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It may seem incongruent that people want to work at companies being “demonized” in today’s world of corporate transparency, ESG ratings and finding purpose. The Economist published an interesting piece on the topic this week:

Pay is a lever that might work for some positions and some people, but not for all of them. And it hardly satisfies as a psychological explanation. ‘Yes, I work for a ghastly company but at least the pay is great,’ is not the kind of narrative that people like to fall asleep to. Thomas Roulet of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School points out in ‘The Power of Being Divisive’, a book about stigma in business, that employees of demonised firms are often proud to be on the payroll…

Freedom of choice works less well as a rationale if the harm that products do, whether to lungs or to the environment, has been covered up, or if those products weaken consent by encouraging addiction. But firms under fire are practised at turning the negative effects of their products to their advantage. Energy firms argue that the money they make from oil and gas today enables them to fund the transition to low-carbon energy tomorrow. Diageo, a drinks firm, highlights its programmes to encourage drinking in moderation. Tobacco firms peddle cigarettes even as they endeavour to soften the harm caused by smoking: British American Tobacco says that its purpose is to ‘build a better tomorrow by reducing the health impact of our business’. 

It is easy to scoff at this corporate cakeism. Easy, but unwise. First, hostility itself can sometimes act as a kind of binding agent for employees of stigmatised firms. A study by Mr Roulet found that job satisfaction increased at firms that faced disapproval, provided their employees regarded the criticism as illegitimate. Second, societies’ attitudes can change, sometimes suddenly. The arms industry looks less evil now that its products are helping Ukrainians fend off Russia’s tanks. Dependence on Russian gas has made secure sources of energy, even if they are not low-carbon, seem more attractive.

Third, employees in vilified industries are often in a position to do valuable things. Swapping from cigarettes to risk-reduction products is a net gain for people’s health. Widespread suspicion of genetically engineered crops ignores the copious evidence that they are safe and useful. And a rapid decline in the number of new petroleum engineers in America will seem less desirable if a shortfall in expertise holds back carbon-sequestration projects.

There are some interesting things to think about here if you are in an industry fighting negative public ESG perceptions while hiring new talent from today’s workforce. Presenting potential and existing employees the opportunity to add value or make positive changes against what could be called a backdrop of negativity may be just the thing that motivates highly qualified employees.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile