Beverly told her boss she was pregnant and was fired. She wasn’t the only one, and her employer Amazon is currently navigating a slew of lawsuits from people who met the same fate. A story of the retail giant treating an employee badly is hardly an isolated incident. In order to keep their delivery promises, Amazon is regularly called out for prioritising delivery schedules over people’s welfare.
Meanwhile, at another corporate campus, Walmart added $1 an hour to the pay packets of their part-time staff, leaving wages languishing well below the poverty line. And at the same time, they made a $20 billion share buy-back, causing employee advocates to argue the money should have funded further increases to wages for their one million employees.
Walmart and Amazon are behemoth enterprises, and the choices they make impact millions of people and ripple out to millions more. However, no matter what size the organisation is, the cost of people is front and centre in any discussion about profitability.
The trade is a tough one. Go too far one way, and get slammed for taking advantage of people working for you and not rewarding the contribution they make. Too far the other way, and if the environment shifts, you can easily find yourself out of business.
Of course, sitting between the extremes is a slew of organisations who provide fair compensation and decent conditions because they recognise people’s contribution to purpose and performance is central to achieving profitability. Still, according to many of the articles which land in my inbox there is an epidemic of employers behaving badly, taking advantage of their workers and pocketing the proceeds.
The rhetoric often fails to accommodate the messy middle. There’s a world of difference between a well-intentioned organisation failing to make everyone who works for them feel hunky dory and the systematic disregard for people’s endeavours by the worst offenders.
I think most companies are just trying to stay in the game. Because it can’t be people or profits. It needs to be people and profits. If you’re not growing by a minimum of 3% per year you’re sliding backwards (and that includes non-profits). Too many of those years in a row and you’re toast. And the employee share of nothing is nothing.
There’s a complex inter-relationship largely absent from the discussion, with current economic models placing people firmly on the liability side of the ledger, how do organisations fund the kinds of improvements demanded by employee advocates and stay in the black? It’s a question they all too often side-step. Not many have billions to play with.
I do not for one minute condone harming people with actions and decisions made in service to a bigger bottom line. But before meaningful and useful progress is possible, an acknowledgement the bottom line also matters has to be part of the conversation.
If you want to expand your understanding of how it is possible, I suggest reading Peter Tunjic’s thought-provoking piece on de-capitalism and rethinking the corporation.
What has this got to do your brand?
A brand is a result of the promises you keep. But if keeping those promises means pregnant workers get fired because they need a few more bathroom breaks, or your workers receive 6.2 billion in public assistance to make up for wages shortfalls, then perhaps you need to think more deeply about your intention and the promises you are making, lest over time, the result erodes beyond repair.
See you next time.