Ethical Implications of Human Resource Management

Recognition, Reification, and Practices of Forgetting: Ethical Implications of Human Resource Management

Gazi Islam

Received: 3 June 2011 / Accepted: 28 July 2012 / Published online: 17 August 2012

� Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract This article examines the ethical framing of

employment in contemporary human resource management

(HRM). Using Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition and

classical critical notions of reification, I contrast recogni-

tion and reifying stances on labor. The recognition

approach embeds work in its emotive and social particu-

larity, positively affirming the basic dignity of social

actors. Reifying views, by contrast, exhibit a forgetfulness

of recognition, removing action from its existential and

social moorings, and imagining workers as bundles of

discrete resources or capacities. After discussing why

reification is a problem, I stress that recognition and reifi-

cation embody different ethical standpoints with regards to

organizational practices. Thus, I argue paradoxically that

many current HRM best practices can be maintained while

cultivating an attitude of recognition. If reification is a type

of forgetting, cultivating a recognition attitude involves

processes of ‘‘remembering’’ to foster work relations that

reinforce employee dignity.

Keywords Human resources � Recognition � Dignity � Frankfurt School � Critical theory � Reification


The rapid growth of Human Resource Management (HRM)

has involved attempts to frame HRM’s role in under-

standing the human consequences of the contemporary

world of work (Heery 2008). Such attempts have generated

discussions around the ethics of HRM (Pinnington et al.

2007), varying from principled and ‘‘purist’’ perspectives

drawn from moral theory and philosophy (Rowan 2000) to

more ‘‘user-friendly’’ approaches that mix ethical-theoret-

ical foundations and formulate managerial guidelines for

practice (Winstanley and Woodall 2000; Heery 2008).

More recent approaches to HRM have begun to emerge

from critical theory, focusing on ideological and exploit-

ative aspects of HRM, and challenging mainstream

approaches to ethics by combining a practice-based

approach with a critical lens (Greenwood 2002).

The growing importance of critical ethical approaches

brings with it an increased focus on ‘‘macro’’ critiques of

HRM (Townley 1993; Islam and Zyphur 2008), calling into

question the ethical grounding of the field in general

(Greenwood 2002). While traditional views frame human

resources as costs to be minimized or resources to be

deployed strategically, critical ethical views highlight the

potentially problematic idea of ‘‘using’’ people (Green-

wood 2002), inherent in such framings. In Simon’s (1951)

seminal work, the employee is defined as one who ‘‘permits

his behavior to be guided by a decision reached by another,

irrespective of his own judgment as to the merits of that

decision’’ (p. 21), a characterization that seems to deprive

humans of basic freedoms of conscience. While such

authors do not discuss this aspect of employment relations

as inherently problematic, some ethics scholars questioned

the ethicality of contemporary workplace relationships

(Nussbaum 2006) as well as HRM (e.g., Pless and Maak

G. Islam (&) Grenoble Ecole de Management, 12 Rue Pierre Semard,

38000 Grenoble, France


G. Islam

Insper Institute for Education and Research, 300 Rua Quatá,

Vila Olimpia, São Paulo, SP 04546-042, Brazil


J Bus Ethics (2012) 111:37–48

DOI 10.1007/s10551-012-1433-0

2004), as reducing human beings to material or financial

resources and thus depriving them of their relational or

other essential aspects.

To be sure, HRM focuses on ‘‘human capital’’ within

organizations (Foss 2008; van Marrewijk and Timmers

2003) to enhance organizational productivity, framing

individuals as means to organizational ends. Selection

processes focus on job-specific individual and team

knowledge, skills, and abilities (grouped together in the

general ‘‘knowledge, skills, and abilities’’ or ‘‘KSAs’’;

Guion 1998), training and development practices focus on

firm-specific competencies and relational habits that are

difficult to copy (van Marrewijk and Timmers 2003), and

psychological contracts in firms tend to be increasingly

transactional, focusing on short-term market exchanges

(Rousseau 1995). That human agency is treated in an

‘‘instrumental’’ fashion by such features of HRM could

have implications for the basic dignity of workers (Sayer

2007). It would be problematic if all instrumentality con-

stituted a breach of dignity; however, because such a strict

ethical criterion might invalidate any goal-directed

behavior. We thus need to explore the conditions under

which treating work instrumentally diminishes human

dignity, and in what ways instrumentality might be con-

sistent with dignity. Ideally, such an examination would

attempt to outline how instrumental action can be best

reconciled with views that recognize the full social worth

of human beings.

This article uses a recognition-theoretic view (Honneth

1995a) to provide a conceptual undergirding for a critical

ethical examination of HRM, employing Honneth’s (2008a)

reformulation of the notion of reification to explore how

reifying views of work can undermine workers’ ability to

grasp the moral weight of their actions. Following Honneth

(2008a), reifying work is not immoral in terms of an external

moral standard, but rather as a misrecognition of those forms

of sociality that make organized work possible in the first

place. As a proponent of the fundamental value of work

within a well-lived life, Honneth provides an ideal basis for a

critical ethics perspective in HRM. Building on earlier dis-

cussions of reification (Lukacs 1971), contemporary HRM

can be critiqued, not for valuing the wrong things, but for

misrepresenting the value bases underlying work systems, a

distinction that will carry practical implications.

The remainder of this article unfolds as follows: after

briefly summarizing a recognition-theoretic view of work,

I overview the notion of reification, discussing how

employees become reified through HRM practices. I then

discuss reification as a problem of recognition, using rec-

ognition theory as a normative compass with which to

critique work practices that reflect a ‘‘forgetfulness of

recognition.’’ Next, I discuss the possibility of a non-

reifying HRM approach, engaging in instrumental action

while avoiding reification. Finally, I respond to limitations

of the recognition-theoretic view, outlining areas for future


Recognition and the Ethics of Work

The recognition-theoretic perspective begins with the idea

that human self-esteem and dignity are constituted inter-

subjectively through participation in forms of social life,

including working life and political and social participation

(Honneth 1995a). Participation, in recognition theory,

always involves an implicit, basic positive or affirmative

social gesture, a standpoint of interpersonal recognition. By

recognition, Honneth (2008a; Honneth and Margalit 2001)

suggests a pre-cognitive affirmation of the social-affective

bond between members of a society. In other words, before

‘‘cognizing’’ the identities, traits and preferences of a

person, we have to ‘‘recognize’’ their status as autonomous

and agentic. Recognition, according to Honneth (2008a)

underlies all forms of sociality, even those that, as we will

see, he terms reifying. The latter, he claims, are pathologies

of misrecognition, and involve ‘‘forgotten’’ or repressed


The notion of intersubjective recognition, key to Hon-

neth’s theory, developed from an elaboration and extension

of Hegel’s early Jena writings (Honneth 1995a, b), which

explored the philosophical roots of Hobbes’ social contract

theory. To Hegel, social relations could not be solely based

on contractual/legal forms of sociability, because the

mutual recognition of legal rights already presupposed a

more primitive form of recognition, namely, the acknowl-

edgement that others are similar to oneself in having needs

and vulnerabilities. The universalization and articulation of

this notion of the ‘‘concrete’’ individual gives rise to an

‘‘institutionalized recognition order’’ (Fraser and Honneth

2003) establishing the idea of a formalized legal person

with rights (Honneth 1995a, b). This general right-bearing

person, further, strives to become an ‘‘I’’ or subject,

standing against the community from which his/her per-

sonhood arose to critically evaluate and seek esteem as a

productive individual (Honneth 1995a, b). In a dialectic

progression between different ‘‘recognition orders,’’ the

affective concrete individual thus becomes a formal legal

entity, then attempts to express his/her individuality and

gain esteem through forms of work. Work therefore rep-

resents an advanced stage of identity consolidation that,

following upon a foundation of universal rights and inter-

subjective care, is a key aspect of an ethical (i.e., well-

lived, flourishing) life.

Without pursuing the Hegelian roots of recognition

theory further, we see that formalized contractual relations

(such as an employment contract) presume a conception of

38 G. Islam


individuals as worthy of concern and acknowledgment. In

turn, these relations lay the foundation for individuals’

attempts to seek esteem and merit from within a commu-

nity of civic relations. Thus, recognition takes the varied

forms of concern, rights, and esteem, with each form

tending toward the next.

For Honneth (2008a), these different forms of recogni-

tion all involve positive affirmations of one’s fellow human

beings. ‘‘Positive,’’ however, does not refer to positive

emotions toward the person or support for their behavior

(Honneth 2008a). It is rather an acknowledgment that

peoples’ agency must be reckoned with as participants in

society, that individuals be seen first and foremost as

beings with subjectivity and a point of view (for a critique,

see Butler 2008). Conversely, failing to acknowledge or

recognize individuals leads to a state of invisibility or

social alienation (Honneth and Margalit 2001). Applied to

employee relations, recognition is thus different from

attitudes like organizational identification, value alignment,

or person-organization fit, and provides for a basis of sol-

idarity while allowing for value conflicts. Rather than

identification, Honneth and Margalit (2001) describe rec-

ognition as a kind of ‘‘motivational readiness’’ to engage

others as moral actors whose states are worthy of articu-

lation, irrespective of differences in values or identities.

