How do encourage my company to decline unethical business?
June 27, 2018 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I recently learned my company has a contract with an organization that many employees find morally reprehensible. I asked leadership in an open Q&A whether we would ever decline business on ethical grounds and got a disappointing answer, but many employees contacted me privately and want to do something about it. I need some help knowing what I can do and how.

The disappointing answer was along the lines of, "we couldn't be a business if we didn't accept contracts with companies that do bad things", "the way we enable this organization is not in doing the bad stuff" and "if our product makes people more effective, they'll do more good". I don't think I can expect leadership to do much about this without some external pressure.

At the very least I can coordinate communication between these like-minded employees using a secure platform outside of work. Beyond that, I'm not sure what sort of strategies would be useful or what sort of pitfalls I should avoid.

I'm hoping to see us not renew our contract with the organization in question, but more importantly I want to see my company to have a framework for identifying organizations that we should avoid doing business with on ethical grounds. Do these seem like achievable goals? Any suggestions or pointers to resources would be appreciated.
posted by Cogito to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not knowing your industry or what sort of morally reprehensible org your work is doing business...
You're limited on things you can do. Not renewing your contract or leaving under protest of this deal would be a thing to do. You can talk to the press (assuming the public media will care and your company will react or change).

Ultimately a company that is more focused on money than what's right probably isn't somewhere you want to be. When you leave, review them on employer review sites to warn people with your sensibilities that the company is dollars over ethics.
posted by toomanycurls at 8:31 PM on June 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you're in tech, get in touch with the Tech Workers Coalition. They can help advise you on how to go about this with the least possible risk to your livelihood and the most possible impact. Good luck comrade <3
posted by potrzebie at 8:46 PM on June 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

The most effective thing that seems at all feasible would be to organize a strike or walk-out at your company. It would probably be best if you unionized first. I realize that's a pretty high bar, but what you need here if you're to have a hope of success is solidarity and collective bargaining.

Otherwise, I'm not sure what there is to be done that would actually accomplish much. It sounds like your management has found ways to rationalize what the company is doing, and so they'll probably keep at it as long as it's making them money. There's no easy, low-risk way to overcome that.

If it comes to the point where you personally decide to quit over this, you could burn your bridges by publishing an open letter to your company's management on some platform that the rest of the employees would all have access to. That's hardly zero-risk either and is much less likely to be effective, but if you're already quitting and nobody else has your back, that's the most powerful move you could make as an individual employee.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you read this?
posted by praemunire at 9:29 PM on June 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think you might try to find out what percentage of your gross revenue comes from the reprehensible organization.

Then ask yourself and your like-minded coworkers what other organizations you do business with would not like it if were known that you were doing business with the reprehensible one, and what effect it could have on organizations that might be thinking about hiring you.

Depending on the answers to these questions, you could then point out to management that a Gresham's law kind of effect could begin to operate here, where the bad organizations drive out the good, and they could find themselves with business only from organizations at least as bad as the one employees are objecting to now, and with only those employees who can stomach that on the payroll.

Then you could point to the consequences working with reprehensible organizations have had for companies from Facebook on down.
posted by jamjam at 10:33 PM on June 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Here is an interesting thing for you.

My company also does business with Bad Companies. There's not much I can do about that, but when my actual team bid for work with one of the worst, I felt that was where I had to draw the line. So I said, if we win this work, I will not be able to work on it.

Here's the thing. My line manager suggested that I speak to HR to note that I did not wish to be put on jobs for this company in future (essentially to protect me from being in that position again). HR told me not only that they would do it, but that they actually HAD to, because there would otherwise be a conflict of interest. Meaning, how do you produce your best work for a company you hate? (In my case, have actually attended protests against!)

So if you feel able to make a statement, that might be quite a good phrase to keep handy. Because what I'm thinking is, there might be enough of a difference between "this group of us don't want to work for that company anymore" and "this group of us feel that there is a strong conflict of interest which prevents us from working for that company anymore" which might make them take you a bit more seriously.

Might be worth a try! Sending power to you. It's hard, but it feels good to do something like this.
posted by greenish at 3:29 AM on June 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding the Tech Workers' Coalition recommendation, if your industry is tech or tech-adjacent. I'd also recommend reading up on solidarity unionism (which prioritizes direct action organized and led by workers over official union certification and contract bargaining) and in particular you might consider the "march on the boss" tactic. This is pretty much what it sounds like: get as large a group of employees as you can muster to physically go to the office of the decisionmaker(s) to present your concerns/demands. Resist management efforts to turn this collective action into individual actions (they'll suggest talking about it in 1:1s, or say they can't deal with such a large group and try to deal with a "spokesperson"--often one that management chooses). There is a reason that the third line of "Solidarity Forever" is "what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one."
posted by enn at 5:52 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Then ask yourself and your like-minded coworkers what other organizations you do business with would not like it if were known that you were doing business with the reprehensible one, and what effect it could have on organizations that might be thinking about hiring you.

This could be a good place to start. Keep in mind that we (as humans) are motivated by one of two things: a) gaining benefit; b) avoiding loss. And of the two, "avoiding loss" has the stronger pull. Right now your employer is looking only at the benefit they gain from taking this business. Maybe you can demonstrate the loss they avoid by not taking the business.
posted by John Borrowman at 7:09 AM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jumping on John Borrowman: Almost every organization will quickly dismiss a question, action or concern that could disturb their comfortable status quo. When it's just you asking a question, their corrupted calculus is easy: ignore it.

You need to find a way to make ignoring your morality more onerous than ignoring you.
posted by JackBurden at 4:32 PM on June 28, 2018

There are absolutely things you can do, and you're on the right track -- you have to organize with your coworkers.

As mentioned above, tech workers are starting to learn the power of organizing. Definitely read the Jacobin interview linked above about the organizing around Project Maven at Google. Here's more coverage of that campaign. Amazon employees are organizing against working with law enforcement. Microsoft employees are organizing against working with ICE. If you're in the industry, definitely get in touch with the Tech Workers Coalition. If you're not in tech, I would talk to someone at They can recommend organizing strategies.

Signal is a good tool for secure communication. Feel free to message me privately, I'd be happy to put you in touch with people who have organizing experience, especially in the tech industry.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:02 PM on June 28, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for the great responses, all. I have read the Jacobin article and find it very inspiring.

I think what you did in your case was great, greenish. Unfortunately, that wouldn't really work for us since our work isn't terribly client-specific. If you work at my company, almost certainly the reprehensible company will be using something you contribute to.

I'll look into these various resources. The one additional piece of information is that my company is mostly remote workers. We do have an office, but it makes the feasibility of the "march on the boss" tactic tricky both in terms of getting people to travel and because of the relative lack of an audience of other employees.
posted by Cogito at 9:30 PM on June 28, 2018

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