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Wayfair Reminds Us Corporate Responsibility Doesn’t Always Come from the Top

The controversy surrounding Wayfair this week should remind us why thoughtful listening to employees absolutely matters.
By John Friedman

The controversy surrounding the e-commerce company Wayfair this week should remind us why thoughtful listening to employees absolutely matters.

During a business simulation – as part of a larger business program – we were faced with a situation where we, the management team, received something poorly written, slipped under the door that was ostensibly a note from one of our “workers” advising us that there was an issue on the production line. The test was to see if we would listen or ignore the input.

While I am pleased to say our team did respond – and averted a pitfall – there was a larger lesson there; to listen to one’s employees. Indeed, when it comes to corporate responsibility, often the line-level employees have a greater insight into the thoughts and opinions in the community and see for themselves that which may not be visible from a corporate (much less a corner) office.

In a real-world example, a company was putting together its lavish annual holiday party. They approached a well-known, well-respected, well-liked administrative assistant and asked her to be on the team planning the party. Company executives considered this project to be a great opportunity to demonstrate project management skills and be highly visible to the senior executives. Instead, her manager was shocked when she declined the assignment based on the principle that the company should instead be giving the large sum of money in question to help the less fortunate in the community at that time of year.

The moral point was heard, however, and the party was indeed scaled back with the balance of the budget donated to local organizations.

The two examples demonstrate that leadership does not have to come from the top down.

Less than 24 hours ago, I posted that simple thought connected to the walkout planned by a number of employees at Wayfair, in protest of the company’s perfectly legal contract providing products to facilities being used to detain children at the southern U.S. border. That post received a great deal of views and more comments than I expected. Some were responding to the political situation, but many weighed in on whether or not it is appropriate for employees to act in this manner. Some said yes; others encouraged the employer to fire them.

In the end, however, what I was pointing out was the trend in corporate responsibility that has led to changing societal (if not legal) expectations. Today many workers - especially those who are younger – are favoring workplaces that match their personal values. Not being content to earn by day and do good afterwards, they want purpose with their paychecks.

But now this trend has given rise to this new form of employee activism; not for higher wages, or better working conditions for themselves but rather to encourage - or demand - that their employer not profit off of things that they, the employees, do not find appropriate.

Companies that fall back on quoting Milton Friedman’s famous maxim that businesses have a responsibility only maximize profits as long as it “engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” would do well to read further in the same essay where he also stated:

“That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.”

It is that last part that people miss and, as times change, so do the expectations in society and what is considered “ethical custom.”

Image credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

John Friedman headshot

John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies live their values and engage in authentic conversations by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. He's the author of Managing Sustainability: First Steps to First Class.

John Friedman is Managing Director, ESG & Sustainability Services for Grant Thornton, LLP.

On digital media, Friedman is recognized as a thought leader; on TriplePundit’s List of the Top 30 Sustainability Bloggers on Twitter, #3 on GreenBiz list of most influential 'Twitterati', #14 on Guardian Business’ 30 most influential sustainability voices in America, was voted #4 of the "100 leading voices in CSR" by Global CEO Magazine readers, and has regularly been included among the top voices in CSR by Forbes.

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