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Friday, May 26, 2006

PLAYING IT THE COMPANY WAY, AFTER HOURS

[THIS COLUMN ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES ON FEBRUARY 20, 2000. IT IS REFERRED TO IN "THE RIGHT THING" COLUMN FOR MAY 28, 2006, POSTED AT http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/05/sound-off-giving-against-grain.html.]

THE RIGHT THING: Playing It the Company Way, After Hours

MANAGEMENT at the Bank of America thought it had a winner. In a program called "Adopt an A.T.M.," begun last June, the bank asked employees to volunteer to look after one of its automated teller machines and to keep the machine's surroundings gleaming with pride -- on their own time and without pay.

"We thought it was a great idea," said Kieth Cockrell, executive vice president in Charlotte, N.C., of the bank's credit, debit and smart-card division, which oversaw the program. More than 2,800 of the bank's 158,900 workers signed up to adopt one of the bank's more than 10,000 teller machines.

But when Marcy V. Saunders, the California state labor commissioner, read about the program, she hit the ceiling. She wrote to the bank, saying the program seemed to her in clear violation of "basic precepts of wage and hour law" and demanding that the volunteers be paid or that the program be discontinued within 10 days. The bank met with Ms. Saunders to see if it could satisfy her objections, but rather than comply with the requested changes, it suspended the program and instead set up a toll-free number for employees to report problems at A.T.M.'s.

Even if asking employees to work for nothing were legal, though, the program would have raised important ethical questions about the nature of the company-employee relationship. Not least is the issue of reciprocity. Does an employer that counts on its workers to further its interests during their off hours, gratis, have a right to discipline workers who handle personal business during office hours?

"Companies feel perfectly free to infringe upon employees' time, while not necessarily being extremely flexible when it comes to employees' demand for time," said Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

On this front, Bank of America's policy is fairly vague. "In our code of ethics," said Ann L. DeFabio, a bank spokeswoman, "basically it just says that the proper use of Bank of America assets is essential to the financial soundness and integrity of the bank." But it is not likely that a giant bank would see much equivalence between, say, employees' using company postage to pay personal bills and using their own paper towels to clean A.T.M. screens.

It is a common ethical disconnect. Most businesses think nothing of expecting extra miles from employees, and are shocked when they are called on it. They automatically think of the employee's commitment to the company as open-ended, but draw a sharp line around the company's commitment to the employee.

Some critics see cynical, deliberate exploitativeness in such attitudes. By and large I don't doubt the employers' good intentions -- just their logic. Still, plans like "Adopt an A.T.M." bespeak a patronizing arrogance, an assumption that company pride is reason enough for employees to give and give some more -- and never mind whether the company gives anything back.

"Quite often the leaders really are doing what they think is in the best interests of the company," said Michelle L. Reina, co-author of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace." (Berrett-Kohler, 1999) "They do at times tend to forget the individuals involved. When they get the type of response they're getting in this particular case, they are caught off guard. And at times they feel betrayed in response."

On the surface, such indignation might seem justified. "From an ethical perspective, Bank of America is doing nothing wrong" with the program itself, said Laura P. Hartman, a professor of business ethics at the University of Wisconsin. "The ethical issues come up where there is undue influence of an inappropriate nature."

That is a potentially fatal flaw inherent in any "voluntary" program handed down from management, particularly one tied to company business: there is subtle coercion just in asking, because some employees won't feel free to say no, regardless of how big the word "voluntary" is on the flier.

Employees who truly love the bank enough to freely volunteer for such a program are probably already picking up any litter they find near an A.T.M. -- without having to be asked. Beyond that, all a formal adoption program could accomplish is inducing less-than-willing employees to join the unpaid tidiers. That's why it struck so many as unfair.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

OH! MY Gosh!The big bad Bank of America is asking employees to "volunteer" to help keep the company profitable.
Now look at the other side of the coin EVERY major company in America has more employee programs that divert time away from legitimate work than is imaginable. Most companies sponsor, blood drives, breast cancer awareness, cancer awareness, domestic abuse, child exploitation, March of dimes, YMCA/YWCA, UNICEF, United Fund the Habitat for Humanity, AIDS Awarness...on and on.. not to mention the tens of events that they sponsor on a local level. This support by companies for these worthy events takes many hours to complete. Thousands of work hours are lost every year from productivity because of this support.
Has anyone written a book questioning the employee’s abuse of these causes on company time? Most of the companies provide this support because it is good for their image, helps the community and helps morale.
So take a deep breath. It was voluntary. The people that volunteered did so because they are either kiss-ups, fear for their jobs or actually want to do something to help the company. Whatever their motivate it can not repay Bank of America for all the hours it has "given" employees to help our community.
For the record I am not employed by Bank of America in any form or fashion. As a matter of fact I do not even bank with them.
Robert K
Carrollton, Ga.

Anonymous said...

A company large or small is obligated to give assistance to a community for whatever the drive, which naturally affects the employees. All employees should be gracious enough to participate, because it is the community who keeps the company in business thereby affording them a job! And in the end we all benefit. Being charitable is always good. God loves a cheerful giver!

Anonymous said...

What Bank of America did in its "Adopt an A.T.M." was clearly in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or FLSA which clearly states that any work performed over 40 hours per week, must be compensated for said employee at the rate of one and half of the regular wage. For a company to violate Federal law in order to keep its' image clean is wrong to say the least , and its illegal. Over 2,800 employees signed up as volunteers (slaves) out of 158,900 employees to help keep clean 10,000 teller machines. That is alot of uncompensated wages that were not collected by Federal Wage and Hour. In Salt Lake City, UT. there is a similar situation going right now in a local company. The workers are hired at the rate of ten dollars per hour, and they are only paid for eight hours a day, regardless if the work takes nine to twelve hours to perform. This too is a clear violation of the Federal FLSA law, both situations are unethical, illegal,and immoral. There is a difference of being a team player and a slave.

Todd M. Brklacich
Murray, UT

Wendy Hagmaier said...

I think B of A's program was a demonstration of poor judgement on a number of levels.

You should not ask employees to maintain company equipment or premises without pay. They ran the risk of a disgruntled worker going to the labor board with increases salary demands. In addition, they increased their risk for costly workers comp claims from injuries sustained by employees not properly trained in all the relevant saftey procedures.

Sounds like a simple plan, but employment matters are never simple.