The Three Laws of Employment

Isaac Asimov, the legendary science-fiction author, famously invented the Three Laws of Robotics: a hierarchy of three rules which governed the behaviour of the robots in his stories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov's laws served a narrative purpose: he needed to move his stories beyond the "Frankenstein" trope of robots turning on their master which was prevalent at the time. By ensuring that robots would always serve the best interests of their human masters (albeit as determined by the robots themselves), the impact of robots on society could be explored without worrying about their destructive capabilities.

However, the interesting thing about the Laws of Robotics was how these simple rules generated complex and emergent behaviour patterns. Actions of robots that initially seemed surprising and irrational in the context of the Third Law were generally explained by the higher imperative of the Second or First laws.

A similar hierarchy of laws exists for employer-employee relationships. Managers who fail to consider them may often surprised by their employee's behaviour. The Three Laws of Employment are:

  1. Compensation Law: Employees will do things in order to earn money.
  2. Happiness Law: Employees will do things to improve their personal happiness, except where the First Law is not satisfied.
  3. Empathy Law: Employees will do things to make those they interact with happy, except where the First Law or Second Law is not satisfied.

There is one important difference between these laws and the Laws of Robotics. The Laws of Robotics impose mandatory behaviours, whereas the Laws of Employment are satisficing behaviours.

Satisficing means that employees do not require an absolute outcome, but a "good enough" outcome. At a certain point, employees will be paid well enough that money no longer drives behaviour. Similarly, at a certain point, someone's personal happiness will be high enough for them to consider the happiness of others. Each person sets their own "acceptability threshold", although like most behaviours of populations, averages and trends can be tracked.

These three laws can be used to explain a wide variety of workplace behaviours. To take just two examples:

  • Homogeneous, low-skill, constant-pay employees will work at the lowest acceptable rate (Third Law: protecting the jobs of others)
  • The reason for different average pay rates in various sectors (First Law Satisficing: workers who have a lower threshold on money will tend to work in areas with greater personal happiness)

More generally, an employee who fails to achieve a satisfactory threshold for any of the laws is likely to "act out" in a variety of ways that are destructive or lower output for the organisation in an attempt to reach their thresholds. For example, petty theft, absenteeism, and bullying are behaviours that could be expected to rise if compensation or happiness thresholds are not met.

The Laws of Employment don't answer a number of important questions, such as the relationship of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to happiness. However, it does give us a clear and testable framework for management techniques and whether they are likely to work.

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Tom Street (not verified) — Tue, 27/08/2013 - 06:26

I love the fact you worked in an Isaac Asimov reference on your post Stephen. Appreciate you sharing the difference between a mandatory law and a satisficing one. If businesses would look to the three laws you suggested I'm thinking they would certainly increase productivity in their workplace.

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