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Is it okay to work for an unethical company?

Woman in a meeting

You are sitting in a meeting or reading the news, and it dawns on you. You work for an unethical company that is involved in some sort of evil. One or more of your fellow employees is violating a principle that matters to you, and you feel tainted by the association. Perhaps your coworkers are:

  • Harassing undeserving employees
  • Hurting the environment and lying about it
  • Pushing products that hurt children
  • Breaking the law or doing something else you find unsettling

“Yes, I work for a ghastly company, but at least the pay is great,” is not the kind of narrative that people like to fall asleep to.1  I’ve always wanted to work for an unspotted company that only hires good people. So, I’ve worked in healthcare consulting, pharmaceutical research, technology startups, and large hospital systems. They all did some good but were far from perfect.

The line between good and evil for companies

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” There is no line separating good companies from evil ones either. No business can be perfect unless it is made up of flawless individuals. And we are all defective.

If an impeccable company comes to mind, chances are that you do not know its innerworkings. You are just buying the marketing hype. Companies spend almost $100 billion on public relations and advertising in the US alone.2 The purpose of that money is not just to create awareness of their products. It is to manage your perceptions, and it works – not just on other people but on you.

I’m not sure if companies are more likely to commit shenanigans now than they did in times past or if the Internet is just making it easier to expose bad behavior, but the world seems to be awash in corporate scandal. Current and ex-employees are roasting their companies online, journalists and bloggers are writing exposés. No company is spared over the long-run.

How to select a “good” company

So, if companies are filled with imperfect people making mistakes and then trying to hide them, how can we idealists agree to work for any of them? Here are a few options when trying to choose a company to work for or to continue working for one:

  1. Find one ideal company and spend your entire career there – If you are looking for a pure and virtuous company, you might just die unemployed. And if you think you’ve found the most ethical company in the most righteous industry, there’s a good chance you will become disillusioned when its failures come to light.
  2. Choose a pet issue and only work for companies that perform on it – It’s too complicated to evaluate every company for every way it can be evil. One way to avoid this impossible task is to choose a few requirements and judge all potential employers on whether they meet them. Here’s an example: No animal cruelty? Check. People seem cool? Check. So, you join the company. You then try to turn a blind eye to the ethical lapses around you. Perhaps you tell yourself that the company’s minor flaws pale in comparison with the good it does.
  3. Reject all companies and start your own – People sometimes become disenchanted with bad bosses and misguided companies. Some of them exit the workforce. Maybe you are one of the those who relies on others to survive because you are trying to take the moral high ground. Others start their own business where they can have more control to prevent evil in workplace. One potential problem is that you will have to work with flawed customers and suppliers. And if you hire employees or purchase goods and services from suppliers, each one may bring a little corruption into your organization.
  4. Work for flawed people in flawed companies but do no wrong – Some people decide to work for damaged companies while attempting to do no evil themselves. They do as much good as they can, and sometimes they make mistakes. And they try to keep the darkness around them from seeping in and changing them for the worse.

None of these solutions is ideal, and other factors matter when selecting a company to work for: pay, responsibilities, hours, distance from your home, personal goals, and so on. The company also must choose you.

The Concentric Accountability Framework

When it comes to accepting a job offer or continuing to work for your vile employer, a structured way to think through the decision may be helpful. For every job in every company, there are five categories in what I’m calling The Concentric Accountability Framework:

  1. Your behavior
  2. Your stewardship
  3. What you influence indirectly
  4. What you are associated with
  5. What you have no control over and no association with

This framework is not an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) analysis people use to decide whether to invest in a company. It’s nothing like it. Where ESG attempts to do a holistic evaluation of a company to determine how virtuous it is, the Concentric Accountability Framework assumes all companies and people are imperfect. Despite these flaws, we can use our ethical framework to decide whether to work with a company anyway. Let’s take a closer look at the five categories within it.

The Concentric Accountability Framework suggests you should feel more responsibility the more you have control.

1. Your behavior

What you have direct control over is your behavior. It’s what you produce and say within your role. Are you lying to your coworkers? Or stealing from the company? Perhaps you are taking advantage of those who are too weak to stop you? Are you meeting the commitments that your clients are paying you fulfill?

What you do is at the heart of any job. Therefore, it is the sphere you should be most concerned about when deciding where to work. Consider spending less time worrying about whether your company is making the world a better place and more time doing good for those around you. At the very least, try not to do evil.3

I believe our western societies put too little emphasis on the ethics of individual behavior and too much on the actions of others. Americans are increasingly accepting of lies, for example. Over 50% of Americans say it’s sometimes or often okay to call in sick to work when not sick.4 Contrast this with the fact that 83% of people think companies should only earn a profit if they also deliver a positive impact.5

Many people are apparently comfortable with deceiving and manipulating those around them, but they want their employers to do good. Perhaps they miss that the combined actions of individuals make up what a company is. And the failures of individuals can compound when they are brought together in companies.

2. Your stewardship

After you establish what you can do personally, consider the teams that work for you and the customers you take care of. If you are the CEO, then you have some responsibility for the entire company. If you are a manager, you are accountable for the actions of your team and how they deliver to their customers. This is your stewardship, and you should be diligent in preventing evil behavior within it.

