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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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William Jacobson said...


So long as the title your reader assumes is both factually accurate and not intended to deceive, then this is just spin and your reader can ethically label himself anyway he chooses. I would spin his position as something of a Robin Hood-esque position - while not robbing from the rich, he is fighting to get the workers their fair shares of the actual profits, not just wages. His friends' values seem a little skewed. In many circles, investment banker would carry more esteem than social worker. Perhaps his friends need to be more tolerant and less judgmental.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Pretty sad that the questioner had reservations like these! Just goes to show that there is a tremendous gulf between my generation and someone like this, who would have so little understanding of the business world as to fail to have even a minimal understanding of such concepts. We are indeed in a whole "passle" of trouble!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Isn't the goal of social work to aid a client to get and keep a job? Doesn't social work have the goal of seeing the client becoming self-supporting?

I recall an op/ed piece by the late William Raspberry, a long-time writer for The Washington Post. He wrote about a highly-skilled paper hanger whose calendar was booked months in advance. The man was in an auto accident and one leg was severely mangled, causing a below-the-knee amputation. While he was in the hospital, he had visits from social workers, and after he went home he had phone calls and visits offering help in obtaining disability benefits. He thanked each one.

He was fitted with a prosthesis, which he called 'my wooden leg'.
After he learned to walk and to climb a ladder with his wooden leg, he returned to work hanging wallpaper. He didn't need the social workers. But the social workers needed him - and his wooden leg.

The questioner who thinks s/he has 'sold out' is wrong. By helping companies offer stock ownership to employees, the employees can enjoy a better life, buy a home, educate their children, and enjoy a secure retirement. The job meets the goal of 'social work' - helping people to have better lives.

Ann J.

Arif said...

Thanks Prof. Seglin for a thought provoking piece.

I think values too are not context independent. Even if your value is to do good for your colleagues, what about what the company does in the larger societal context?

For example somebody within Walmart designing a better wage structure for lowest paid employees is a good thing to do in the broader societal context whereas somebody designing ESOPs for employees of Academi (formerly Xe Services and Blackwater) which is essentially a Mercenary Army agency is bad for larger society as it engages in torture and extra-judicial killings all over the world.

Same I would say about investment banks as today we know for a fact that how these i-banks using their money and lobbying tools got the financial markets deregulated and which ultimately led to misery for millions of hard working people in the U.S. and world over and by designing ESOPs so that i-banks become more attractive for employees you are becoming a part of a system of no-good for the larger society.

Unknown said...

I can relate a lot to your reader, Jeffrey. Let’s just say I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to choosing where I work. I believed then that working for a corporate company would be something equal to selling out my ideals and convictions in exchange for a supposed good life. I say “supposed” because I have always thought of corporations (in this case, investment banks) as social institutions who manipulate the needs, wants, and fears of people for their own personal gain. Then I learned that, if I wanted to change how these corporations work, that change has to start from within. He/She isn’t entirely wrong. I believe it’s just a matter of perspective that can be resolved with some fresh insight into the job and a renewed purpose that aligns his/her values to whatever he/she is doing. Just because you work for an investment bank doesn’t mean that you’ve already sold out. You can always do some good wherever you are and whoever you are. You can always find some good, even in the worst of situations.

Arnold Parsons @ EpiphanyStaffingGroup