Corporate Motives and Discrimination

Motives, especially corporate ones, are hard to figure. Some people, of course, are skeptical about the notion that an abstract entity like a corporation can have motives (or intentions or beliefs of attitudes or any of those sorts of things), even though we all have a tendency to talk about corporations as if they are capable of having them. It’s pretty common to talk about a company “expecting” profits to rise next year, or “wanting” to increase its market share, and so on. But even if we’re not so skeptical about attributing motives (etc.) to companies, their motives can be pretty elusive. We may not be ready to believe corporate spokespersons when they tell us what their company’s motives are, and besides, even if everyone within a company agrees that a certain course of action is the right one to take, it’s entirely possible that different parties within the company all have different motives for doing so.

But sometimes it’s good to at least try to understand what motivates companies, particularly when we want to diagnose a widespread and/or persistent problem, in order to suggest changes.

This question of determining motives came to mind when I read a story about an age discrimination case at 3M: “3M settles age-discrimination suit for up to $12M”.

3M Co. has agreed to pay up to $12 million to settle an age-discrimination lawsuit with as many as 7,000 current and former employees.
The 2004 lawsuit targeted the company’s performance-review system, alleging that older workers were disproportionately downgraded. It also accused the company of favoring younger employees for certain training opportunities that could fast-track them for promotions….

If we accept for the sake of argument that some sort of systemic discrimination took place at 3M, what on earth might have motivated such behaviour?
Here are a few possibilities:

  • Profits. Maybe the discriminatory practices and policies were an attempt to increase efficiency in order to boost profits. This of course is the go-to assumption for most corporate critics.
  • Energy. Maybe those who engaged in age discrimination weren’t thinking specifically about the end goal of profits, but merely had a certain vision in mind of the kind of company they ought to have, and the kind of youthful energy that makes a company vibrant.
  • Recruitment. Maybe 3M wanted to give younger employees lots of opportunities so that they could brag about opportunities for young employees when recruiting new talent. Most recruits, after all, are likely to be young, and ambitious young people are likely to be drawn to a company that holds the promise of great opportunities.
  • Bias. It could be that various key decision-makers inside 3M were simply personally biased, as many (most? all?) of us are, against older employees.
  • Justice It’s at least possible that key decision-makers within 3M actually thought that giving preferential treatment to younger employees was the morally-right thing to do. Quick, ask yourself this: if 2 patients each need a heart transplant, and you’ve got just one donor heart, and one patient is 15 and the other is 55, who would you give the heart to? Surely all of us are tempted, from time to time, to think that the young are particularly deserving of opportunities. Note that I’m not defending such a view, here.

What do you think? Note that the point here is not about the 3M case, but about what could motivate a company, any company, to engage in discriminatory behaviour. And again, I think it’s worth contemplating the possibility that there simply was no corporate motive (nor maybe even a truly corporate “cause”).

1 comment so far

  1. Barbara Kimmel on

    The fact that 3M agreed to pay UP TO $12 million (a drop in the bucket for them) leads me to believe that perhaps the law suit had little merit and this was the path of least resistance for the company.

    Long term stock charts can sometimes offer a clue as to why a company acted in a certain manner at a set period of time. In this particular case, it certainly doesn’t appear like 3M needed to oust the old folks to boost stock price.

    I would also guess that if, in fact, there was discrimination, it was not so much deliberate, but perhaps just poor governance and oversight. Something that we see repeatedly in our research.

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