December 9, 2013

Corporate Morality: Raising the Question of Conscious Employment. ~ Brian Davis

Corporations have difficulty when social responsibility is a guiding force. They depend on their employees to be their social conscience.

The concept of crowd mentality is not a new one.

The idea that we lose a bit of our own discernment and flow with the tide of group opinion is something most are aware of. At some point, I think we have all experienced this. It can be minor, as in becoming caught up in an emotional athletic display that in any other situation we would feel indifference towards or major, as in quashing our own moral compass and taking part in some illegal activity of the mob.

This crowd mentality concept can expand beyond a localized effect, meaning it is not necessary to be present to feel a group pressuring us to act in some fashion. Social networks often encourage us to be a part of something larger, whether it be a movement for social charge or appreciating a funny picture. But this group-think mentality has been around much longer than social media. We also find it to be very prevalent in the corporate world.

Corporations do much more than bring workers together on unified projects. They also attempt (and succeed) to manipulate our behavior outside the work environment.

Whether it is purchasing the corporation’s product out of loyalty, avoiding entire classes of products so we don’t support the competitors, giving money to lobbies and politicians that promote the corporation’s agenda or stifling our morality, we allow ourselves to be guided by ‘the greater good.’ The greater good, in this context, is anything that promotes the corporate agenda.

It is the last point, stifling our morality, that I am interested in at this moment.

We become much more tolerant of behavior in others when we have some emotional connection to them. Friends or family members that behave badly are given leniency simply because they are friends or family members. Any behavior we abhor in others, we tolerate if it is performed by someone or some group to which we have a sense of loyalty.

How often do we condemn an action from a politician of an opposing party, or from a member of a rival sports team, while condoning the same behavior in someone we are sympathetic towards?

The same sense of loyalty can cloud our judgements when our employers behave badly. They know this, but they are also able to push the envelope of our tolerances. How are corporations able to manipulate us into supporting behavior we would otherwise vehemently oppose? There are two keys:

1. Separation from the victim.

Just as advertisers know they must create an emotional connection between an object and you, corporations are aware that if you are removed from the proximity of the victim, you will be removed from a sense of responsibility. We respond viscerally to behavior observed in front of us in real life, and while we may emotionally respond to behavior observed via a media outlet, our response isn’t nearly as strong. If we read about the victim or see pictures of them on TV, we may feel sympathy but we rarely feel a sense of responsibility.

2. Separation from the action.

When our employer provides a substandard product, pollutes a local environment, strong-arms a few residents or behaves in any number of callous or dangerous ways, we are less likely to feel a sense of responsibility if we are not near the event. Besides the obvious need for employment, we feel less responsible because we did not personally perform any of the actions.

Often, even though the action may be performed by our employer, we do not condone the behavior so our conscience is clear. We essentially wash our hands of responsibility and continue on with life, worrying about more important things such as putting food on the table and whether the Lions have a chance to make the Super Bowl.

The consequence of the workers’ lack of responsibility for their employer’s behavior is that a corporation’s only directives are profitability and avoiding legal actions. In other words, corporations today have no reason to feel restrained by ethical actions because we do not hold them accountable.

Sometimes corporations can suffer from a poor image, but that is caused by external pressure from the public not internal pressure from employees. Thus it becomes a public relations issue rather than an ethical issue.

Corporations create emotional distance between you, the employee, and their actions. They want as much separation as possible between you and the victim and between you and the action on that victim. When there is a chemical spill or inhumane factory practices and the victim is on the other side of the world, we are less likely to respond—even when it is our employer.

We are less likely to respond, in part because it is our employer. Now, what if the victim were in the same country, but a different region? What if the victim were in the same state, but different town? The closer the victim and the action are, the more likely we are to feel some sense of responsibility.

How close should the victim be in order for you to feel like you bear some of the responsibility? How close should the victim be in order for you to speak up to your supervisor or send a note to the CEO? Would you only speak up against inhumane factory conditions if you worked in the factory?

By their very nature, corporations are driven by profitability. Some may write social responsibility into the charter, but that is a difficult benchmark to measure. Measuring profitability is easy. Corporations have difficulty when social responsibility is a guiding force. They depend on their employees to be their social conscience. There is no one else to handle that responsibility, in part because it does not show up on a balance sheet or IRS form.

There is a shift occurring in the marketplace.

Consumers, in larger numbers, are beginning to ask for more than the best product at the cheapest price. Some consumers are asking other questions such as employment conditions, sustainable methods and social responsibility. Some corporations, at inception, take these issues into consideration, but most do not. Some corporations have adopted the philosophy that it is good public relations to address these issues.

It is important to remember that if all employees walked away, the corporation would cease to exist, except on paper. It is helpful to remember that corporations in fact do not live, breath or have a soul. Their existence is dependent on people that walk the hallways, sit in the cubicle and answer the phone.

We, the employees, give corporations life and direction.

Corporations act on our behalf and generally our desire is to have profitable businesses. When a corporation behaves badly, it is because we allow it to do so. If a corporation’s sole motivation is profit, there will be victims of social injustice because that concept does not exist in the eyes of the corporation; an action is either profitable or it is not profitable and social justice does not figure into the algorithm.

If we have the external pressure of the marketplace and the internal pressure of the workforce, it is possible to provide some guidance to corporations so their purpose of profitability can exist within the framework of social responsibility.


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Assistant Editor: Richard May / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Rachel Lynne Smith / Flickr.

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