Can you be happy in an evil business?


My Dutch Pal Erno Mijland asks a very interesting question:

Last week I watched the film Our Daily Bread which is a documentary on how food is produced in Europe. It shows an industry in which there’s not a lot of respect for plants and animals: lots of poison, young chickens being thrown around, pigs transported in small boxes etc. etc.

Because I was a bit prepared these images didn’t shock me very much. What did shock me, were the scenes in which the workers in this industry where shown. People showing no emotion whatsoever in what they where doing, big automated halls where a worker works (and lunches) alone, people doing mind torturing repetitive work all day long.

It made me wonder: who could possibly be happy at work in these kind of conditions?

What a great question. The easy answer would be “No one. No one can be happy under these conditions.” But the truth is a little more complicated.

If you haven’t seen Our Daily Bread and you’re not squeamish, you can see a short clip from the movie here:

Interestingly, I’m currently reading a book called Gig, which simply consists of interviews with working Americans. I just read about the HR manager in a slaughterhouse, who talks about the same issue:

Last month, I hired eighty-five people and ninety-two left. That’s not uncommon. We’re bleeding people. I hire them and they leave… Some people will quit fifteen minutes after they get on the floor because it is so ugly to them.

The interview also has some graphic descriptions of employees walking around in a couple of inches of cow blood… No wonder so many people quit!

But this is not just about killing cows. Could you be happy working for a company that makes land mines? Or a company that pollutes the environment? Or a tobacco company? Or working for Microsoft? Just kidding!

The larger question is this: Can you be happy at work if you deeply believe that your workplace ultimately makes the world a worse place?

Here are some factors to take into account:

1: Mismatch between personal and company values is a huge stress factor
When your job goes against your personal values, you’re in a very difficult situation. This means, that on a daily basis you are doing things that you can’t defend to yourself.

This causes what we might call values stress – a feeling of stress that comes from a conflict of values. This can be every bit as serious and damaging as the old garden-variety stress that comes from being busy.

Even if you’re not actually making the land mines – let’s say you’re just the receptionist – this may weigh heavily on you. Every single day.

2: You can temporarily ignore this mismatch
However, you can keep yourself from dealing with this stress factor simply by ignoring it. The human mind has a fantastic ability to shut things out and adapt. If you so choose, you can simply keep yourself from realizing that this is bad.

You can focus on the good aspects on your job, have fun with nice co-workers, and even still take pleasure from doing your job well.

A lot of people certainly do this for a while, particularly when they really need the salary. But while it can enable you to be happy at work for a time, it is not a good long term strategy.

Even CEOs are not immune to this temporary blindness. Here, Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface the world’s largest manufacturer of carpets, explains how he suddenly realized that his company was bad for the environment:

…it dawned on me that they way I’d been running Interface is the way of the plunderer. Plundering something that is not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth.

And I said to myself “My goodness, a day must come where this is illegal, where plundering is not allowed. I mean, it must come.”

So I said to myself “My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail.”

The good news is that he made this realization and that he was in a position to act on it and make Interface environmentally responsible. If you’re an employee of an evil workplace, your main option is probably to get out of Dodge and find another job you can be proud of.

3: The higher your investment in the company, the easier it is to blind yourself
And I’m not just talking stocks. You can invest money, but also time and identity in your work.

The more you have invested already, the harder it will be for you to realize that things are just plain wrong. This specifically means that the longer you stay, the harder it gets to leave.

4: Being part of a bad system changes your perception
And more than anything, the system you exist in can shape your perception. If everyone around you acts like “hey, spending your day knee-deep in cow guts is perfectly normal” or “sure it’s OK to cheat about the company finances – everybody does it” then you’re more likely to think so too.

The Milgram experiment may be the most chilling reminder of this effect. In it, subjects were lead to believe that they were part of a study in learning that required them to give another test subject electrical shocks. In reality the other person was an actor and no shocks were given.

The study showed that 65% of the subjects continued administering ever more powerful electrical shocks – even though the actor was screaming in pain and later on pretended to pass out. The subjects were never pressured – if they protested they were simply told in a calm voice that “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

Here’s part of Milgram’s chilling conclusion:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

So when people in authority tell us to do something that we know is wrong, when the entire system just acts as if unethical, damaging behavior is just business as usual, many of us are powerless to resist. You may think that YOU are exempt from this, but in reality we’re all subject to this effect.

