Can bad companies do good work?

I was at the Top Employers accreditation dinner this week. I like the idea of these accreditation systems and I particularly like the work that Top Employers are doing around global standards. One of the strong arguments for them is that they’re helpful for those companies that may not be consumer brands or well-known outside of their sector. It sends a message that says, “we are a good place to work, even if you don’t know who we are”.

But should we recognise good employment practice, regardless of the goals of the organisation? Is it good enough to just be seen to treat employees well, or should we be questioning organisational purpose?

Is being seen as a good employer often a tactic to compensate for public perceptions of “moral” acceptability?

I’ve written before about the way in which RBS was heralded for their innovative people management practices, how News International promoted their “culture change programme” and I could go on and provide a myriad of company failures.

But at the same time, we also know that there are societal issues that we need to address: obesity, alcohol consumption and binge drinking, the incidence of smoking in developing countries.

When we recognise employers should we consider what those employers do? Or do we just accept that everything is fair game and let the moral judgments be made elsewhere? Where do we draw the line?

On the podium at this particular event (and I don’t intend to single out Top Employers in any way) were McDonalds, KFC, Heineken, JD Weatherspoons, Molson Coors, British American Tobacco and Phillip Morris International. Not to mention The Co-op Group last week described as “ungovernable” by its own CEO.

Should HR and people practice sit in isolation, or if it is integral to a company culture, ethos and purpose. Should we not take that into account too?


  1. Euan Semple · March 17, 2014

    I guess it is a bit like the HR equivlent of “greenwashing”. I sometimes wonder about the organisations I help but for me the answer is that if I can enable more employees to think harder about what they do, feel more able to speak up and have a platform on which to be heard then perhaps the worst excesses of their organisations might diminish. If Tesco had had a big enough, lively enough, grown-up enough internal forum then perhaps when someone said “Has anyone else noticed that horse” something might have been done about it!

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      That brings a new meaning to, “the elephant in the room”!

  2. Simon Jones · March 17, 2014

    Neil, I completely agree that you can’t be a “top employer” if you don’t take account of the company’s overall values and societal impact. In effect, it’s the same problem, in reverse, as the infamous “what does HR do to help the bottom line” – there is a disconnection between what HR is doing and what business is doing.

    However, the big question is who decides the values of society. Milton Friedman famously said that “The Business of Business is Business” i.e. so long as you operate in a profitable way, there is no need to take account of wider issues. I doubt you’d ever get a consensus on whether a business is “good” or “bad” – what I might consider acceptable others wouldn’t, and vice-versa

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      And therein lies the issue, right? Where is that line drawn? I don’t know, but instinctively I think it needs to be drawn somewhere and at the moment it isn’t.

  3. Ian Perry · March 17, 2014

    “We are a great place to work, even if you don’t know who we are” is really the essence of the question you raise in my opinion, and wouldn’t it be nice if we just could have this stuff without needing awards or ads in newspapers and on the news telling us that companies are doing this stuff.

    In my time I worked for a few organisations that were great places to work.

    My first, was Chubb Lock and Safe in Wolverhampton. An old fashioned firm, of victorian heritage and alas no longer with us in its current form.
    I joined them as an apprentice at the age of 16. I was cared for, I was looked after. The apprentices had our own mini bus in company livery in which we went climbing and canoeing at weekends and summer evenings, as well as trips to the Lake District at Easter. All unsupervised, just a driver over the age of 21!
    We knew we were representing the company so acted with some discipline!!
    They took on apprentices, proper ones with a 5 year term, and they sponsored undergraduates. Some straight from school, others from the apprentice ranks.

    I was one of those. Money each term and paid work every holiday and a job at the end if I wanted it. I left on graduating to join Boots, and although they were disappointed they were pleased that I had landed a job with such a well known company and broader prospects.
    Chubb’s were part of the local community, sports and social club, and were seen as a great place to work.

    When I moved to my current home I did so to join Messier-Dowty. Possibly a “bad” company involved in defence work.
    Similar to Chubb, a heritage of skills, proper apprenticeships not 1 year training courses. Sports and social club, and other “paternal” benefits to staff. They looked after people.

    What these companies did was that they cared about there staff. They just did it, and people came to work for them, and stayed. Then friends and family came too.