The need to watch over those within your stewardship is secondary to the need to police your own behavior. It is hard enough to manage yourself. Preventing large numbers of other people from doing wrong is much less likely. Even so, you should establish systems, expectations and values that promote good behavior within your steward and snuff out the bad. Train and motivate them. Model good behavior. Strong leaders can do much good and inspire others to follow along.

3. What you influence indirectly

It is difficult to tell how your small contribution influences a large company. Is it possible that your good work is making money that funds corruption elsewhere in the organization? Absolutely. Some of it you see, and some of the bad behavior may be hidden from you or so far removed that you cannot see your impact.

You should feel decreasing amounts of responsibility for your influence the farther it is from you. If you invent a toy that someone later turns into a weapon that another person uses to kill a puppy, give yourself a break. Focus more on doing good and taking care of those in your stewardship than on stressing over the secondary and tertiary effects no one can accurately predict.

Even so, you should call out bad behavior when you see it and attempt to influence those close to you for good – even if they do not report to you. See my article on influence here. When your coworkers resist your influence or make mistakes on your own, you are not to blame though. Individuals take the lion’s share of responsibility for their own bad behavior.

Remember that the people around you can change you too. So can the company’s culture and values. After the energy company Enron dissolved, an ex-employee named Phyllis Anzalone said, “They are scum. They are crooks, and they are traitors. They betrayed many peoples’ trust, including mine.”6 So, protect yourself. And if you do not like the way your company is influencing you, start planning your escape.

4. What you are associated with

Sometimes the actions of your company reflect on you even if you are not responsible for them. When a damning article comes out about your company’s shady business dealings, your friends are likely to ask you about it and whether you were involved. If your company goes out of business, finding a new job may be more difficult than it otherwise would be.

It’s understandable that most people want to work for a company with a sterling reputation and the status that comes with it,7 but you should not overemphasize your personal brand at the expense of your actual work. Over the long run, you will be known more by what you do than by what companies you work for. So, if you want to be perceived as good while doing evil, it’s unlikely to work out.

Modern society seems to emphasize this category more than any other in the framework. Our job titles and personal brands are splashed across social media while the boring work we do from day-to-day is harder to understand. Corporate reputations are carefully crafted images that may contradict the imperfect reality beneath. Instead of choosing a corporation based on how it will make you look, consider choosing one where you can do good and help others. And a good reputation is likely to follow.

5. What you have no control over and no association with

This category contains everything that has nothing to do with you. These are the companies that you do not work for or the divisions of your company that you barely know exist. Hopefully, you don’t feel contaminated by the knowledge that evil exists somewhere out there in the world.

You should feel little or no responsibility for the parts of the company that are not your own. However, if you are interested in changing a distant division of a company, consider applying for a new job there or working for a promotion that would bring that part of the company within your stewardship. Complaining about what does not affect you and what you cannot change is not helpful.

Examples of the framework in action

Here are a couple of examples of the Concentric Accountability Framework to consider. You may come to the difficult conclusion like I did.

Example #1 – Imagine you love nature and want nothing more than to turn the earth into a garden. Exxon, a large gas company, offers you a high-paid position developing technology to reduce carbon emissions and the impact of drilling on the environment. Your job does not require that you compromise your principles, but your work might indirectly contribute to activities you condemn. You will also be associated with a company that has a reputation for oil spills and destroying the environment. Do you take the job?

According to the framework, you should consider it. This job would give you a chance to make a positive impact on Exxon and on the environment.

Example #2 – You work in a store that begins selling a product you find abhorrent. You must stock the shelves with it and take money from customers who purchase it. You have no power over whether the store carries the product, and they are unlikely to remove it from the shelves if you complain. Do you continue working there?

The framework suggests that you should consider looking for a new job. Even though most of the products you sell are good or harmless, you are directly engaging in behavior that you see as hurting your customers every time you sell the new product. There are probably jobs out there where you do not have to do work that you find unethical. Try to find one where you can do some good.

Conclusion – do good work for an unethical company

Coming back to the question: should you work for an unethical company that does some bad things? The Concentric Accountability Framework suggests that, yes, you can work for an imperfect company if it does not force you to engage in unethical behavior. Of course, you will prefer companies that have good reputations and appear highly ethical, but those appearances are secondary to what you contribute personally. And you should try to influence those around you to do good, but you can still take pride in your accomplishments if others misstep.

You should work for a company where you can do good and not evil. You should worry less about behavior outside your control.

The emphasis of the framework is on being good yourself while living in a flawed world. It is about allowing others to take responsibility for their own behavior while accepting accountability for yours. The framework implies you should let go of what you do not control or you should take a role where you can become personally accountable. And you can still be proud of great work, even if it benefits immoral people and imperfect companies.

The ideas in this article are not only applicable to the process of choosing an employer. You can use the concepts from the Concentric Accountability Framework to help determine who your friends should be, which products to purchase, which political party to support, and where to attend school. Use it for good.

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