“Women of Wal-Mart” & Employee Loyalty

OK, this is not exactly news, but someone emailed me about it to ask what I thought. So, here we go. How much obligation does an employee have not to attach her employer’s name to a project or product her employer would object to? That’s the question raised by the DVD pictured at left, and available from Amazon.com: Playboy – Women of Wal-Mart [Caution: that link is not necessarily safe for work. Well, the first page is tame. But after that, there’s mild nudity. Depends where you work, I guess.]

What does the company think about this particular bit of publicity? Well, before the DVD, there was apparently an on-line pictorial at Playboy.com. About that (according to CNN back in 2003):
Wal-Mart said the pictorial “is in poor taste.” “Based on our values, we will be disappointed if any of our people do participate in it,” said spokesman Tom Williams. “However, individuals are free to do what they want.”

And no (as the CNN story points out), Wal-Mart has never sold Playboy in its magazine racks. They apparently don’t even carry less-explicit male-oriented magazines such as FHM or Maxim.

OK, so what about ethics? There are of course questions to ask, here, about corporate ethics. There are the obvious exploitation-of-women questions to ask about Playboy (note: all the women being featured do, by definition, have jobs — namely at Wal-Mart — so they’re not without options, but then again Wal-Mart employees are not exactly highly paid). We could also ask about the ethics of one corporation (Playboy, in this case) profiting from the name of (and possibly from besmirching the carefully-guarded brand of) another corporation (Wal-Mart, in this case). There are also some hypothetical questions: what IF Wal-Mart were to adopt a more heavy-handed approach, and insist (possibly with threats of termination) that their employees not participate in the Playboy project? Would an employer be ethically justified in restricting employees that way, either as a condition of employment or after the fact?

But we can also think of this in terms of employee ethics: do these women owe Wal-Mart (or does any employee owe any employer) a duty not to participate in projects that cast the employer in a light that is, to them, unflattering? There is a rather legalistic sense in which, certainly, these women “have a right.” Maybe it’s part of free speech. Any employee could in principle (if he or she dared) start a website editorializing about his or her employer, and might even have the right to do so. Of course, having the right doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Other factors (such as a duty of loyalty) might well come into play. Due recognition of the relevant rights is just one component of a good ethical decision. One can choose wrongly in deciding to exercise one’s legitimate rights.

It’s worth noting that the issue of whether these women are acting wrongly in posing for Playboy’s “Women of Wal-Mart” video is not settled simply by deciding whether soft-core pornography of this kind is itself ethically OK. The point is that the video is not uncontroversial, and is inconsistent with Wal-Mart’s image and market positioning. You don’t have to be a prude to at least contemplate that Wal-Mart might have a legitimate beef here.

Some, of course, will scoff at the idea that this (or maybe any) product could besmirch the reputation of a company like Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is, after all, one of the most vilified companies in the world. In response, I’ll point out that many of the criticisms of Wal-Mart are in fact not very well thought-out. But it’s also worth remembering that there’s a legitimate disagreement over where the moral high-ground is here: for some, Wal-Mart’s supply-chain policies (etc., etc.) make the company ethically suspect. For others, its focus on “family values” makes the company worthy of applause. (Others of us have a more subtle, less black-and-white view of Wal-Mart, but that’s another story.)

(Oh, and FYI, Wal-Mart isn’t the only company to face this issue. Playboy has also produced such videos as “The Women of Starbucks” and “The Women of Enron,” not to mention “America’s Sexiest Bartenders.”)

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