Many working people experience stress and pressure, from those with blue-collar jobs to office professionals. So it certainly does not help when workers feel they are stuck in a culture of corporate callousness. By corporate callousness we mean companies sacrificing (often carelessly and illogically) the welfare of employees and even customers for the sake of profit. This is often due to misguided priorities or short-term thinking. As we will explore, the solution to corporate callousness is corporate concern—concern, not just for financial viability and revenue, but also for the wellbeing of employees and customers. By conceptualizing corporate morality more holistically, we might be able to envision a path forward that could benefit the company and all parties involved.
Too often we see business endeavors where employees—and even customers—have become almost expendable compared with the objective of making money, and quite often, these are not long-term investments but short-term financial gains. Some examples include the catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka in 2013, which killed 1,129 people, many of them factory workers. It was one of the deadliest disasters in the history of the textile industry, and tragically the reasons for the collapse were preventable. There were severe violations of basic safety standards, such as not having emergency exits or sprinkler systems, which could have decreased the number of victims. A scathing report noted that the owner of the plaza “illegally constructed upper floors to house garment factories employing several thousand workers,” with local officials bribed for construction approvals. (The New York Times)
The Rana Plaza tragedy is a dramatic and extreme example of corporate callousness that devastated families and incriminated business owners. A different example of corporate callousnes, in which a customer rather than employee was the victim, is the disgraceful manhandling of David Dao on 9 April, now known as United Airlines’ worst PR disaster. The incredibly negative global coverage of the event and of United Airlines is a textbook example of a company’s short-sighted approach to a problem leading to several months of major headaches, collapsing stock prices, viral negative coverage and lampooning in the news and on social media, and a costly settlement between the aggrieved party and the company. This was all because the airline did not prioritize the needs of Dao, when it mattered most.
Corporate callousness can affect any business, from mammoth multinationals to small, family-owned operations. It can take root in any country or society because no culture is free from greed or amoral indifference. The problem with taking a profit-oriented approach is that it is not a holistic and complete understanding of what should make a company. In contrast, corporate concern takes into account the entire ecosystem of an organization, understanding that it is the employees who build the company into a profit-generating institution and that it is the clients who, responding to the hard work of the company’s employees, help the company survive and grow.
While seeing work as fun or meaningful is a luxury for most, there are plenty of ways a company can create a more pleasant environment for their employees. The least an employer should do is to have robust and empathetic channels through which employees can express their concerns when they feel they are being exploited or abused, such as a responsive HR department that takes charges of bullying, overwork, or harassment of any kind seriously.
Analyzing overall wellbeing includes examining employees’ experiences in the workplace. Many workers accurately feel that they spend more time at work than at home, if one does not include sleep time. A recent study of wellbeing programs concluded that neglecting time spent working or in workplace environments resulted in a skewed vision of what being well-rounded truly means. “The wellbeing of employees is influenced by their genes and lifestyle, but also by work and its organisation. Many wellbeing programs focus on individual and lifestyle risks and appear to underplay the significance of work and the workplace. At worst, they may be doing no more that promoting resilience so that employees can withstand ongoing stress.” (personneltoday.com)
Hence, there are many new initiatives coming from startups and some major players in Silicon Valley to improve the working conditions of employees, which include having more open and accessible workspaces, yoga and meditation rooms, and day care for employees’ children. Taken together, these initiatives help to make a workplace not just “safe” (a minimum requirement), but also approachable and friendly, which strenghthens the loyalty workers feel for their employer. The company is no longer simply a means to a pay packet, but has the potential to contribute positively to the individual’s wellbeing.
Finally, the main lesson to be learned from the United Airlines example is that a company’s image is dependent on how it treats its customers. The public favors companies that treat their customers fairly and compassionately. The entire incident arose because the airline decided it needed four extra seats for Republic Airline crew members, who would be working on a United Express flight the morning after. While transferring people to other flights is not uncommon, not only did United Airlines neglect to offer the passengers (who had already paid for their seats) adequate compensation, but they summoned law enforcement to violently drag Dao off the flight. Dao suffered severe injuries, including a concussion, lost teeth, and a broken nose.
This seems to be an example of the short-term thinking that is more concerned with “business as usual” rather than actually listening and adapting (and if necessary, conceding) to the human needs of customers, even if meeting these needs inconveniences the company. As the CEO of United Airlines himself admitted, no inconvenience was worth the fallout that followed the incident. It was a humbling experience in decency and morality for the entire corporate world.
Corporate culture is not always easy to change. Nonetheless, it has already been stressed that reform is not a zero-sum game: concern for people does not negate concern for profit. Corporate concern simply acknowledges that companies, by taking a more holistic approach, stand to win more allies and possibly even business by taking into account the wellbeing of employees and customers. To cultivate a better ethic of care, a business needs to go beyond short-term hunger for quick earnings and integrate the wider, interconnected world into its orbit of responsibility.
What’s Changed Since More Than 1,110 People Died in Bangladesh’s Factory Collapse? (The Atlantic)
Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame (The New York Times)
United Airlines CEO admits removing passenger David Dao was a ‘mistake of epic proportions’ (Independent)
Employee wellbeing programmes and return on investment: the false profit (personneltoday.com)
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