This is part of the reason that the Enron scandal could go on for as long as it did, even though many people inside the company ought to have known that something was rotten: everyone acted like everything was fine. As in “The company requires that you continue.”

Ultimately, it may even explain something like Abu Ghraib.

What’s your take?
Have you ever held a job in a horrible business? What did it do to you and your happiness at work?

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14 thoughts on “Can you be happy in an evil business?”

  1. This is the best post you’ve ever written! Thank you!

    When I was pretty young I worked for a rotten telemarketing-company who I found out wasn’t selling but b*llshit and false promises based on lies. When I found out I left, and did what I could to spread the word about NOT to buy anything from them. When young people from such companies are calling me now I can hear it promptly – and I tell them how wrong it is, or make fun of them to make them understand.

    Of course – now I only do good :-)

  2. Thanks for the intelligent, inspiring reflections on the subject. Here’s a devil’s advocate’s thought that came to my mind, after reading the part about The Milgram experiment.

    You could draw the conclusion that if everyone around you tells you that you should – no matter what – be happy at work, you’re bound to follow that line of thought. And… if you do not succeed feeling that happy feeling, you are a looser. What I’m trying to say… and here’s another difficult one… it is possible that the happy-at-work-message raises too high expectations and therefore disappointment for lots of workers? For instance those that say they are happy in generally regarded unhappy conditions (in the slaughterhouse and at Microsoft :)

  3. Like many in the Washington, DC area, I worked for a company whose largest clients were government contractors. Namely, a company that is the largest weapons manufacturer in the world. I hated the idea that my salary came from our contracts with them, even though I knew that we, as a company, were not at all related to the weapons industry.

    Several years later, I was looking for a job, and got about a million calls from headhunters to work for this very same government contractor. I said no in the nicest way I could. They kept calling. Finally, I called them (in the middle of the night, so I didn’t have to talk to a person) that I was in no way interested in working for a company that is the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, was part of supporting the war in Iraq, and asked them not to call again.

    Since these experiences, I’ve worked in education and feminist non-profits. Sometimes the environment makes me happy at work, sometimes it doesn’t. But at the very least, I start with a company whose work jives with my own values.

  4. This is the best post I’ve seen here in some time. I often think that only desperation can lead someone to work at a place like a slaughterhouse.

  5. aren’t we all in some way related to everything that happens… our degrees that vary…

    just being part of the systems makes us responsible in some way, surely…
    one might not work for a company that makes weapons… but they still might be part of a society that in its “unity” has attacked iraq and killed over 600,000 innocent iraqies… aren’t most of us responsible by simply going to the supermarket and buying stuff, knowing that the supermarket is part of a chain that exploits third world workers!!!

    i think action must go hand in hand with happiness and peace… i am happy knowing i’m trying to make a difference in a positive way… even if i were an american soldier in iraq i could be happy… because i would focus on ensuring that people feel safe (especially iraqies) (i do believe the current focus is on oil, debt and killing – but one’s personal motivation so being different in that culture would be very very hard, but also very very rewarding).

    so, as i work, i ask myself… what have i done today to help make the world a better place… my personal values might differ from the values work tries to enforce… but hey, we battle at times, and when push comes to shove, my anchor is not work, and if they sack me… well, so be it… they might have decided that what i bring in skills is not as great as the conflict that i bring with my values at times…

    I am hardly Jesus, but he did dine with the tax collectors… not so that he could collect tax, but those are the people that needed redemption! can i at least try to mimic that at work? normally i find that the people are fine, but the system is broke!!!

    i encourage you to read

  6. I was offered a very high paying job (4x salary increase) to work for an oil company in Alaska. When I told the person making the offer that I could not work for the oil industry (she was a headhunter) she acted like I was such an idiot…as if no one these days does that.

    I still need to sleep tonight and anyone who appreciates the life this planet sustains needs to work for their conscience.


  7. Hey
    Best post of yours I’ve read to date. My partner once spent two weeks doing temping admin work at a turkey farm. She described the people who worked there as, basically, damaged.

    One incident that’s stuck in my mind was an interview I had 24 years ago for a financial consultancy. The interviewer talked about money, about wealth, about owning yachts. Then he began to talk about the losers, the [sorry, but I’m quoting] c**** who didn’t recognise money and its importance, that in five years you could walk away, that you could have other people doing the work for you. That the world had two kind of people – people like him and the “stupid c****” who didn’t understand. He went on and on. It was like talking to low-end devil. Finally, he let me get a word in. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m one of the c****.” And I walked out. One of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

  8. I once worked as a Software Engineer at a debt collection firm. I sat in an office near a collection floor, and one memory I have is of a collector threatening someone who had just been through a hurricane.

