assigned from week to week. The recently published report carried out by University of Limerick found that what they termed ‘if and when’ contracts were more prevalent in Ireland. The hours of work are not guaranteed but neither does the employee have to make themselves available.

These types of contracts tend to be more common in low paid jobs in the retail and service sectors. So what are the pros and cons of such contracts? Clearly, they offer businesses maximum flexibility to staff up or down depending on how busy they are. They are often touted as providing flexible work for those who don’t want full time jobs, such as carers, parents of young children (by which I suspect the proponents actually mean mothers) and students. While I appreciate that many people don’t want full time work, I suspect most people have some kind of life they need to fit around their work. I am frequently amazed by the implication contained in reporting on this subject that low hours flexible contracts are particularly useful for students. This is suggesting that it’s okay for students to drop their college work at a moment’s notice as though their classes have little value.

Disadvantages for workers in this situation include the inability to plan social events or other appointments, difficulty in sorting out child or elder care, the extra costs associated with arranging such care at short notice and even commuting to a workplace that might then decide to send them home after a couple of hours if it isn’t busy. It’s not inconceivable that a worker would be left at a net minus if they organise childcare and pay a bus fare to work only to be sent home after a couple of hours. These workers are also prevented from accepting work from other employers since they don’t know when they’ll be available. Their uncertain hours mean uncertain pay and with that worries about their ability to meet bills, secure tenancies and little likelihood of qualifying for loans or mortgages.

Although these contracts are often presented as offering maximum flexibility to both employer and employee, this clearly ignores the imbalance of power that exists. These contracts are most prevalent in low paid work. The workers know that they are easily replaced and are therefore operating at a disadvantage meaning they are scared to protest against bad treatment and unwilling not to show up when asked. Saying that ‘if and when’ contracts address this ignores the reality that workers are afraid of being seen as uncooperative and disobliging if they refuse to come in. I’ve seen the panic in some of my students’ eyes when they get a text message from their employer ‘asking’ them to come in. Rostering tends to be done at business unit level by the local manager so the system of low hours or ‘if and when’ contracts facilitates a bullying or discriminatory individual abusing their power behind the shield of good budget management. I’ve seen examples of a store manager giving the prime shifts to the workers of their own nationality while the workers of another nationality always get the less desirable hours and/or fewer of those hours.

Low hours contracts are not just the preserve of minimum wage workers and are commonly used for part-time lecturers in third level educational institutions as well. I am one of those lecturers and while I have certainly seen the situation abused in some instances, lecturers tend to have choices denied to many low hours contract workers and have a much greater negotiating power to organise hours that suit them. The power balance is a great deal more even.

What does it mean for society? It’s often argued that the good value we get when shopping is linked to retailers’ ability to staff appropriately without any wastage. While there is a degree of truth in that, we also need to recognise that as a society we still pay for those workers, just not at the tills. Such working hours likely cost us eventually in stress related sickness, the need for additional social security benefits, housing supplements and various other costs related to the care of the families of such workers. The students that miss classes and need to repeat subjects are also subsidised by the taxpayer. It seems to me that we are permitting businesses to get away with poor planning and make additional profits through the use of such contracts at the expense of the taxpayer.

So what can be done? I’m not suggesting that we get rid of flexible working arrangements. I understand the pressure on margins and the desire to be responsive to customers (but if Primark can work without banded hours contracts I really don’t see why other businesses can’t manage it). I also understand that for some staff the flexibility of part-time work is wonderful. I’m not against part-time work at all but I am against flexibility being used as a reason to leave a lot of (low paid) workers in contracts that are unbalanced in their fairness with most of the power being in management hands. So we need to find a way to address the power imbalance.

A number of sensible proposals have been made by the University of Limerick researchers including:

  • Contracts should be issued to employees on their first day,
  • The minimum period an employee should be made to work should be three hours,
  • Employees should be given at least 72-hours notice before being called in – or otherwise be compensated by being paid time and a half,
  • Employees should be given 72-hours notice of cancellation of hours

I suggest that we could go further and should also distinguish between large businesses and smaller ones. One hopes that in smaller businesses there is greater communication between worker and manager leading to easier collaboration in the setting of shifts. Small businesses also lack other advantages enjoyed by bigger operations. Larger businesses have greater ability to re-allocate workers to other tasks if they are not busy. They may also have better ability to plan. For example a large-scale retailer has vast amounts of sales data at their disposal which if analysed enables them plan staffing requirements very effectively. For a larger business it should be possible to give staff their shifts a week in advance to enable workers plan more easily. It should also be possible for larger businesses to seek to accommodate workers preferences to some extent at least. If local managers are in charge of setting rosters there should be some kind of system for Head Office to check they are carrying out their duties appropriately and not using their power to bully or intimidate workers.

