Are there ethical limits on whom you’ll work for?

It can be all too easy to turn a blind eye to the moral values of the organization that provides your salary. Jesse Liberty explains why he believes we should stop and think more often...and also how difficult this task can be.

I am a consultant: a contract programmer, a hired gun. Clients call me and I help them with various phases of their project; ideally from analysis (what you need) through design (how we might build this), implementation (writing the code), testing (what, bugs?) and deployment (worked fine on my machine!).

In the past ten years I’ve worked for banks, military contractors, hospitals, publishers, companies that provide babysitters, technology companies, telecommunications companies, oil exploration consulting companies, financial consulting companies, and many others. I have yet to turn down a job because I found the work done by the company (or their parent company) morally reprehensible; but still the questions come up: Where do you draw the line? When do you refuse to work for a company because of their moral stance?

Are there limits?

There are those, I suppose, who believe there is no line, but I find that hard to defend. If asked to write software to help manage weapons of mass destruction for a country engaged in genocide, I think many of us would balk. I would find other work (or no work). There is some work I just won’t do, and I suspect that most people have their own personal standards for where they draw the line.

Yet most companies engage in some practices that are questionable on some level to at least some people. At the same time, we know that objectivity is very hard to maintain when we have a strong economic incentive in our wage packet to see one side of an issue as more compelling than another.

It is precisely because of our natural ability to rationalize and justify just about anything we perceive to be in our own interest, that we might want to consider the question of the limits on who we are willing to work for, before we are confronted with a lucrative offer from a company we find morally suspect.

This brings up two related questions: how do you judge the overall morality of a company, and what, if anything, do you do about it?

Let me be clear: the aim of this article is not for me to offer strong opinions, but to open up a discussion. I don’t want to begin by staking out a strong position, but rather, I’d like to show why there are some companies for whom I will not work. I would also like to argue that there is some moral responsibility for the worker, just as there is for the consumer in contributing to the profits of the corporation we engage with.

Most companies are not obviously morally suspect, and I can only assume that no company is morally perfect. Beyond that, definitions of what is moral, will, of course, differ significantly between people.

If you are a pacifist, you may not feel comfortable working for a military or munitions providers no matter whose side they are on. On the other hand, many of us would probably be far more comfortable creating weapons systems for the US military (whatever its limitations; and this is still a controversial area) than for the Sudanese government, for example.

If you are politically engaged in one or more ’causes’ then you may have a target list of companies you particularly object to (those companies with poor labor, environmental, civil rights or other policies).

But I suspect most folks are unaware of the ‘politics’ of the companies with which they do business. Should we, do we, have a moral obligation, to explore the behavior of companies who wish to hire us?

That may sound crazy, but do you want to find yourself in the position of having worked for a company that used your software to run a facility that poisoned the ground water for an entire town near you? Are you comfortable with the idea that you might write a telephony/database system that will be turned over (without your knowledge) to a vicious hate group that will use it to incite violence against one or another ethnic group in America?

Set aside the possibility of being hired by a front for a terrorist organization or an obviously evil or pernicious organization; what degree of responsibility do we have when we work for a large multi-national that is destroying lives in other countries? In the early 1980s, I was a vice president of Citibank. What responsibility did I have for the investments CitiCorp had in South Africa before the end of apartheid? Was that responsibility increased when Bishop Tutu begged Citibank to divest?

Over the years, I’ve felt an increasing responsibility, not only about who I work for, but also where I spend my money, though I recognize that the responsibilities are not always perfectly clear-cut.

Are your purchases dictated by politics?

Those of us who grew up boycotting grapes when we were young and idealistic still engage, from time to time, in quixotic boycotts of companies we find particularly objectionable. Personally, I try hard to avoid buying gasoline from Exxon/Mobil (I’m sure they notice that last year, despite being the largest company on Earth, their profits were down by at least a few hundred dollars). I do this because I’m terribly unhappy [1] with both their policies on the rights of their employees [2] and their environmental policies [3].

Let me add that in addition to making myself feel better by driving by their gas stations (even when their fuel is a few pennies per gallon less expensive), I do think there is an opportunity here to teach my children about social responsibility; about how spending our money can be a direct reflection of our values.

The question, then, is this: if I were asked to work on a contract that met every one of my criteria for a perfect software project but the client was a subsidiary of Exxon, would I have a moral obligation to turn it down? How is that moral obligation balanced against my other moral obligations to feed my family? To educate my children to be moral citizens who act on their values?

One thing I know: it is far easier to live up to your morality when the mortgage is paid and there is food on the table, than when you are struggling to get by. In the Pyramid of Needs [4], paying attention to this level of where you spend your money comes at the very top, only after physiological requirements (food and water) and then safety, love, and even esteem have been met. That is, choosing to change your spending habits to meet your moral and political goals may be a luxury of the relatively secure and well-off.