    What these companies did was just do it, they didn’t need to tell everyone who they were or that they were doing it.
    Maybe thats the lesson here. Just do good stuff!

    • shanonwynonna · March 19, 2014

      I guess the point here is also to promote yourself, but by word-of-mouth, Ian. This way, the news, ads or awards would lose much of their strength and perhaps some companies would get more credit than others, given that this kind of image would be truer. From my point of view, a company succeeds in keeping its people when it makes them feel they leave home to come to their other home. This is how the companies you mentioned were able to get an employer’s friends and family to come work for them, as well.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      Do good stuff to enable us to do bad stuff? Is that a message too?

      • shanonwynonna · April 25, 2014

        It is never okay to create premises for doing bad, this is just a way of embellishing what’s really going on, so that the employees don’t have a bad moral, for me. What we must focus on is: do these companies lack scruples because they do what they do or do they just offer what the people ask for? Every bad situation exists because it was created from both sides, don’t you think?

  4. simonheath1 · March 17, 2014

    Good or bad is necessarily subjective in this context and in part comes down to motive. Salving conscience over questionable business practices being just one example. We can exercise freedom of choice to get people to behave differently. Should we so choose, we could boycott Apple until it addresses working conditions in its manufacturing plants in China. I’ll freely admit my hypocrisy here by saying I do not do so. Exercising a choice in one direction leads to other choices. They won’t necessarily lead to simpler choices elsewhere. Go for Samsung and you get another set of issues. Manufacturing might be good but mining for the raw materials might be suspect.
    You could choose to work for a “bad” company and hope and try to influence direction for the better or shrug it off saying that’s just how the world is. As Euan might have put it: organisations don’t have bad working practices. People do.
    And those people make choices every day that see them either accept the status quo or strive to change things.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      But some companies do bad shit, no? Not just marginally bad, but proper big boy bad. Is that ok?

  5. Chris Underwood (@JedisMaster) · March 17, 2014

    Neil, as ever a thought provoking blog and an opened can of worms…

    I do however think that in the context of recognising employers for the good work their do as employers you cannot make a (personal) judgement about the rights or wrongs of the wider purpose of the organisation and ‘unrecognise’ (real word?) what could or would otherwise be seen as best practice.

    The fact that so many of the public whipping boys of obesity, smoking and binge drinking are consistently recognised for being Top Employers is almost certainly due to the fact that they HAVE to be to recruit and retain the staff and skills they need as a business to operate and the fact that they do this should be celebrated, even if you wouldn’t wish to work for them yourself.

    Could it be argued that the huge changes at McDonalds and challenge to decades worth of experience of a rock solid global format and menu were only achievable because of the culture and employee engagement practices? Other similar brands in their sector have not made such changes.

    As the choice about who you work for and what that business does (I include its wider mission and purpose) is so personal, by excluding those that are perceived as ‘doing evil’ by some is likely to put blinkers on any best practice or lessons that could be learnt by others.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      I do love to open a good can of worms…..

      And thank you for actually tackling some of the specific companies I mentioned.

  6. changinghr · March 17, 2014

    Brillant post Neil and to be honest one that opens the inner dialogue in me. My anology is the way you treat your mates over others you know – you cut them more slack even when at times they behave as badly as those you want to make a stand against. I’ve worked with some great brands at some amazing junctures in their organisational histories and I’ve refused (silently) to work in certtain sectors out of principle (no need to name). But even in the ‘good ones’ one did amazing things for the 3rd world as a purpose but hired bodies of men to avoid corporate tax liabiliites in the UK. Another that did great stuff in preventative health and then offered up stupid immoral decision points in annual budgeting that sat uneasily with me. Business throws up a strange set of principles and I guess each of us reconcile our own within that. The best practice element I treat with caution as they themselves seem too absolute to me and avoid the complexities of operating for the greater good in all they make (I don’t think capitalism is best set up for that purpose).

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      I agree there is personal choice here. Completely. But in the case of a cigarette company, is it something that we should celebrate that the sale of a product that is directly linked to cancer is used to promote good employee conditions? I just don’t know….

      • changinghr · March 28, 2014

        It’s a cracker Neil. In this one (and given my own dad’s sad demise as a result of it) the tails up and the industry sickens me as a result. The awards for top things at work they may recieve are coloured but I guess silently we reconcile this as the way of the world.

