Sunday, December 22, 2013
Does my new job mean I've sold out?
A reader from the Northeast recently started working for an investment bank that specializes in helping companies to establish employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). ESOPs are often used as a way for companies to give employees an ownership stake in the company for which they work.
My reader was not trained as an investment banker, but rather as a social worker.
"I am always stumped when former colleagues ask me what I am doing these days," he writes. When he tells them he works for an investment bank, they often tell him that they think he's "sold out."
But my reader believes that there is a direct correlation between his training and work as a social worker and the current work in which he is engaged.
"Because ESOPs are all about employing workers as capitalists and giving them a slice of the pie too," he writes, he is "fairly confident that I am still pursuing a kind of social work ... just in a different field."
He wants to know what I think. "Is employee ownership the most ethical business strategy?" he asks. "Can I legitimately call myself a 'financial social worker'?"
While engaging employees in a company and providing them with the opportunity to share in the fortunes of a successful enterprise can be a great way to create an empowered and motivated workforce, is it the "most" ethical business strategy? It would be challenging to grant it that honor. Others might argue that creating a workforce where owners teach employees to understand the finances of a company and share that information freely with them creates an even more engaged workforce. Are each ethical? Sure. Does either always ensure ethical behavior among bosses and employees? No.
What my reader really seems after is a way to justify his early calling as a social worker with the work he does now. That seems clear from his question about legitimately calling himself a "financial social worker." He, like anyone else, can call himself whatever he likes, but it's hard to imagine the title bears much weight if no one knows what it means.
If my reader is looking for affirmation of what he does now, then the right thing is for him to ask himself if his current work aligns with his personal values. Does he find himself motivated to do good work? Does he believe that the mission of his company is one he can support? Do his bosses refrain from asking employees to do things that are ethically questionable? Are his colleagues honest and dedicated to working in the best interests of the company's customers?
These strike me as more important questions to be asking if my reader wants to get a sense of whether his position at the investment bank aligns with his own values. Focusing on whether he can be called something that incorporates a profession he was once called to partly to allay concerns of former colleagues that he might have "sold out" does not seem as important as devoting himself to doing good honest work that is in the best interests of his customers, his colleagues, his company and himself.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin