Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 26, 2010 2:20 PM

Don't Be Evil

All companies have one goal: to make money. Strike that. All companies have two goals: to make money and to make even more money the next year. This means that they all must be evil.

All eyes were on Google and Verizon the other week when they bandied together to create a stance on net neutrality and the future of the wireless space (more on that here: Pay Attention To The Future Of The Internet Today). A lot of the conversation and commentary fell back on Google's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil." Some people question - due to both the size and revenues of Google - if that is even possible anymore.

Aren't all companies evil?

I don't know where I heard this statistic (and it's probably more folklore than hard evidence), but someone once told me that about two-percent of the world is evil. The real bad folks. The rapists, molesters, murderers and thieves. Those who seek out to do harm to others. We need to be vigilante to not let those types of people touch us, but we have to be careful that we do not become overly paranoid in the process. I've had the pleasure - as an agency owner, journalist, author and professional speaker - to work with a very diverse group of brands from many different industries. Some of those industries include big pharma, wireless carriers, cable companies, airlines, consumer packaged goods, retailers and beyond. Those industries - in specific - are often cited as being evil. The kind of evil where all they care about is making money on the backs of their customers without care. Could these companies do more in terms of charitable work for their communities and the overall environment? Of course they can, but all of us could do a whole lot more.

How much are you tithing?

If you take a second to look up the definition of "tithe" on Wikipedia, you'll quickly realize that a "tithe" is not just a donation. It's actually, "a one-tenth part of something, paid as a (usually) voluntary contribution or as a tax or levy, usually to support a religious organization." Are you giving ten-percent of everything your earn away to charity? Don't answer that. The point is that a company is made up of people. Those people need to lead by example. The company (or government) isn't going to do this for us... we have to lead.

Back to evilness.

In all of my journeys I (like you) had my own preconceived notion about these big, bad industries and - upon getting to know the people within the organization - I've learned a very important lesson: these are all good people. They love the brands they represent. They are trying to do great work. The have family and friends that love them and that they love. They want to do more. They want to share more. They want you to see how good they are and the work they do. They want to make sure that the work they are doing matters.

Greed is (or can be) good.

For years critics demonized Bill Gates because as Microsoft was growing into a behemoth he was not as charitable as hoped, when - in reality - his personal philosophy was to keep his head down, grow the business beyond belief and then do some amazing things that would truly change the world. Mission accomplished (more on that here: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates ask billionaires to give away wealth). Is Bill Gates evil? Was Bill Gates ever evil? Chances are you don't get that big, powerful and rich by making everybody happy all of the time, but think about the people you interface with everyday... are they evil?

Do no evil.

We're quick to demonize industries (like Marketing or airlines). We're quick to demonize corporate leaders. We're quick to demonize quite a lot. The next time you're feeling like that, head over to LinkedIn and look to see if you're connected (in some way) with someone at one of those companies or industries. Better yet, ask you're following on Twitter or Facebook if anyone works for that industry and company. Connect with them (either online or in real life).

Now, seriously ask yourself if they are that much different from you and I? Are they evil?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Eric Pratum
    Mitch Joel

    I don't think of too many things in terms of good and evil, but more in terms of greed, charity, doing what's best for the business you love, doing what's best for the community you love, etc. In that vein, I think a lot of people are just lazy or unconcerned enough to not care or notice when their business wrongs someone, or a group of someones. As you suggest though, connecting with a person one-on-one can bring their attention to something or make them see their company's actions in a new light, potentially turning them into your inside advocate. They're all people.

    On an only tangentially-related note, did you mean to say that we should be watchful of evil people or that we should go all Batman on them? Because, while I support the former, the latter seems more entertaining. ;-)

    Reply
  • I have discussed this with people before. Corporations exist to make money. And they teach in B-School Maximize Investor Value. This includes cold blooded actions from treating employees like chattel, to destroying with pollution, to even killing people. This does not make them bad. They are an entity that can be harnessed. They normally are run by great people with occasionally a bad leader or three at the top.

    But these same B-Schools also have proved that good behaving companies that treat their customers, employees, and communities benevolently, do better when it comes to shareholder value.

    When businesses do wrong its humans who let them do wrong.

    Reply
    • That's the complex part. How does evil from within rise and happen when there are so many people doing so many good things? You would think that this kind of anomaly gets crushed. Yet, time and time again, it doesn't and we get an Enron or something bad happens and we get evil-like antics/results out of the accident or crisis.

      Reply
  • Posted by Jon Husband
    Jon Husband

    From the WSJ's recent article "The End of Management"

    "Corporations, whose leaders portray themselves as champions of the free market, were in fact created to circumvent that market. They were an answer to the challenge of organizing thousands of people in different places and with different skills to perform large and complex tasks, like building automobiles or providing nationwide telephone service."

    Reply
  • Posted by Scott Maloley
    Mitch Joel

    Companies aren't evil people are evil.. Companies serve as the mechanism to exploit the evil!

