Should You Work for a Controversial Company?
Invited for a Swim? Already in the Water?
You Vile, Vile Crocodile: Working for a Controversial Company
Quick. Think of three employers you would never work for. As in ever.
Not for all the money in the world. Not even if a recession was raging and work was scarce. Or if they promised you excellent training, better-than-average benefits, and flexible work arrangements.
Chances are, you've named some of the companies in unpopular industries (such as those in the table below). Or maybe you've blacklisted other organizations renown for their
- unethical business practices
- cutthroat competitiveness
- large lawsuits
- disdain for their customers, or
- political leanings.
9 of the Most Unpopular Industries in America
Largest Publicly Traded Companies
Alcohol (aka Beverages)
Constellation Brands Inc. (STZ), Molson Coors Brewing Co (TAP), BEAM Inc. (BEAM)
Banking & Financial Services
JP Morgan Chase (JPM), Bank Of America (BOA), Citigroup Inc. (C), Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), American Express (AXP)
Firearms (guns and ammo)
Smith & Wesson Co. (SWHC), Sturm Ruger & Co Inc. (RGR)
largest agencies: Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Army, Department of Navy, Department of Homeland Security
Caesars Entertainment Corp (CZR), International Game Technologies (IGT), Bally Technologies Inc. (BYI)
Oil, Gas & Consumable Fuels
Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM), Chevron Corp (CVX), Conoco Phillips (COP)
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Pfizer (PFE), Merck & Co. (MRK)
Philip Morris (PM), Altria (MO), British American Tobacco (BTI)
Wine, Spirits & Beer: Could You Work in This Industry?
A Hard Truth: Not Everyone Can Work at Apple
But here is the truth, however hard it is to swallow: We cannot all work for well-loved corporations like Costco, Disney, and Google, just as we cannot all be nurses and firefighters, teachers and engineers.
Someone needs to be the auditor, the lawyer, the stockbroker. Similarly, some of us have to work—that is, choose to work—for companies that are:
- manufacturers and distributors of harmful products
- magnets for public controversy and lawsuits
- providers of notoriously poor customer service
- environmental polluters and/or
- ethical bottom feeders.
Job applicants and employees of controversial companies often grapple with this difficult truth. They must reconcile their employer's reputation with their desire to provide for themselves and their family.
Do you know where YOU stand?
Firearms & Ammunition: Would You Work in This Industry?
Get Right With Yourself
Before accepting a job offer and launching your career with a maligned employer, you have to get right with yourself. If you choose to work for a controversial company, being comfortable with your employment decision will require self-knowledge as your foundation.
How do I know? I worked at one such organization for almost six years. I made the choice that was best for me at that time.
This is not a rant on any industry or employer. (That would be too easy, and the internet is already full of those.)
It is also not an attempt to either encourage or dissuade others from pursuing any given career path. Rather, it is a reasoned set of observations based on my experience.
Here are issues to consider as well as survival tips.
What employer would you NEVER work for? (Select your answer below by industry.)
Do You Know Your Own Values?
Tip 1: Understand Your Own Values and Priorities
When your values are in sync with your employer's, you feel like you belong. Work also feels less effortful.
However, not everyone takes the time to look inward. That could be a mistake.
An Example of Mismatched Values
I once knew someone who left a corporate job at a large forest products company to work at Ben & Jerry's. (This was before the ice cream start up was acquired by Unilever.)
If there was ever a mismatch between an employee's personal values and those of an employer, this was it! He had left a good-ol'-boy organization that shared his conservative values for an employer with a grassroots, liberal-leaning company culture.
Within just days at his new job, he knew it was a poor fit. He disliked his new employer's flip-flop wearing, innovation-loving, environment-supporting, LGBT tolerating ways. He was back at his old job within a mere two weeks. (He's lucky they took him back.)
The Gambling Industry Is Also Controversial
Look within before you venture into any employment relationship. What are your fundamental priorities in life? Understand your own values and priorities in key areas, such as:
- Achievement & Competition: How comfortable are you with intense competition, as opposed to collaboration? Do you strive to be the "best of the best?"
- Creativity & Innovation: To what extent do you seek routine and the status quo vs. new ideas and ways of doing things? How comfortable are you with risk and the possibility of failure? Do you generally prefer to think about past occurrences, present reality, or future possibilities?
