Archive for the ‘employees’ Category

What’s Your Duty When Your Boss is Out of Control?

What are an employee’s responsibilities when the boss is out of control — when he or she is self-destructive, doing damage to the organization, or both? It’s one of the hardest problems of workplace ethics.

A case in point is the staff at Toronto’s City Hall, who have and continue to labour under Mayor Rob Ford, a mayor whose strange and erratic behaviour must make continuing the city’s work all but impossible. And bad news continues to pile up for Ford. This past week Toronto Police revealed that they were in possession of a certain video, one that apparently shows the mayor smoking crack, a video the existence of which the mayor had previously denied. And then details surfaced regarding Ford’s behaviour on St Patrick’s day of last year, when he showed up ‘very intoxicated,’ both at City Hall and in public.

Ford has been, in effect, a train wreck. But not exactly merely a private train wreck. He’s been a train wreck in public, and at the office. This raises an interesting question for the people who have worked with him. What are your responsibilities when the boss is a mess? Should you cover up and enable? Should you confront? Should you keep your head down? Staff at City Hall may be facing a particularly public form of this question, but it’s a problem faced in many workplaces.

Junior employees typically have the most to lose, so let’s deal with them first. The first thing that needs to be said is that junior employees aren’t always obligated to speak up, especially when speaking up puts them in personal or professional peril. For all our talk about ‘speaking truth to power,’ there’s a limit to how much we can ask people to sacrifice. It can be OK to keep your head down. This is a question of ethics, but ethics isn’t about always doing the maximum; it’s about deciding the right course of action, based on a range of relevant considerations. And keeping your job is one of those.

The corollary to the permission to keep your head down, though, is an obligation to learn from the situation, to figure out how you might help to avoid such situations in the future, and to resolve never to put junior employees in such a bind when you yourself are at the top of the ladder.

Of course, if your boss’s antics are putting lives at risk, that’s an ethical consideration that should probably outweigh your own concern with staying employed. Valuing your own job above the public safety implies a level of egocentrism that is incompatible with our general social responsibilities.

But an employee’s level of responsibility for the boss varies with power and proximity. A senior advisor with a lot of influence has a responsibility to use it. When you’ve got the boss’s ear, you owe it to him or her to give good guidance, even what it’s advice he or she does not want to hear. But if the boss won’t listen, and if your position gives you the relevant authority, you should take action. Just what action to take will depend on what options are available to you, given your organization’s governance structure.

Most crucial of all is to remember that you owe your primary allegiance not to the boss, but to the organization. With very few exceptions, an employee’s duty is to the mission of the organization as a whole. In normal circumstances, it’s up to the boss to coordinate and motivate employees in pursuit of that mission. But when the boss strays far off mission, or wanders into utter ineffectualness, then there’s justification for deviating from the usual chain of command. Good leaders — ones who are aware of their own foibles and who are focused on the good of the organization — will make it clear to their employees in advance that that’s what they would want them to do, should the need ever arise.

Loblaw Compensating Bangladesh Victims

Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza this past May. The factory housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian’ retailer’s “Joe Fresh” line of clothing.

Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether the compensation is “too little” or not is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies it buys services from, though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion dollar company, and when the companies it buys from are smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.

Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.

But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism — that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many, many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.

Finally, many will be asking what still needs to change? Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting the companies they do business with, in order to weed out the bad ones. This, of course, is much harder than it sounds. The second is that Canadians and other Westerner consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.

Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.

Ethics, PR, and Dissing Your Customers

Here is a cautionary tale at the intersection of ethics and customer service. It’s a true story, but names and trademarks have been omitted to protect the innocent.

The story is worth relating at length, and it goes like this. A friend of mine recently emailed one of his favourite chain stores — one he patronizes regularly — to make a suggestion: would they please improve the selection of one product line at the location nearest his home?

I’m sure it’s the kind of suggestion that lots of companies get these days. After all, they’ve got websites with Contact pages featuring phone numbers and email addresses and stock photos of smiling operators waiting to take your input.

What happened next, however, is perhaps not an everyday thing. Following his friendly suggestion, my pal was accidentally cc’d on an internal email regarding his query. The gist of that employee-to-employee email was that my friend should be told to go to a different store (farther from his house, but with a broader selection of goods). There was, in addition, speculation that my friend had “too much time on his hands.”