Maybe as shoppers we should start voting with our feet. Ask to speak with the manager of your local supermarket which is probably where you spend most money in a business which is likely to use these contracts. Tell the manager your concerns. Ask them what they are doing to ensure workers can plan more effectively. Ask them how they use their sales data to predict their staffing requirements. Ask them if head office conducts checks to help guard against abuse of workers by rostering managers. Ask them why they can’t follow the example of Primark (Penneys). If enough of us show we are concerned the message might start to filter through to the senior management.

17 Nov


Are Lidl merchandisers not considering the message they are sending?

17th November 2015 | By |

The toy shown in the picture is in the current Lidl catalogue along with a number of really charming wooden toys.  But what were the Lidl buyers thinking?

Lidl hamburger and fries toy set

Picture from Lidl website [17th Nov 2015]


Concerns about childhood obesity and the accompanying health issues such as diabetes dominate the media.  Parents are struggling to contain the amount of ‘treat’ food their children eat against a background of constant bombardment of advertising of such food and constant availability at rock bottom prices.

I remember loving toys that mimicked everyday life in the world around me. I wanted a cash register like the one in the supermarket and I really liked my dolls’ house (even though I had no interest in dolls).  My parents even got me a real second-hand typewriter (cheaper than a toy one I suspect, if not perhaps free!).  I would have loved a toy shopping trolley with toy packets and tins. A number of toys in the range offered by Lidl seem to do this mimicking of life really well.  But making an image of fast food chain burger and chips a symbol of everyday life is I think a step too far in normalising them as every day food.  The colours of the toy also mimic those of the most well known provider of such food. It is hard to look at the picture without those golden arches coming to mind.If Lidl want to be seen as providing the means of sustenance and healthy food for families surely this jars and sends out the wrong message. Have they considered their responsibility to the families who are their customers? Have they considered their responsibilities to children and the implicit message being sent to them?

One of the other offerings is a representation of a cake. Why do I not have a problem with that? Well that is represented as a birthday cake which is clearly linked with special days and celebration rather than the everyday.

So what do you think? Am I a killjoy who is overthinking this?  Or do you see this as an error of judgement by Lidl?

12 Nov


Why should anyone work here?

12th November 2015 | By |


Cover of book by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones

Cover of book by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones

So glad I did the almost unthinkable for me (on a day when I didn’t have to) and hauled myself out of bed at 6am to go to the MBA Association of Ireland breakfast event at the offices of Mason Hayes Curran. Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee gave a talk on some of the subject matter from their very recently published book Why Should Anyone Work Here? What it Takes to Create an Authentic Organisation.

I use some of their research in my teaching (delighted to see a number of my past and current MBA students at the event) so it was a great opportunity to hear the views of the sages in person.  An added extra was the fact that they are funny, self-deprecating and very entertaining. So if you get a chance to see them in the flesh, don’t miss it.

They talked about what people see as the key attributes of the organisation of their DREAMS and what that means for us in managing and leading.

D – Difference, allow for difference in your organisation and let people be themselves.

R – Radical honesty, tell them the truth before they find it out elsewhere.

E – Extra value, add value to employees, equip them with skills, help them reach their potential, don’t exploit them.

A – Authenticity, so people know what the organisation stands for and it doesn’t change with the wind.

M – Meaningful work. This is something I’m passionate about as I believe it’s part of the human condition to want to feel that we are doing something worthwhile. Rob pointed out that meaning can be found in what many people would see as menial jobs. We shouldn’t impose our standards of meaning and purpose on others. It reminds me of the famous story (myth?) of the janitor in the NASA Space Center who told President Kennedy he was helping to put a man on the moon.

S – Simple Rules, a few rules that people can agree on and follow easily rather than a fog of bureaucracy which is confusing and in reality may lead to people looking for the loopholes or unwittingly breaking a rule they didn’t even know existed.

If you want to find out more you’ll have to get their book. I got one this morning and I’m looking forward to delving into more detail.