- Communication Style: Can you comfortably give and take brutally honest feedback? What emphasis do you place upon listening? Upon telling one's story persuasively? Do you prefer a formal, hierarchical style of communication or one that is more relaxed and informal? What is your tolerance for conflict?
- Diversity & People Treatment Issues: How important are issues of inclusion to you? How do you define fair treatment? How much do you enjoy working with people who are very different from you?
- Integrity & Trust: How important is it to you that people acknowledge their mistakes and take ownership for their role in an issue? How important is telling "the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth" (vs. "spin")? How essential is delivering on one's promises? What priority do you place upon behaving in an authentic, genuine manner? What is your tolerance for missteps?
- Family/Community: How important is work/life balance to you? How well do you tolerate one area of your life encroaching on another? How important is giving back to the community for you? How important is it that you be well regarded by your family and in your community?
- Environment and Animal Rights Issues: Are there specific environmental and animal rights issues that you have strong opinions about?
- Quality and Customer Service: How important is it to consistently meet standards and expectations? To what extent do you tolerate defects and errors as inevitable? How do you regard customers?
- Religion and Politics: How important is it that you act in accordance with your religious and political beliefs? (For example, some religions have strong opinions regarding tobacco, alcohol, gambling, guns, etc.) How easily can you reconcile earning a living doing something that is discouraged by your personal beliefs?
Understanding your values and priorities should help you determine the type of organizational culture that you would suit you best.
In addition, assess your motivations for seeking work at a maligned company. Is it money, benefits, a stellar leadership training program, lack of available alternatives, or something else?
Goals and Time Horizon
Some employees seek very specific outcomes, such as completion of a training program that will make them more marketable. Or, they set a specific time frame (e.g., staying 2 years). Therefore, consider whether you intend to spend the rest of your career with the company, or are just passing through.
Knowing that you're just passing through and are after something specific can add perspective. (Be sure to keep that part to yourself.) You can always change your mind later, but understanding your goals and intended time horizon will help you to later determine when it's time to move on.
Before Diving In, Understand Who Else Will Be In the Water
Tip 2: Do Your Research. Seriously.
Most people do a lousy job researching their prospective employer. They rely solely on the company website and its recruiters to provide information about company values, products, environmental impact, involvement in the community, and future business outlook.
However, is that information accurate and unbiased? Don't be naïve. Particularly with controversial companies, you need to know realistically what you're signing on for so that you can make an informed decision. Is this a company where you can be happy?
While it is useful to review a company's mission statement, vision, and values, there is often a gulf between what a company says it is and what values it embodies in practice. When you interview for jobs, you present your best self, don't you? Companies similarly present themselves in self-serving manners.
Know What's Behind That Smile: Do Your Research
Eyes Wide Open
A study of Fortune 500 companies found that companies that pursue a socially responsible agenda (e.g., corporate philanthropy, compliance) are in fact more likely to behave in socially irresponsible ways.1 This is especially the case when companies have CEOs that are extremely vocal about their ideals.
Your lesson in all this? Do your research. The best indicator of a company's values is its behavior.
Diversity: If diversity is a key personal value, then you need to know where the company truly stands on the issue. The company may tout diversity as important, but who occupies key leadership positions?
When you Google the company, have you noticed whetherthere thereare noteworthy discrimination lawsuits/settlements, or insensitive public statements by the company CEO? Is the company recognized publicly for its diversity (e.g., Diversity Inc.'s Top 50 Companies for Diversity.)?
Work/Life Balance: If work/life balance is important to you, know what insiders say about a company before you sign on. The company may say it advocates work/life balance, but what do current employees say on employer review sites such as Glassdoor.com?
Thoroughly research your prospective employer so you can go in with your eyes wide open. If you'll be swimming with alligators, wouldn't you want to know?
Which of the following is the biggest "deal breaker" for you, when it comes to employers?
Who's Got Your Back?
Tip 3: Draw an Ethical Line in the Sand
Maintain your own integrity and self-respect by drawing an ethical line in the sand regarding what actions you'll tolerate, what you're willing to do on behalf of your employer, and what is a deal breaker.
Working for a controversial employer may impose special challenges that you wouldn't have to face with other companies. Consider the following:
- Are you willing to explain and defend your company's actions to outsiders?
Companies expect that even off the job, you'll behave in a way that does not malign or discredit them. Even if you're not authorized to publicly speak on behalf of your employer, outsiders will perceive you to be a representative of the company or even an advocate. They'll ask you questions about company-related events in the press, for example.