Excuse me?

Resisting the urge to post this story on Twitter, my friend settled for sharing this story with a handful of friends on Facebook. He also forwarded the offending email the company’s CEO, and its head of Communications, and gently suggested that “if staff want to complain about customers, they probably shouldn’t CC them.”

Within just a few hours, my friend received a response. It included an apology. It also included assurance that such disrespect for customers was not consistent with the company’s customer service policy, and that the offending employee had been advised of this fact in no uncertain terms. Finally, it included a gift certificate, along with an invitation to a VIP tour of one of the chain’s stores in order to discuss its offerings with a knowledgeable member of their staff, and a promise to revisit the product offerings as per my friend’s original suggestion.

To his credit, my friend now considers the matter closed, and has asked me not to publicize the name of the company involved.

But it’s worth reflecting for a moment on just what went on here, and why. The author of the offending email was rude, to be sure — rude in a way that was supposed to be kept behind the scenes, but rude none the less. Whether such rudeness amounts to an unethical lack of respect is a question that is probably best answered in terms of frequency. We all have grumpy days; but a pattern of rudeness amounts to a display of disrespect that is inconsistent with the ethical demands of customer service. We don’t know whether the employee in question was merely having a bad day. But I’m pretty sure that the company in question came within a hair’s breadth of having a very bad day from a public relations point of view. Because, needless to say, the company involved only narrowly avoided a minor social media disaster. Had my friend decided instead just to post his experience on Twitter, the story might well have gone viral.

This reminds me of an anecdote I recently heard related by an executive at Disney, having to do with the customer-service orientation of the Disney employees responsible for picking up trash and emptying trash bins at the company’s amusement parks and resorts. The Disney executive said that, for years, those employees had been told that their job was to keep the place clean. The result: all those tourists leaving pop cans and popcorn boxes all over the place were inevitably viewed as pains in the neck, as obstacles these workers faced in trying to get the job done. The result was poor morale, and occasionally surly interactions with paying customers. At some point, someone had the bright idea of changing these employees’ mission: no longer would their mission be to “keep the place clean.” Instead, their mission would be to make customers’ experience at Disney a positive one. Sure, that would mostly consist of keeping the place clean, but that would just be a means, not an end in itself. The result, or so the story goes, was a big improvement in morale. The lesson: there’s no need to see customers as a burden if it is made clear that customers are why you’re there in the first place.

Starbucks to Guns: “No Thanks”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has stirred up controversy by posting an open letter asking Americans not to bring firearms into the coffee chain’s stores, even where it is legal to do so.

“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns,” Schultz wrote. “In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”

I think Schultz is to be commended. Not for the position he has taken, but for the way he went about taking it. His open letter lays out the problem frankly and even-handedly. Some people are in favour of openly carrying firearms. Others are made incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of armed civilians behind them in line while they order a grande, half-sweet, non-fat, no-whip mocha. And Schultz doesn’t want his employees caught in the middle, so he’s making a polite request.

But, not surprisingly, the request has generated a firestorm of opposition. Not all of that opposition was well reasoned.

Twitterers who screamed that their rights were being tread upon, for example, were doubly incorrect. First, it is important to note that Starbucks isn’t imposing a ban on firearms in their stores. They’re asking politely, and have given no indication that they’re going to do anything more than that. Asking politely doesn’t infringe anyone’s rights.

Secondly, Starbucks isn’t the government, so appealing to the Second Amendment right to bear arms is (no pun intended) off-target. The US Constitution and the amendments to it protect citizens from intrusions by government, not from (supposed) intrusions by other citizens or private institutions like Starbucks.

But this raises larger, more interesting questions. It’s easy for me to say that, hey, Starbucks is a private company and it can make whatever requests it wants. It could even outright ban firearms from its stores, if it wanted to. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. The stores are private property, and Americans do have constitutionally-protected property rights. Schultz doesn’t have to allow visitors to his home to carry guns, and he doesn’t have to allow visitors to his stores to carry them either.

