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Why do employees want to work in vice industries, and even proudly do so? Counterintuitively for many of us, public opprobrium welds the teams of companies targeted by the world, and that generates positive chain effects for those organizations.
“Are we on the bad side?” at one point asks a character in a sketch performed by a tandem of famous British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb (best known for appearing in the sitcom “Peep Show”) .
Well, most likely, no employee of any company has such dilemmas, but there are sufficiently stigmatized sectors, the so-called vice industries – alcoholic beverages, gambling, tobacco and others – where such questions could to appear on the radar of consciousness. Then there are other industries of questionable reputation – see oil companies or those that produce cannabis. And nationality came to play a role, casting shadows on a category of employees, which was not the case before. For example, if before working for a Chinese company aroused admiration, now it arouses suspicion at best. The question raised by the article in the British magazine The Economist is why employees who would have a choice still prefer to work for the so-called vice industries?
The cynical answer would be – for money. There is evidence to suggest that executives in these industries demand more money to compensate for working for such companies. According to a 2014 paper, executives in the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries benefit from a bigger pay package, which cannot be explained by the fact that they are managing more difficult companies to run, for example.
The dimensions of this premium price paid is also visibly influenced by periods of image crisis (see famous lawsuits in the tobacco industry). And the shadow hovering over this type of CEO could also be observed in one aspect – he is not always part of the company’s board.
Money is a compelling asset for certain positions in those companies and for certain types of people, but not for everyone. And you could hardly say it covers a psychological explanation – “yeah, I work for a company in an industry with image problems, but at least the pay is great” is not the kind of narrative people want to go to bed with in their minds at night.
Thomas Roulet, professor of organizational theory at Cambridge University (Great Britain), shows in his book “The Power of Being Divisive”, a volume about stigma in the business environment, that employees in publicly stigmatized companies are even proud to work in that sector and for that company.
The main reason is a classic narrative of capitalism. If we are to believe in freedom of choice, and companies like this are socially accepted to operate and do so in compliance with all applicable laws, then that is justification enough to work for these companies.
But the argument for freedom of choice is no longer so strong if the harm done by the products of those companies or industries is swept under the rug, or if those products encourage addiction. For example, tobacco companies sell cigarettes but at the same time work to reduce the harm caused by smoking – British American Tobacco (BAT) claims that its aim is to “build a better future by reducing the impact that BAT’s business has on people’s health”.
It’s quite easy to take this goat-and-cabbage approach to heart. It’s easy, but not smart. First, hostility itself sometimes acts as a clotting factor for employees in companies active in notorious industries. A study by the same Thomas Roulet found that satisfaction increased in firms that were under fire from public criticism because their employees viewed the criticism as illegitimate.
Second, social attitudes can change, sometimes suddenly. The arms industry is not so demonized at this point, when we all see that its products are helping the Ukrainians to resist the military invasion of Russia. Dependence on Russian gas makes safe (read conventional) sources of energy seem more attractive, even though they obviously remain as polluting as before the Ukraine war.
Third, employees in these notorious industries are often in a position to do a lot of good and valuable things around. The gradual replacement of cigarettes with lower risk products is a net gain for public health. Widespread suspicion of GM crops ignores the clear evidence that those crops are safe and feed billions of people. And the rapid decline in the number of US petroleum engineers will look less desirable if the know-how shortage holds back future green projects.
In the last decade, research on social criticism – from bad reputation to extreme stigmatization – and the negative impact on the targeted companies has increased, with a focus on the major risks for the respective businesses.
The PR departments and executives of these companies know that a negative image affects external relations – with customers, partners, workforce, stakeholders and potential investors.
In the digital age and digital platforms, criticism is 24/7. It becomes virtually impossible to get away without criticism or backlash from some. Moreover, social activism puts its authors on the map, and many political leaders turn to controversial narratives to win votes.
In times when the vigilance of public opinion is permanent, Thomas Roulet offers a framework for understanding how you can survive public criticism both individually and organizationally, and even achieve positive results. He collected several arguments that support the thesis that “being against the others” becomes a powerful engine for a company’s identity, and those facing massive public hostility can even reap the benefits of an extremely well-welded internal team precisely on the background of this attitude external. And as arguments, Roulet presents in his research a series of case studies such as Uber, Google, Monsanto, Electronic Arts or the investment banking sector during financial crises.
In conclusion, there are a lot of employees who work in this kind of industries and who consider their work important and there is nothing wrong with that, the British from The Economist also opine.
Knowing that they are not looked upon kindly, companies in the vice industries make much more efforts to return a social good.
THE TARGETS. Industries such as tobacco, alcohol, weapons, gambling or pornography are the most obvious sectors of vice, given that they deviate from social, ethical, environmental or other business standards. ADAPTATIONS. Often, companies under public criticism have experience turning the negative effects of their products into advantages – for example, those in the energy sector claim that the money they make from oil and gas allows them to support the world’s energy transition tomorrow’s green
This article appeared in issue 147 of . magazine.