    Reply
  • Posted by David B. Thomas
    Mitch Joel

    You nailed it when you said companies are made up of people. We need to get away from the idea of corporate entities that are faceless and nameless, and social media is helping us do that. We're seeing more and more that the people inside companies are just like us. For those of us who are or have been inside companies, that's no shock.

    The need to drive revenue - and shareholder value in public companies - leads to short-sighted thinking and makes it easier for the people inside companies to make short-sighted decisions. It's not only a focus on the bottom line and the quick buck, but a symptom of groupthink. If my boss says we're doing it this way, because her boss said it and her boss's boss said it, who am I to argue?

    That puts me in mind of the quote generally attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” That may be a bit grandiose for the context, but it's valid. People within companies have made some very bad decisions because they didn't want to rock the boat.

    It's easier at a company that recognizes and celebrates the value of doing right. My former employer, the software company SAS, treats its employees extremely well and does right by the community and has seen steady, consecutive growth and profitability since 1976. In large part that is due to the altruism of its founder and CEO, Jim Goodnight. But you can't underestimate the impact of the fact that the company is privately held and doesn't have to manage quarter by quarter to the expectations of shareholders.

    Reply
    • Great insights... I think evil comes out when people feel very threatened or like they are in a corner. If someone is asked to do the impossible (or the improbable) they are more than likely to act in an "uncommon" way. "Desperate times calls for desperate measures," as the saying goes.

      Reply
  • Posted by Steve Zolis
    Mitch Joel

    I don't think the vast majority of companies are intentionally evil, but on the same token, virtually none will sacrifice profitability to do good things, like reducing plastic packaging, sourcing locally made product, or resisting the temptation to outsource.

    Reply
    • Can't they have both? Why not have profitability and do some good? One is not exclusive of the other.

      Reply
      • Posted by Steve Zolis
        Steve Zolis

        That's where the unintentional evil comes in, because who decides how much is "enough" profit? You could make $40M in profit, and be a social justice dynamo, but if Wall Street decides you should have made $42M, your stock takes it on the chin. So, faced with the choice, how many CEO's will make any kind of decision that will limit profitability?

        Reply
        • Aren't you still profitable, but after those profits instead of taking them out of the company and into the bank, you put it back into the world? Maybe if we change how we count the dough, we can more better baking with it!

          Reply
          • Posted by Steve Zolis
            Steve Zolis

            That's great in theory, but good karma doesn't pay the bills, and we're a society that has a love-hate relationship with the consumerism that drives the machine we all rely on to live. We can say that companies should settle for less profit and put more into the world, but I could make the argument that you could live in a smaller house and drive a cheaper car, and give more money to save the pandas, and you could say the same thing to me.

            It's not really so much good vs evil, as it is a vicious cycle of capitalism, that is nearly impossible for anyone to escape. Even the example of Warren Buffet as a "good guy" is somewhat flawed. Sure, he's giving billions of dollars to charity, but how many individuals were harmed along the way in order for the companies that Buffet invested in to make him a billionaire in the first place?

            When you think about it that way, is it still a 98/2 split of good and evil?

            Reply
            • I would like to think so. A lot of the points you touch on in your comment, I've covered in my original Blog post. I'm hopeful that companies can have both - profits and charitable actions - without being in a scenario where there is too much of an imbalance.

              Reply
  • Posted by Pablo Edwards
    Mitch Joel

    I am a firm believer that any organization; for profit or not, should be giving back to their communities by donating to charities. Very powerful statement that most companies want no part of. Thanks for your recommendation!

    Reply
  • George Harrison said that for a tree to be green, all leaves must be green. We're the leaves.

    Business is mainly about making money and people are basically decent. The results can be ugly.

    Take Wal-Mart and the big box retailers. They're accused of putting small, local stores out-of-business and other crimes like ugliness. We vote with our wallets. So companies like Wal-Mart continue to thrive.

    Our Costco now sells gas. The prices are much lower (premium for about the price of regular). The lineups look like a Canada/US border crossing at the end of a long weekend. Nearby gas stations are probably suffering ... but we're saving money. Who's being evil and to whom?

    Reply
    • And then people ask questions like, "if the big boxes are so cost effective was I being gouged by my local retailer because they were the only game in town?" And then, we go right down the rabbit hole of competition and what that means (maybe another Blog post?).

      Reply
  • Posted by Jake Larson
    Mitch Joel

    The intersection of commerce and life is always a difficult one to come to if you have integrity. I agree that businesses are meant to make money and that people are meant to work for them with the most integrity they can muster. Mitch, I completely agree with your post (and bravo for replying to every comment!). I am trying to swallow the pill and be a part of an industry that has some evil, while realizing that it does a lot of good as well. All you can do is manage yourself in the best way that you can. And if you can help it, be a part of a company who you care about.

    Great post Mitch. I'm always glad I follow!

    Jake

    Reply
  • Posted by Mark W Schaefer
    Mitch Joel

    We are all evil. It is just that most of us are contained at the moment. The capacity is there in all of us (ref: Nazi Germany).