03 Sep


Small Businesses Can Get Value From CSR Too

3rd September 2015 | By |

corporate social responsibility IrelandThis article from the Huffington Post talking about how the business case for CSR applies to smaller companies as well as large ones resonated with me. Since I started this business twelve years ago it’s been an ongoing source of frustration to me that we get business almost exclusively from large organisations. Read More

19 Aug


Goodbye To The 2015 TCD MBA Students

19th August 2015 | By |

trinity college mba studentsLast Friday there was a reception in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to say good bye to the graduating MBA students. The 2015 TCD MBA students are both full-time, who have put in an extremely intensive year of study and project activity and part-time, who have juggled work and college for nearly two years. Of course they’ve all had the demands of their personal lives to deal with as well which are frequently very demanding for people at this stage of their lives.

I always try to get to their last day as the students’ exhilaration and delight at their achievement is infectious.  It is slightly bittersweet to say goodbye to people you’ve had the privilege of getting to know at an important time in their lives but it is also exciting to hear of their hopes and plans. Read More

17 Aug


Microbeads – Are you unwittingly causing environmental destruction through your choice of toiletries?

17th August 2015 | By |

microbeads and the environmentI read this article in the Irish Times Saturday Magazine which brought the issue of tiny plastic beads or microbeads to my attention. I’m interested in this stuff. I’ve been known to chase a tiny fine plastic hair elastic across a windy beach to prevent it ending up in the gullet of a fish or seabird. But I had no idea of the potential damage I could be causing through my choice of toothpaste or body scrub despite the slew of research and articles I found when I started looking. Read More

06 Aug


Don’t be complacent about the challenges of managing across cultures (especially when you think it won’t be that difficult)

6th August 2015 | By |

Managing across culturesI recently read a HBR piece (Creating a Culturally Sensitive Corporation) by Luc Minguet of Michelin talking about some of the challenges he encountered in moving to the United States despite having lived and worked previously in a number of European countries including a year in the US. Most people recognize that cultural differences can be challenging when they are very pronounced. So for example, most people would see the desirability of cultural awareness training for Europeans prior to an assignment in China (or vice versa). When the cultures are superficially similar people often assume they can wing it but that very similarity probably makes it even harder to see the potential issues and where you may be creating a negative impression or impact.  Managing across cultures is never easy even if the culture seems quite similar to your own. As Minguet says in the article “it’s precisely when you expect to have no problems that you end up having them.” Read More

30 Jul


Update on India’s mandated CSR for Large Companies

30th July 2015 | By |

csr in indiaI’ve previously written about my interest in the development of India’s legal requirement that larger companies spend 2% of pretax profits on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. I came across this article which raises a number of problems in relation to this attempt to “mandate virtuous behavior by businesses”.

The writer points to the lack of penalties for non-compliance. Penalties can be enforced on companies only for failing to report on spending rather than on not spending the required amount. It could however be argued that in the interests of pragmatism it is far easier to track companies who fail to report and that those who do actually spend the required amount are likely to want to shout about it. However with news reports in India suggesting that as many as two-thirds of companies have failed to meet their obligations it does not appear that penalties for failing to report are being enforced. Read More

11 Jun


Great customer service but what about the ethical considerations?

11th June 2015 | By |

corporate ethicsI came across this HBR article which gives some great insights into the possibilities that technology offers for improving customer service. It gives some marvelous advice to business managers about how to do this more effectively in terms of thinking about the customer’s experience from the customer’s point of view and tailoring the service offered to what is most important to them.

As a consumer I love the idea of receiving more personalized service and tailored offerings.  However I do worry that the article overlooks the ethical considerations that should also be on a manager’s checklist. What are the privacy and data protection implications? Are there unintended consequences we need to consider? What information is the customer being asked to provide in order to avail of these enhanced service options? How much information do we need to give to the customer so that they can make an informed choice? If they miss out on these considerations managers risk reputation damage to the business in the pursuit of great customer service. Read More

08 Jun


India and legally mandated CSR

8th June 2015 | By |

India's Legally mandated CSRFor years CSR researchers and commentators have debated whether it is practical or even desirable to impose CSR requirements on business. So I was interested in the first major implementation of this in India which legally mandated CSR last year. The law applies to companies with net worth of 5 billion Rs. (approximately $80 million); turnover of 10 billion Rs. at least (approximately $160 million); or net profit that exceeds 50 million Rs. (approximately $830,000).

This article reviewing first 13 months of India CSR companies act provides an interesting review of progress so far and makes the point that the change in the ruling party after last year’s election slowed things down as many believed that legislation would be delayed or softened to be more ‘business-friendly’. Read More