Honneth views recognition as basic to social organiza-

tion, as grounding personal autonomy and self-realization.

However, he resists charges of instrumentalism or ‘‘func-

tionalism,’’ arguing that, rather than a cause of healthy

social relations, recognition constitutes social relations per

se. Recognition is not desirable because of its instrumental

outcomes but because it grounds instrumental social rela-

tions themselves (Honneth 2002). This distinction is useful

because, unlike utilitarian views of ethics, it does not frame

ethics in terms of instrumental outcomes. More impor-

tantly, however, it does not preclude instrumental or

functional social behavior (which would make it difficult to

apply to most contemporary organizations), but affirms that

instrumental behavior finds its ultimate ground in the self-

realization of social actors made possible through recog-

nition. This second aspect makes it ideal for studying work

relations, by reconciling instrumentalist, interest-based and

principled justice views (e.g., Greenwood 2002).

In addition, beyond its critical potential, recognition theory

also rescues the work concept from overly cognitive con-

ceptions of social interaction (Moll 2009). For example,

Honneth’s mentor, Habermas (e.g. 1981), locates ethicality in

‘‘communicative rationality,’’ within the processes of inter-

subjective truth-finding, dissociating ethics from instrumental

conceptions of action, which are directed toward functional

aspects of society. Honneth (1995b), departing from this tra-

dition, argues that Habermas had abandoned work as an

ethical mode of being, and that instrumental action should

not be dismissed as irrelevant to the ethical sphere. Yet work,

and instrumental action generally, can also promote habits of

forgetting whereby we deny, repress, or misrecognize the

ethical basis of our work (Honneth 2008a, 1995b). Neither

‘‘unethical’’ in the sense of breaking ethical codes (Wiley

2000) nor ‘‘erroneous’’ in the sense of making category mis-

takes (Honneth 2008a), such misrecognitions involve taking

an inauthentic stance toward work, failing to understand what

it is that one is actually doing while acting. In a similar way

that for Habermas (1981), rational communication presup-

poses that one cares about, or has a stake in, the ability for

people to reach consensus, for Honneth, coordinated social

interaction presupposes that actors care about or have a stake

in mutual acknowledgement.

Despite this presupposition, however, when work

interactions are goal directed, we may neglect this under-

lying basis in interpersonal recognition, treating organiza-

tional goals as if they existed independently of human

intentions and shared projects. This does not change the

social nature of work, but may promote neglect of this

aspect. Because the immediate object of work involves a

product or service, the production of which is the explicit

goal of a work system, the underlying social bases of the

system may remain below consciousness, and risk being

forgotten altogether. Although intersubjective recognition

does not itself constitute an object of work, but rather a

‘‘grammar’’ (Honneth 1995a, b) of work, its underlying

structuration of the work sphere provides a basis for col-

laboration and instrumental labor. Reification is the term

Honneth (2008a) uses to describe the various processes that

promote a misrecognition, forgetting or neglect of this

underlying relation at work, and reification is thus a useful

concept to discuss as a basis for HRM.

Human Resources and the Problem of Reification

While labor discussions have tended to frame issues of

worker well-being in terms of economic welfare (Gill

1999), an ongoing debate within critical theory involves the

extent to which systemic critique should involve primarily

economic questions of material redistribution or symbolic

issues of identity and values (Fraser 1995; Fraser and

Honneth 2003). Honneth and coworker (2003) argues that

the history of labor conflict is marked by struggles to

defend ‘‘ways of life,’’ not simply gain material benefits

(c.f. Thompson 1924/1993), and thus understanding ethical

worker relations must involve a recognition of work as part

of an ethical human striving for a ‘‘good life.’’ Recognition

theory (Honneth 1995a, b) argues that such a good life

involves the striving of actors to achieve work-related

goals that are considered valuable in a community of


Recognition, Reification, and Human Resources 39


Because HRM specializes in the administration of

human action, motivation, and relationships at work, it

must contain an (implicit or explicit) concept of employee

agency. According to Kallinikos (2003), ‘‘The consider-

ation of the models of human agency, underlying the

constitution of the workplace during the past 100 years or

so, seems to be essential to the project of understanding

the key behavioral premises of current economic and

labor developments.’’ (p. 596). The concept of reification

(Lukacs 1971; Honneth 2008a; Berger and Pullberg 1966)

contributes to the understanding of organizational life a

particular vision of the relationship between human agents

and the products of their labor. According to Lukacs

(1971), the meaning people attribute to work depends on

the relations they take with the objects of their labor, as

well as their co-workers; these relationships shape not only

the products of labor but the worker’s ideas of themselves

as well. Lukacs’ (1971) formulation of the concept

involved the modern essentializing of work, such that the

products of contemporary labor practices appear as inde-

pendent of the social processes by which they were con-

structed (Jay 2008). Obscuring the work processes

underlying social products then made such products appear

as fact-like, deterministic constraints on agents rather than

as reflections of their own agency (Whyte 2003).

Applied to the world of employment relations, forms of

sociality thus reified begin to look like duties and obliga-

tions, rather than as freely entered forms of social inter-

action. The facticity of social relations makes social actors

appear as objects, either of duties and obligations, on the

one hand, or as objects of manipulation and profit, on the

other. Such objectification feeds back into the self-concepts

of actors (Whyte 2003), and they begin to see themselves

in fact-like terms, as bearers or owners of traits, exemplars

of categories, and holders of human ‘‘capital’’ such as

KSA’s, rather than as free agents whose self-expression is

realized in and through such traits and categories.

Following this logic, according to Honneth (2008a),

reification has three progressive aspects for the subjects of

commodity exchange. First, actors come to view their

environments as composed of ‘‘objects’’ that serve as

constraints or opportunities for commodity exchange.

Second, they learn to view their fellow human beings as

‘‘objects’’ of economic transaction. Finally, they come to

see themselves as ‘‘objects,’’ defined by what they can offer

to others in terms of commodity exchange and human

capital. Each of these forms of reification is related to the

others in that each decontextualizes its respective objects

from their origins in networks of social recognition,

viewing things, others, or themselves in isolated, disem-

bedded terms (Berger and Pullberg 1966).

How do HRM practices fit into the reification story?

Are there specific practices that are in themselves reifying,

or that force people into thing-like relations with each other?

Honneth suggests that social practices can promote, but do

not determine, reification, a point of view that attempts to

engage in social critique without presenting a deterministic

view of social circumstances. Rather, as emphasized by

practice theorists (e.g., Feldman and Orlikowsky 2011),

HRM practices can promote ways of thinking about work

and simultaneously performatively constitute ways of being

at work, by framing symbolic meanings and social relations.

Following Honneth’s direction, the proper question in this

context would be more like ‘‘how do HRM practices promote

environments in which reification appears as a normal,

business-as-usual form of social existence?’’

While an exhaustive review would be beyond this

essay’s scope, I will present three illustrative areas where

HRM practices might constitute pathways to reification of

employees. Such pathways range from more ‘‘micro’’

processes whereby employees essential features are defined

through stable individual traits, to techniques that attempt

to essentialize employees through metrics and incentives

systems, to more ‘‘macro’’ trends in the workplace that

decontextualize work from its social bases. I discuss each

of these in turn.

‘‘Human Capital’’ and the Reification of Employee


Because reification involves seeing people in ‘‘thing-like’’

terms, treating their aspects as inert properties rather than

as subjective expressions, we may point to organizational

attempts to define people in terms of such properties as

constituting a preliminary pathway to reification. Such

attempts are characteristic of recent treatments of ‘‘human

capital’’ (e.g., Foss 2008), which emphasize the organiza-

tion of employment relations according to allocations and

costs of human capital involved in production tasks. As

Foss describes such views, ‘‘there is nothing particular

about human capital; it is just a capital asset like any other

which to be more or less specialized to specific uses and/or

users’’ (Foss 2008, p. 8). Employees, as the ‘‘owners’’ of

their own human capital, hold bargaining power to the

extent that they hold specific job-related assets or capa-

bilities that are hard to imitate (van Marrewijk and Tim-

mers 2003), and the ability to act opportunistically to the

extent that their contributions are not separable from other

employees or monitorable (Williamson 1985). To this

extent, HRM systems can increase managerial power by,

on the one hand, finding ways to standardize employee

human capital, and on the other hand, increase the sepa-

rability of individual contributions through measurement

and monitoring.

HRM practices contribute to a human capital view of

work by providing the conceptual tools by which to

40 G. Islam


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