- Can you handle having family, friends, and strangers hurling insults against not only your employer but also its employees?
Ever heard of guilt by association? Or being known by the company you keep? Insults can come in the form of snide remarks, jokes, name calling, rants, etc. You'll need to develop a thick skin.
- Can you defend your decision to work for the company with a straight face and a clean heart?
Especially after accepting a job offer, you'll encounter questions about why you want to work there. Answering the question for yourself will make this easier.
- Can you look in the mirror and be proud of who you are personally and professionally?
Know who you are, separate from your identity as an employee. Ultimately, it's your opinion that matters most.
How Others May See You
Tip 4: Maintain Outside Professional Relationships
Avoid insularity by maintaining professional relationships outside the company and industry.
Particularly in companies that are mature, insiders become tight-knit. Employee indoctrination in "the way we do things here" is strong, and insularity is often rebranded as loyalty. Their voluntary turnover is low. Employees set themselves apart from the larger community by living close to other employees and traveling in the same social circles.
Such organizations become shrouded in a culture of secrecy as their bureaucracy increases and communication becomes self-centered. Decision making tends to involve consulting other insiders.
As employees lose touch with the interests of outsiders, learning slows regarding what is going on outside the company—technological advances, trends, skills needed to stay marketable.
Cigarettes: Could You Work for a Tobacco Company?
Share Your Experience in the Comments Section Below
Have you worked for a controversial company or industry (one that doesn't match your personal values)? What was your decision making process? Are there things you wish you had known?
Results of such insularity can include:
- disconnection from customers, the community, and competitors, and
- less corporate empathy
- lower innovation
- lower levels of efficiency.
As an employee, you can avoid falling into this trap by maintaining professional relationships outside your company and industry. (Better yet, develop new ones, too.)
Join professional organizations. Keep in touch with former schoolmates and colleagues as they move on to other industries. Volunteer your professional skills in the community. Stay on top of current development and training needs in your field, even if your current employer doesn't value those skills.
Just because you've chosen to swim in the corporate pond doesn't mean you have to stop growing.
Tip 5: Keep a Healthy Perspective
So you made a choice to work for a company that is controversial -- perhaps even hated by some. The need to make choices do not stop there, however. Just as you make a choice when you accept a job offer, you also make a choice each day that you decide to show up to work, each time that you provide the full strength of your ideas and work effort.
What's right for you is your call. Just as we cannot all be teachers and firefighters, we cannot all work for well-admired companies. And even if you blacklist a given company or industry, doing so can become a slippery slope. Will you also blacklist that company's suppliers, consultants, and businesses that sell its products? That list could be ever expansive!
Even the best-admired companies like Amazon or Coca-Cola can meet with controversy.2 Companies fall from grace while others recover. If the fit is right, then working for a controversial company can be as challenging and rewarding as working for any other firm. It depends on the employee.
As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of yourself personally and professionally, do what is best for you. Someone will take that job. Will it be you?
The Slippery Slope: Maintain Perspective
Tip 6: Don't Be Surprised If You're Bitten from Time to Time
Sharks, alligators, and snakes can be very unpredictable creatures. Thus, if you swim with the alligators, don't be surprised if you get bitten on occasion.
That's because reputations are often earned. (You did your research, right?)
Make your choices, but always maintain a Plan B. Careers, like our lives, are ultimately about survival.
Snakebitten. Are You Surprised?
Summary Points: Tips For Job Seekers and Employees
- Understand your own values and priorities. When your values match your employer's, you feel like you belong, and your work is less effortful.
- Do your research. Do not simply rely on the company website and the word of recruiters. Google the company. Find out what current and previous employees say.
- Draw an ethical line in the sand. Know how far you'll go on behalf of your employer and what actions are deal breakers.
- Maintain outside professional relationships. Avoid insularity by staying marketable and connected.
- Keep a healthy perspective. No company is perfect. Someone will take that job. You decide.
- Don't be surprised if you're bitten from time to time. Careers, like our lives, are ultimately about survival.
Tough Hide, Good Heart
1Belsky, Gary. "The Downside of Corporate Social Responsibility." TIME. Last modified December 3, 2013. http://business.time.com/2013/12/03/the-downside-of-corporate-social-responsibility/.
2Fortune. "World's Most Admired Companies 2013: Full List." CNNMoney. Last modified 2013. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/most-admired/2013/list/?iid=wma_sp_full.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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