Random PR Thoughts

What, Oh What Can We Do to Help CEOs Feel Better About Themselves?

Since I have an hour drive to school and back twice a week, I have become a regular podcast listener. One that I like very much is “Stay Tuned With Preet,” Preet being Preet Bahrara, former head of the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York. While he usually expresses some opinions about current events from his perspective as a former prosecutor, the real appeal of his program (for me, anyway) is the incisive interviews he does.

I recently listened to his interview of Ken Feinberg, who among other things served as the Special Master distributing funds to victims of the 9/11 and Boston Marathon attacks. From his description, it was gut-wrenching work and nothing I would ever want to do.

But it was his description of his experience deciding – at the government’s request – how to penalize the CEOs of the auto and banking industries in the wake of the great recession that I found so resonant.

I lifted the following from the transcript of the interview:

Oh, [it was a] shocking experience. I would have thought that when I sit with a corporate executive and tell that corporate executive because of the crisis, the financial crisis, I’m going to cut your pay 50%. I thought that that official would say something like, “You have a hell of a nerve doing that because now I will have to sell one of my automobiles in the garage. I’ll have to sell my summer home on Long Island, or I’ll have to tell my kids they’ve got to go to public school instead of Phillips Exeter.”

And I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the corporate official who would look at me and say, “You cut my pay by 50% and you are demeaning my self- worth. My compensation is a mirror, a barometer, of my self-worth. Not Community, not my family, not the church, my pay. And when you say you’re cutting my compensation in half, you’re telling me personally I’m only half the person I thought I was.” Well I never prepared myself for that, and it got very, very emotional.

I would like to say that I was shocked to hear that CEO’s reaction but based on my experience with a number of them, I would have expected exactly that response. In fact, I wish that I had heard this podcast before I taught my students about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It’s a great example of what is not considered good CSR.

In class I explained that there are four main components of CSR: Economic, Legal, Ethical and Philanthropic. A company that embraces CSR will ensure that it is profitable for the benefit of all stakeholders; in compliance with all legal requirements; acting in an ethically and morally responsible manner; and giving back to society.

Years ago an HR person at the agency I worked for made what to me was a startling comment: “Most agencies, and most companies for that matter, exist to enrich the seven people at the top – ten at the most. The rest of us are servants to this mission.”

At the time, I thought that was a rather cynical view of the business world, but with the passage of several decades, I can see that it was I who was being naïve. The evidence is all around us.

Most recently, Jack Ma, chairman of online colossus Alibaba Group, declared that China’s controversial “996” work culture (9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, six days a week) was perfectly legitimate. “If we find [work] we like, 996 is not a problem,” he said in a blog post, adding, “If you don’t like your work, every minute is torture.”

I’ve seen fearful employees who work long hours in part because they don’t want to leave before the boss calls it a day. They want the boss to see that their cars are still in the parking lot, their office lights are still glowing. All this in hope of getting a 2.3% cost-of-living raise at the end of the year while the boss deposits a check for millions.

Company cultures that foster this kind of behavior are not healthy cultures. I should note that there are possible exceptions: perhaps a Silicon Valley start-up for which the first-mover advantage is so enormous that long days and nights are expected. I don’t consider that a healthy culture either, but usually the employees toiling away into the night do so in the knowledge that their efforts may very likely make them wealthy beyond imagination down the road. That’s not the case for employees of most established corporations.

Any company that has to implement a program to help employees achieve “work/life balance” has already failed the test. Ask any Fortune 500 CEO if he or she struggles with achieving “work/life balance.” Most wouldn’t have a clue what you are talking about. They are perfectly satisfied to devote any amount of time to their work as long as there is a $50 million carrot hanging from a string on a stick.

Companies can crow about their award-winning sustainability or diversity programs, or the list of charities they support. But if they are tacitly approving a corporate culture that abuses employees and their families to enrich a handful of people at the top for the sake of their self-esteem, one has to view any claims they make about being a socially responsible company for what they are: bullshit.





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