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Doing well by doing ill

On corporate qualmlessness

Byron Stookey, a retired academician, works tirelessly to improve the community, particularly on issues having to do with affordable housing.


The questions are: How do people at the top of some corporations come to work against the common good? Do they believe that what they’re doing is OK? And how far down in the ranks is their story about the enterprise shared?

Big businesses, of course, are not alone in willingly doing harm. The same can happen with small businesses, zealous religions, corrupt nonprofits. And individuals: slumlords, doctors who fleece the government, scam artists, tractable accountants.

But except for Congresspeople who sell votes, it’s mostly big corporations that do big harm.

It probably was not in the executive suite where their executives learned to do ill coolly; if they hadn’t acquired those habits, they wouldn’t have reached their position.

Some might have grown up qualmless. They learned at home or from early peers to worry only within their box. Some such learning might have happened in business school, by like-minded people who became, then, increasingly, their world.

And once people rise close to the executive suite, it probably is difficult not to adopt the company line, whether or not they entirely believe in it.

And buying in has been made easier by the ethos developed in this country since the ’60s and then the Reagan era: that one’s personal life or corporate success are enough to be concerned with.

Corporate narcissism became accepted.

* * *

But what do senior people in dubious businesses really think of what they’re doing?

Do the executives at Philip Morris think it’s OK to be promoting smoking in developing countries all over the world? Or the senior people at Bushmaster Firearms International: OK to push sales of assault rifles to record levels after Newtown? Or the management at Wells Fargo, marketing loans to poor people at 200-percent interest? Do they feel OK about what they’re doing?

They may, because by the time they’ve gotten to where they are, “good” has been redefined to mean “the success of the corporation.”

If executives are good at increasing profits, they probably believe that they’re good people, usually. Even if what they do there might be questionable, that belief is encouraged by high pay and the applause of their boards.

At home and in their community, they might be upstanding and respected. Their children, golf partners, and fellow members of the museum board affirm that they’re good people.

* * *

What, then, about people in the lower ranks at Philip Morris: Do they believe that what they’re doing is OK?

If they’re middle management with the prospect of promotion, probably they must.

But lower management and hourly workers — people in accounting or on the production line? Some might have adopted the party line. Others might question it, a few might even ridicule it.

But, for most, the merit of what the company does is probably rarely on their mind. They are glad to have a job. And more immediate concerns of their own occupy their attention.

So the mindset of the executive is rarely challenged, unless an aroused public forces the government to intervene.

But even a responsible government can do only so much. And meanwhile, as our economy grows more elaborate, opportunities to disserve the common good increase.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #211 (Wednesday, July 10, 2013).

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