But there’s an important sense in which a big company like Starbucks isn’t “just a company,” and a sense in which its stores are not fully private property. Starbucks has over 13,000 stores in the US alone (and over 60,000 worldwide), making their stores the go-to spot for coffee, a soft chair, and free wifi for plenty of Americans. And Schultz’s own vision for Starbucks was to make it a ‘third place’ between work and home, a kind of quasi-public meeting place. And so there’s a sense in which Starbucks, like Google and Facebook, is effectively a part of our public infrastructure.

That’s not to say that Starbucks has the legal obligations of a government. That would be a dangerous position to take. But it suggests that the range of ethical obligations we attribute to big companies with an important role in public life are a fit subject for debate. Schultz deserves praise, I think, for taking a good first step by presenting his reasoning openly, and making it fodder for public discussion.

Top Retailers Sign New Bangladesh Safety Initiative

Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? It’s a welcome move, but it also raises questions.

According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”

This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapsed the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza collapse, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.

The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.

There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)

Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.

I continue to wonder and worry that both the new The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important — as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still: it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in an number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.

Rejecting the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)


It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.

Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.

Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.

From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?

It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)

There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.

Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.

Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.

None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.

Hiring the Donor’s Daughter

Nonprofit and charitable organizations face many of the same ethical challenges that other organizations face, but they may also bump into a few special problems from time to time.

As an example, consider the following HR dilemma, which was posed to me recently.

I work for a nonprofit organization in health research, and I’ve recently been told that I will be hiring and supervising a new individual whose parents are donating her salary for one year (it’s to be a one-year, limited-term position) in addition to making a sizeable donation. The hope is that, in time, the donors will make a significantly larger gift of a million dollars or more. The arrangement presents numerous challenges to me as a manager, since everyone in the upper levels of the organization agrees that the true nature of the arrangement can’t be revealed, but many employees will realize that the situation is unusual and will have serious questions about it.

I’ve presented my concerns to those involved, but the decision-makers are rationalizing their actions (they tell me it’s “for the good of the organization”), and asking me to embrace this “opportunity.”

Clearly, the mid-level manager here is in a tough position, caught between a rock and a hard place. The manager is being told, by those higher up, that this is the way things are. But the manager also has a team to manage, and the unorthodox hiring of this new “employee” may cause trouble.

Here are what I think are the relevant considerations:

1) I don’t think the basic arrangement itself is obviously unethical. The “employee,” here, is essentially a volunteer, being bankrolled by her father. A bit lame, for her, but if she provides the organization with some value, that in itself could be a good thing, in addition to the donation that her father is making and may later make.

2) Point #1 above assumes that this person will actually do some work, rather than just be padding her CV by means of this one-year position with a reputable nonprofit organization. If she’s just going to take up space, then her presence is inevitably going to be resented and hence disruptive.

3) Then there’s the question of whether this “hire” is affecting anyone else’s job. From what I understand, no one is being fired to make room for this new person. But even if no one’s job is immediately in jeopardy, it may have implications for who gets hired over the next year, who gets overtime, whose job is expanded in interesting ways, and so on. So other employees do have reason to be concerned.

4) The fact that senior management sees a need to hide what’s really going on, here, seems to be where the ethical problem lies. That part seems highly problematic. If this is a good “hire”, why not be transparent about it?

5) At a certain level, this is as much a “wise management” question as it is an ethics question. If (as seems to be the case) the current plan is bad for morale, then wise senior managers should realize that, and think this through more carefully.

All in all, I would suggest that the situation, as it is being handled by senior managers, represens a significant lapse in leadership. Their motives in accepting the deal — hiring this woman in return for a big donation — are reasonable enough. The mere fact that her hire wouldn’t go through the usual processes isn’t itself damning, provided that the net value to the organization is positive, and as long as no one’s rights are violated. Perhaps the ends here do justify the means — after all, we’re talking about the potential for a very large donation. But the fact that senior managers feel the need to keep the deal secret is a major red flag. Wise organizational leaders should work hard to make sure that, when compromises are being made, they are at very least compromises that they are able to defend, and about which they are willing to be transparent.

Why HR Management is Always Ethically Relevant

Ethics should be thought of as the heart of your organization’s HR function. Likewise, HR is likely to be the heart of attempts to manage ethics within your organization. Let me explain why.