    No matter what I did to try and be happy at that office, nothing worked. I used every rationalization, religion, whatever, and nothing made it so that I could be happy while I worked there.

    If you don’t like your office, find a different job! You will be so much happier. You don’t owe anyone at your terrible office anything.

    When I left, I sent an email to several people, including the Ceo, detailing how our (IT’s) boss was dysfunctional, and, talking to the head of HR later, I understand they talked to him, and things were different — for a few months, at least. So, you can actually make things better by leaving, even if all you do is leave: You’ll be saying, “I no longer support this.” Take your endless talent somewhere where it’ll be put to good use, and where you will be treated better, and be happier.

    Conditions matter. You can’t sit in a pile of crap and expect to be happy. :-)

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  10. I realize this is an old post, but I had to comment, especially on the last post by Sean. I too have worked in IT for a debt collection company and have found it very difficult to be ‘happy’ working for this company. It is a rather small company and I am used to working for large companies. In the beginning I sat in a cubicle within the area of the “bad debt” collectors and it was horrible. I hated hearing the phone conversations and they left me feeling depressed. There are a lot of debt collection companies out there, but what we specialize in is medical debt collections. Being a person with some pretty large medical debts (but have them on payment plan), I found it very difficult to listen to the phone calls. I totally sympathize with the millions of people out there who are under-insured or have no insurance at all, but need the medical care at one point in their life. With the upcoming presidential election, I hope some major changes are made to our current health insurance crisis in this country. We cannot continue this way. We are all just one accident or illness away from it ruining our life as we know it. In my case I tripped going down the stairs and ended up falling down the stairs. I have had 4 knee surgeries now and if I didnt have insurance, would owe easily over $100k, but with insurance I only owe around $10k. Nice that they cut me a break right? Well, just facing the $10k is overwhelming. And I also did not have disability insurance to cover my income while I was off work since I work for such a small company, it really wasnt offered. Luckily (?) I was able to work from home and get some hours in once I was out of the hospital to bring in some money. Otherwise we would have totally been screwed.

    Ok, sorry I got on a soap box about insurance. So, here I am still in this job and I just had my 4th knee surgery which was total knee replacement. 2 days after getting out of the hospital I am working from home in order to bring in some income, even though I am totally not feeling up to it physically. The pain and the meds have me a bit loopy. At least my employer allows me to work from home, that is one nice thing they allow me to do. Otherwise, when I’m in the office I work in a tiny, tiny hole in the wall office and have very limited space to work on computers and other equipment. I do make a pretty good income there and that is what keeps me there. I do not feel appreciated in the slightest. I realize I need to somehow motivate myself to do my job since no one else is motivating me. Some days I come home just totally discouraged with my job and wanting to quit. Of course my husband says I have to stay until I find another job because we need the money. I hate having to stay at a job because we have to pay our bills. I hate it, I hate it with a passion. I would love to have our debt paid off and savings built up so I was not tied down to a place of employment. But with the money I make I at least hope I can find another job that will pay about the same, but have way better insurance and benefits to offer.

    Anyway, I have been reading the posts and articles on this website and have truly enjoyed them. I have a lot to learn about changing jobs and being okay with it as I tend to stay in a job far longer than the happiness lasts. I think I am way too loyal to employers, I’m not sure why. I often get to the point of job burnout that affects every part of my life and I end up enjoying nothing in my life. I’ve been at this job 3 years now and I know it is time to move on. But when I get to the point of burnout and doing sloppy work because I procrastinate horribly (maybe because of lack of motivation), I tend to have low self-esteem and think no other company will want me. Once I am back on my feet I hope to get started on finding another job.

    Well, thanks for this website and the very valuable information you provide!!! :~)

  11. Yes, love the blog. Thank you, Alexander!

    And please don’t apologize for the segue, Nancy. As a newbie to insurance and taxes and credit and all of the responsibility as an adult, it helped me realize how much of a difference the former can make. No matter how much preventative medicine someone practices, or how unlikely an event may be; accidents can still happen…but it’s good to know about alternatives…

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