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

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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



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