It’s hard to imagine a function more essential to most businesses than HR.
HR may not get the glory that Finance does, but it’s just as important. Hiring, training, evaluating, and retaining the right people are all undeniably core management challenges. Every manager knows this. The relevant difference between Finance and HR is that Finance gains prestige by bringing to bear the tools of quantitative analysis; HR issues, on the other hand, are typically harder to quantify, harder to mathematize, leading many to think of them as “mushy.” But “mushy” typically just means “I find this stuff difficult.” Managers who find HR difficult would rather hide in the numbers. Ironically, HR gets called “soft” precisely because it is so hard.

At many large companies, the HR Department is in charge of ethics — or at least that part of ethics that isn’t bundled with Compliance. The HR Department is often tasked with making sure every employee gets a copy of the company Code of Ethics, for example. HR is also typically in charge of ethics training, as well as updating the company’s Conflict of Interest policy and other ethically-salient policies.

But the fact that many companies embed their Ethics function within their HR function may actually obscure the extent to which every aspect of HR is ethically significant. The full extent to which HR is an ethical matter may not be obvious.

Ethics is fundamentally concerned with the choices we make — either as individuals or as companies — when those choices have an impact on people’s well-being or their rights. And so ethics is and must be part of all of the policies and activities for which HR is responsible, not just the ones that have the word “ethics” explicitly attached to them.

Hiring, for instance, (or setting the rules for hiring) involves balancing a range of value-laden criteria, such as skill and experience and reliability, and avoiding ethically-inappropriate criteria such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The same goes for performance evaluation. Likewise, how overtime is handled — who is eligible, under what conditions, with whose permission — is a fundamental question of justice. This is also true of policies related to discipline, which obviously require attention to fairness, another central sub-topic within ethics.

So even if it weren’t in charge of ethics training and ethics policies, the HR function would remain ethically crucial.

Finally, HR also gains ethical significance by embodying most of the few tools available for managers to shape that elusive thing known as corporate culture. Culture — that communal set of understandings, beliefs and traditions that give a shared sense of “how we do things around here” — is widely acknowledged to be a critical element of organizational success. Indeed, there’s a well-worn saying to the effect that culture trumps strategy every time. That is, regardless of what strategic initiatives senior managers put in place, or what policies they put down on paper, those initiatives and policies are liable to fail if the culture of the workplace isn’t suited to them. Enron famously had a rather lengthy code of ethics, but the culture fostered by the company’s compensation model and its performance review process went a long way toward fostering a culture in which unethical behaviour was readily tolerated. Culture, you might say, makes up an organization’s collective ethical character.

So we see, then, that HR is actually ethically significant in two ways. It is the locus of an enormous number of central, ethically-relevant policies, practices, and decisions. And it is the mechanism through which organizational culture is built, the culture that will hopefully support rather than frustrate ethical decision making.


A shorter version of this blog entry appeared at the Cornerstone Blog

Joe Fresh: is Compensation for Bangladesh an Admission of Guilt?

Loblaw Companies Limited, the company that owns the Joe Fresh retail clothing line, has announced that it will pay compensation to the families of victims of last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh. Details are sparse at this point, but it’s an interesting development.

The move will of course garner the company plenty of praise. Some of that praise will be offered only grudgingly, by those who will see it as the least that can be done by a money-hungry corporation in the habit of squeezing profits out of the labour of Bangladeshis with few other options. But still, there will be praise. For it is easy to see the good in a transfer of wealth from a multibillion dollar Western corporation to several hundred exceedingly poor families. Any plausible amount of compensation will be trivial to the company, but an enormous boon the those in Bangladesh who were affected.

But I for one still have questions, in particular questions about what is motivating the move. As I’ve said, the move will do a lot of good, but there are many different principles that might underlie any given action that does good. And we typically care not just about outcomes, but about principles too. Upon what principle is Loblaw compensating the victims in Bangladesh?

Cynics are already assuming that the move is pure PR, aimed at deflecting criticism (however unfair) and dissociating the Joe Fresh brand from the grimy reality of developing-country sweatshops. That’s one possibility.

It might also be that the company sees such payment as a form of charity. The building collapse last week resulted in horrible human suffering. Most big companies donate to charitable and humanitarian causes. And even if Loblaw doesn’t see itself as responsible for the collapse, it must see a connection, emotionally at least, and so the families of the dead are an especially apt target for the company’s charity.

