When It's Inconvenient for the Company

capitalism entrepreneurship life zen

This is a post about striking the right balance between values and business needs.

A few weeks ago, I helped finalize the parental leave policy at Gruntwork and an interesting philosophical discussion came up: How many resources is the company willing to allocate to creating a humane parental leave policy?

Some larger companies like Netflix offer full pay for 1 year when your kid is born. As a parent, that kind of benefit is…amazing. If I were an employee of Netflix, I would revel in the idea that Netflix cares about me and my family, not just the next release milestone. It would make me feel a deeper emotional connecton to the company.

But Gruntwork is just 12 people total with 9 engineers, and while we’ve been profitable from Day 1 and growing fast, if one engineer were to leave for a year, that would reduce our engineering output by, on average, 11% while still having to carry that perons’s salary. Can you imagine what kind of impact an 11% engineering output reduction would have on NetFlix? Let’s say NetFlix has 2,000 engineers. That’d be 220 engineers gone for a year…while on full payroll!

The reality is that, as much as I personally want to support a year-long parental leave policy, the company simply can’t afford it right now. Or to be more accurate, if we chose to support a 1-year parental leave policy, we would have to increase our cash reserves to a point that would significantly slow down hiring and other initiatives requiring working capital.

Ultimately, having any parental leave policy at all is “inconvenient” for the company in the sense that it reduces your ability to pump out new features and bug fixes and/or puts additional load on the rest of the team. So…should we just have no parental leave policy at all?

Well, wait, that would mean a person who joins the company and has a baby is expected to return to work the day after giving birth? That’s insane. Ok, 1 week after work? Still insane. Two weeks after? Theoretically doable, but hardly something I’d want for my family. Two months after? Hmm, then there are no daycare options, so… three months after?

What starts to become apparent is that your human values begin driving this decision. Yes, it’s inconvenient to the company for someone to become a new parent and take any time off, but your values are that parenthood — as one example — is a wonderful rite of passage, a critically important part of a person’s life, and requires the support of a community (including a person’s place of work) to make possible. So you inconvenience the company to make sure you live out your values.

In business, you don’t get unlimited expression of your values. It’s too expensive. You’ve still got bills to pay and customers to please. But you can certainly look for the right balance.

Sometimes it’s not what a company does that showcases their values, but what they don’t do. A great example of this is Facebook. There’s a long list of data privacy scandals they’ve experienced in the last 12 years:

  • Tracking users' activity across the entire Web without their explicit permission (“Beacon”)
  • Sloppy controls around third-party apps ultimately leading to the Cambridge Analytica scandal
  • Learning which apps people downloaded and installed by leveraging their free VPN app
  • Lots more in recent news

In isolation, any one of these might seem like an “accidental oversight.” But in aggregate, they form a discernible pattern: Facebook just doesn’t value user privacy that much.

Facebook is fundamentally an advertising company, and it reasons that the more it knows about you, the more useful the ads it can show you. The more it knows about you…so, any pesky thing that gets in the way of “the more it knows about you” is going to be inconvenient. In order to overcome that inconvenience, human values must prevail.

So how much does Facebook philosophically value my personal right to control my data and give explicit permission to anything collected about me? Well, not so much. From what I can tell, most of their good citizenry around data privacy and user opt-in comes in reaction to scandals, not out of proactively asserting their values.

By the way, I don’t mean to dump on Facebook. The whole point of my intro was that asserting values means you give something up. Facebook would conceivably lose hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in revenue by taking a strong stand for data privacy. And they’re a publicly traded company. If they did make a full-scale effort to make data privacy a core company value and made it clear this would significantly reduce profits, they’d have to contend with considerable pressure from investors.

Another common area this idea comes up often is environmental impact. Volkswagen famously rigged their cars to emit one level of fumes during testing and another during everyday driving. Why? Because it made the driving experience peppier and sportier, and would sell a few more cars. Really? At the expense of people suffering or even dying from air pollution?

But that was expressly illegal. Then there are companies like Bayer who legally spew carcingoens from their factory. They are putting known toxic elements in the air, often near populated areas. I have no idea what it would take to find cleaner methods of producing their products, but as among the worst polluting companies in America, I assume that being a responsible global citizen is just not a core value of theirs, despite that their own website claims that “We are committed to operating sustainably and addressing our social and ethical responsibilities.”

In the end, all of this had made me realize that businesses are run by humans, humans have values that underly their actions, and I would prefer to do business with companies whose values align with my own.

In Apple’s last product announcement, they dedicated a full 2 minutes to detailing all their efforts at producing the new MacBook Air in an environmentally responsible way, even going so far as to use 100% recycled aluminum for their enclosures. This is clearly a conscious effort by Apple, not just some meek effort at compliance with government regulations.

These efforts no doubt cost considerable money and time, and I would guess 0.0001% of laptop buyers factor “environmental footprit” into their laptop purchase decision, but being environmentally responsible is a value for Apple. So they do it anyway.

Maybe it’s the largest and richest companies that have the resources to be “inconvenienced” the most, and yet there’s a clear difference between Facebook’s approach to data privacy and Apple’s approach to environmental responsibility. Values resonate and give the companies that practice them a wonderful, human feel.

I realize business often involves hard decisions, but I hope that the next time I have an opportunity to inconvenience the company I’m helping to run, I can make the right decision that balances the right degree of inconvenience while honoring the human values I and my team feel good about.


comments powered by Disqus