But turn that on its head; it may be a luxury but it is also our responsibility. That is, if we have the means, do we not also have the obligation to act? If we have enjoyed the benefits of a society in which we no longer have to scrounge to survive, one in which our needs are mostly met;; where food, water and shelter is not in question, one in which the safety of our body and family is not in immediate danger, and where we have high self-esteem and the respect of others; does that not impose an obligation on us to look up from our work and ask: what are the moral implications of the efforts of the company we are working for?

Where does moral responsibility end?

It would seem that the more you know and/or care about the actions of a corporation, the more you are constrained from working for them. But where does this end, and how far must you go towards tracking down controversial allegations?

Nike was accused not all that long ago of unfair labor practices in China and Vietnam. According to Boycott Nike a six month effort by Vietnam Labor Watch shows that workers are not making a livable wage, are not allowed to go to the bathroom more than once in 8 hours and commonly faint from exhaustion. They also suffer verbal and sexual harassment and are forced regularly into excessive and illegal overtime to meet high quotas. On the other hand, a quick review of Nike’s site shows a concerned company, working with contract companies that are then bound to Nike’s code of conduct. This code mandates that each employee be paid ‘at least the minimum wage… [with] all legally mandated benefits,… [that each employee shows compliance] with all legally mandated work hours… [and works] overtime only when each employee is fully compensated’.

So can I work for Nike? Tough decision, and here’s an aside: how much research ought a consultant do before deciding to take or turn down a job for a company? Some companies have undeserved poor reputations; some are undiscovered monsters. And when money is on the table, judgement tends to tremble.

Starbucks is dedicated to paying its workers well; it provides insurance to part time workers and is the largest importer of ‘fair trade’ coffee in the nation. Yet Oxfam claims that Starbucks tried to block Ethiopia from trade-marking its coffee, costing the country $88 million a year [5].

What, Starbucks? I’m inclined to give Starbucks the benefit of the doubt, but how much of that is based on the reality of their corporate politics and how much is based on their feel-good advertising (and their terrific cappuccinos?). And maybe Oxfam has an ax to grind and Starbucks is Ivory pure.

Once you start judging the ‘morality’ of the activity of companies you find yourself making difficult judgments with insufficient information; yet to ignore these questions is to open yourself to contributing to literal slave labor practices.

Drawing The Line

Now, there is a world of difference between working for a company directly abetting genocide, and working for a company that may or may not be engaged in aggressive (even cut-throat) corporate competition, but the point is that we make moral decisions by who we buy from and who we work for, and we do so either consciously and affirmatively, or passively (by not engaging in the matter).

You can easily dismiss this as more ‘politically correct blather’ but that just means that you get to make your decisions passively: you work for your company, close your eyes to its behaviors, take your check and don’t look back. The only problem is that doing so does not absolve you of responsibility. If it turns out that the company writing that check is also engaging in behavior you are disturbed by, you have been a participant even if you did not take the time to find out.

Before you light up the comments board, let me be clear: I do not know where the boundaries for this are. After all, there are some clear cut cases and some tricky cases: I know that I’m happy to work for Dana Farber Cancer Institute (though I can’t be certain they are 100% without blemishes) and I won’t work for the American Nazi Party (an easy call), but as you approach the more difficult cases in-between, you approach the more difficult questions of how much responsibility you have to: (a) find out what the company is doing both in its direct work and in its indirect political activities, and (b) what responsibility you have to hold back your labor from that company (even as a token gesture) once that company crosses whatever invisible and hard-to-pin-down ethical line you draw. This sort of ethical judgment is, and should be, true in your purchases. I would also argue that it becomes even truer as you contribute your labor.

‘The arc of the moral universe is long, But it bends toward justice’ – Dr. Martin Luther King quoting Theodore Parker.


[1] Outraged, enraged, pissed off, beside myself, vexed, splenetic, infuriated, affronted, choleric, appalled, grody, sharooshed, livid… well, you get the idea.

[2] When Exxon and Mobil merged, they rescinded their benefits to same-sex partners. What’s more, HRC rates Exxon/Mobil a nice round Zero on the HR Equality Index.

[3] As just one example, Britain’s National Academy of Science accused Exxon/Mobil of ‘misleading the public into thinking that the role of humans in climate change is still open to doubt.’ Source: Reuter’s article of September 20, 2006.

[4] See Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.

[5] It should be noted that Starbucks reportedly denies this, saying that they have not tried to block the trademark though they believe that the trademark will hurt Ethiopian farmers.