But for me, the word “compensate” raises questions. That word can mean many things. But in contexts like this, it is perhaps most naturally read as referring to payments aimed at offsetting a loss, payments from someone who is either responsible for that loss or who at least for some reason owes such a payment. “Compensation” is not quite the same as “restitution,” of course. The latter word clearly implies culpability. But still, the word “compensation” seems to imply a level of regret, if not guilt. Is that what the company is implying? After all, Loblaw could have opted simply to say “We’re going to help those affected,” or even more neutrally, “We’re going to send money.” But “compensation” is the word the company itself is using. Is that really what they mean? And if so, why specifically do they think they owe compensation? What level of responsibility do they take — do they plan on taking — for the actions of subcontractors on the other side of the planet?

This is more than mere semantics; it’s about the principles underlying corporate behaviour. If, as seems inevitable, we are to regard corporations as entities capable of taking action, and of meriting praise or blame, then we need to be able to talk about what motivates them, and to ask them about the principles upon which they act. In a way, to seek a principled explanation in a situation like this is even more demanding than simply to ask that the company pay up. As I’ve already noted, the money in this case is a drop in the bucket. Giving voice to a set of values and principles upon which corporate behaviour is based is a lot harder than writing a cheque.

Bangladesh, Joe Fresh and the burden of responsibility

In Bangladesh, on Wednesday, a building collapsed, killing at least 260 people.* The factories in the building made garments for a number of global retailers, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. This weekend, I’m very likely going shopping at Joe Fresh, and with a clear conscience. People threatening to boycott the brand are woefully misguided. Their sorrow is justified; a change in their shopping habits is not.

The events in Bangladesh represent an utterly horrible loss of life. Anyone unmoved by such a tragedy is less than human. But to see this as an indictment of Joe Fresh, or of Western consumers, is a serious mistake.

So, just what happened in Bangladesh? The 8-story building that collapsed on Wednesday housed a number of garment factories, a shopping mall, and a bank. The people who died did so partly due to the fact that someone in Bangladesh made a very, very bad decision: police had ordered the building evacuated the day before, due to structural defects, but factory managers ignored that order. That was an immoral decision, and perhaps a criminal one. I hope those managers are brought to justice.

Now, yes, it’s true that the purchasing decisions of Canadian consumers are also part of the causal chain that led to those deaths. But causal connection is not the same as moral responsibility. Every event, tragic or not, is the culmination of countless contributing factors. To be part of a causal chain is not the same as causing something to happen. There is no reasonable sense in which Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are responsible for Wednesday’s deaths.

In fact, Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are doing a lot of good. Places like Bangladesh — people in places like Bangladesh — absolutely rely on the jobs provided by the international garment industry. That is, there are people in developing countries who only have jobs because people in the industrialized West buy clothes from retailers who subcontract to manufacturers in places like Bangladesh.

None the less, some people are expressing outrage at the fact that Bangladeshis are dying so that Canadians can have cheap clothes. Is this situation really so unique? In North America, the deadliest trade is commercial fishing, followed closely by mining and logging. Does anyone imagine that no corners are cut in those industries, no safety standards violated? So Canadians, too, are dying…dying so that Canadians can have cheap crab and haddock, cheap oil and aluminum, and cheap wood and paper products. Actually, a lot of that stuff goes for export, so Canadians are dying so that people from other countries can have those things cheaply. Such is globalization: millions of people world-wide take risks that they think are worth taking, in order to make a living, and they can do so because people on the other side of the world are willing to pay them to.

But of course, companies like Joe Fresh still have some obligation to make sure that their subcontractors are treating employees decently. And the company certainly acknowledges as much. According to a statement on the brand’s Facebook page, their parent company, Loblaws Inc. has…

“robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment. We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards. We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards.”

In other words, the company makes exactly the promise it ought to make. Of course, there’s only so much it can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, on the other side of the planet. But then again, there’s notoriously little any company can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, whether it operates on the other side of the planet or just down the street.

Has Joe Fresh done enough in this regard? It’s impossible to say from the outside. But what’s crucial, here, is to see that even an event as tragic as Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh does nothing to impugn the company’s integrity. Should we ask questions? Of course we should. But these events shouldn’t make us jump to conclusions. Nor will they deter me, at least, from going shopping this weekend.

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*Note added Oct. 2013: the death toll eventually climbed to over 1,100.

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