    Over time, companies are merely reflections of the will (and economic state) of the population. If the population is willing to accept pollution and other "evils" in return for income (like N America in 1800s and China now) the companies will comply. When the population approaches a level of wealth were self-actualization is more important, the balance shifts to social responsibility. When per capita reaches a certain level in China, I'll bet the air gets cleaner too.

    It really has nothing to do with evil. It is basic economics, which I do not regard as evil. Although I did have an evil economics teacher once.


    And yes, in fact, I do tithe in money, and more important, time. A result of that self-actualization thing too and the fact that the kids are out of college : )

    Cheers, Mitch

    Reply
    • I think we had the same economics teacher. Maybe I am delusional, but the point of my Blog post was that most people I meet are like you and I - they work hard, love big (which is way better than big love ;) and do good things for others.

      Reply
  • Posted by Kevin Ing
    Mitch Joel

    Hi, Mitch.

    Thanks for the level-headed blog post.

    "Good" and "evil" are points of view that largely depend on which side of the fence you're standing.

    People who demonize others tend to gain a sense of self value in doing so. And the fact that money is often viewed as an item of scarcity rather than abundance, makes it an easy tool for inciting people.

    Of course, Social Media can be a great equalizer -- especially in networks with accountability for our words and actions.

    Reply
  • Posted by John Nazario
    Mitch Joel

    companies evil? depends where on the food chain you are as a company.

    With corporate law and the charter that is granted for the company, an entity is created, separating liabilities away from the company heads to the company itself. This basic act or process creates a psychological event, in which can very easily become Darwinistic in nature. Using the Triune brain as an example, the company heads will make instinctive decisions that do not surpass the first level in the evolutionary brain process. in other words, the strong survive and get fatter.

    You may say, that we are human and have evolved from that animalistic action, and that there's enough business to go around. Well, that may be true, and it would also help if these companies all operated as proprietors and help accountable, but they don't. they have a charter that allows them to use the company as some sort of shield, and avoid any kind of morality in their actions. that would take some evolutionary thought.

    Yes, you are to expect today's modern human to have evolved into their neocortex and make smart moral decisions that will help others around them. However, you can't expect a corporate entity that does not, and hasn't been, created under the same kind of laws and regulations as humans in their societies over milleniums.

    Hold the company heads accountable for their actions, then the story may change. good luck with that!

    So we must talk about the company as a living entity.

    So... before going deeper than I already have, declaring a company evil is assuming the angle you are standing in is good? well, they are only being human in nature and you may only be viewing them from a very narrow angle. so no they are not evil, they are following dogma, their own dogma that hasn't been evolved in their culture, in their corporate environment.

    Now I ask anyone out there; By apposing their dogmatic views, does that make you,.. a heretic?

    Reply
    • Heretic or an evolved species? I think we would all like to think we have evolved. I'd like to think that through both emotional intelligence and the moral compass, many of us can turn to one another and think, "the only difference between us is our 'luck' in the genetic lottery."

      The construct of a company is still a human creation, so we must/should be able to re-evaluate it and discuss whether it's an effective way for us to evolve even more and to become a better species (or, at least, a healthier one).

      Thank you for the brain gymnastics.

      Reply
  • Posted by Will Burns
    Mitch Joel

    I think successful businesses get tagged as "evil" because people conclude that the business must have really "tricked" a lot of people in order to get that rich. Seriously. People default to "snake oil salesman" whenever they see success. When, after all, a successful company simply made a great product that lots and lots of people bought because they wanted/needed it. Any person who thinks a successful company is evil must also believe that he or she has no choice in the products they buy and that no products are good, they just get tricked to buy them. It's insane. That said, and if you don't mind, Mitch, I wrote a blog post myself about the morality of marketing (http://ideasicle.com/blog/138). But nobody go there. It's just another trick.

    Reply
    • I fell for that trick! Thanks for writing the Blog post...

      Reply
    • Posted by Kevin Ing
      Mitch Joel

      I was writing a reply, but it got so long I ended up just writing my own blog post about it.

      The twist in a nutshell...

      Marketing 1.0 - Pre-Industrial Age. Shop owners calling out to passers-by. One-to-one engagement. Finding good products and trustworthy merchants.

      Marketing 2.0 - Mass Media. These marketing channels don't allow 2-way communication, so companies blast their message out to to millions -- hoping they will reach the few who are genuinely interested. As a result marketers are seen as "annoying" and "immoral" for trying to sell us what we don't need.

      Marketing 3.0 - Social Media gives the ability to find and engage with an audience that could truly benefit from our products. Relationships are built on trust.

      Have we come full circle?

      ...

      For anyone reading this, my blog post is like preaching to the choir, but in case you care to read it: http://empoweringabc.com/2010/08/28/m-is-for-marketing-3-0/

      Reply
      • I've made this argument for a while. Social Media actually takes us back to before mass media where we have these "real interactions with real human beings." The big difference now is that geography/location is not limited to the physical and distribution is global. My message to you about something being awesome is not relegated to us being in the exact same location, and the message is published and shared for all to use/collaborate with as well.

        Reply
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