  7. Clare Haynes · March 17, 2014

    “Top employer” and “Top ethical company” are different. Unless we award on both those points they’re simply separate.

    I’ve worked for unethical companies who were great employers and ethical organisations who lacked as employers.

    That said, an organisation has a better chance of being a better employer if ethical on the premise of motivation comes more easily when working for a “cause.”

    However, it does question this – what do awards stand for, really? If only I had a pound for everytime an employee of a “Best to work for” company pooh-poohs that status.

    My best employers were too busy being just that and I loved being there.

    Great debate.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      Can you ethically do unethical things? I don’t know….

  8. Meg Peppin · March 17, 2014

    What an interesting question. I suppose an argument could be, the more that an employer creates an environment that allows employees at all levels to flourish, then the more that its purpose, direction and ethics will be influenced and shaped by the voice of those delivering the work.

    Most of the HR function could be done by outsourcing, finance, legal and the line so to respond to your final point; unless HR is guiding and shaping people practice in alignment to the behaviour the org needs to deliver its goals, not sure why it would exist as a unique function.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      We are efficiently and effectively polluting the world. Well done us…..!

      • Meg Peppin · March 25, 2014

        I suppose I was thinking, for example, about BAT, and pressure from within to make e-cigarettes their product (possibly an ill-informed assumption from me, but I’m assuming they’re not as harmful and smoking is legal, like alcohol) a reinvention to meet a changing world comes from the people that are the org, KFC – employees with a voice could shift to only using ethically reared animals etc. Lion Nathan don’t sell alcopops as they believe it did not fit in with their culture and say “and when our products are misused in ways that are fundamentally at odds with our core purpose, we must be part of the solution to tackle this misuse”. Employees at all levels have had a very active role in shaping what they stand for.

  9. ohcsolutions · March 17, 2014

    You have raised an important point.

    Very few organisations, if any at all, sets out to be ‘bad’. The challenge is for HR to have the insight and courage to spot and question business or leadership ideas that could potentially turn a good company into a ‘bad’ one.

    • Neil · March 23, 2014

      Most companies do what is right for their shareholders, not what is right for society or their employees.

  10. Gareth Jones · March 24, 2014

    I might be missing something here but since when did an organisation become separate from people? An organisation is a collection of inert objects. Without people there is no organisation. without people there is no culture.

    So when we talk about an organisation showcasing its people practices on the one hand as an employer (Lets please not call it HR practices) and on the other presiding over some dodgy or morally questionable practices, we are simply talking about two different groups of people in the same organisation, or the same group of people, behaving in two apparently conflicting ways.

    Is it right that an organisation, or rather a group of people (usually the organisations leadership) should behave in this conflicting way? Well, clearly the answer is no. And we probably shouldn’t celebrate the good stuff either. It completely undermines authenticity and serves only to pay lip service to the value that the ‘good’ stuff brings to those who are involved or affected by it.

    But… the truth is our lives would be very different if we called out and refused to accept, trade or work for an organisation that wasn’t squeaky clean or completely authentic. As Simonheath1 points out, we buy the products and largely chose to ignore the fact that some 5 year old works 120 hours a day under water to produce it.

    We all scan the market for the best (aka the cheapest) mortgage deals in order to reduce our living costs so we can free up more cash to buy the said child abusing products. We gobble up low prices or whatever the general personal benefit and chose to ignore the consequences of that need or desire.

    If we genuinely want to align the actions of an organisation then we have to think very differently as individuals about our relationship with the organisation and, as Neil eludes, our role in wider society.

  11. interimity · March 28, 2014

    Blimey – really big question.

    To be honest I’d be happy if HR started to be ethical within their own organisations first and then tackle the ethics of the organisation proposition. (Yep, it’s the usual stuff – zero hours based contracts, minimum wage, unpaid internships, long working hours culture and seriously out of whack senior salaries).

    And no point looking to our professional body for any help on either the macro or the micro question. But wouldn’t it be great if we could.

    PS – how far do we take this? I won’t shop at Tesco as Panto Dame Shirley Porter is a major shareholder and ran away from prosecution for gerrymandering in Westminster. It’s the shareholders I’m objecting to (amongst other reasons for not shopping at Tesco).

  12. Pingback: Ethical HR – courageous or foolhardy? | Roffey Park | We develop people who develop organisations

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