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Switching jobs or staying put: Pros and cons
If you want to have positive impact via your day job, is it best to find an impactful company or try to change one you’re already at?
Welcome to the Honest Work newsletter, a monthly publication on how to have a positive impact on the world via your job.
Last month, the inaugural newsletter argued that the workplace is one of the most underutilised areas where people seeking to push for positive real-world change can make a difference. If you decide you want your work to have an impact, the next obvious question is: what’s the right job for you?
Conventional wisdom: Ditch the laggards, find a leader
As awareness of the climate crisis and the broader ills facing the world grows, so too are the number of people prepared to up sticks for more ethical employers. 41% of Gen Y workers in Australia and 49% in US would quit their jobs if it became clear their employer’s values did not align with their own. Many have already done so, some in dramatic fashion – see the Shell consultant whose open letter and video ending her business relationship with the company due to their environmental harms went viral.
It’s not just existing employees walking away; there are increasing efforts to stop “bad” companies from recruiting bright-eyed graduates in the first place. Law Students for Climate Accountability have developed an index assessing law firms’ performance on climate, encouraging their peers to shun poor performers. Across the UK, students and staff are campaigning for an end to recruitment relationships between universities and the oil, gas, and mining industries. Such efforts have the support of none other than UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has himself called on graduates to shun “climate wreckers”.
A job market where more workers are aware of and weigh the ethics and sustainability of employers may deprive bad companies of the talent they need to thrive. It will also improve the talent pool available to sustainability leaders and disruptive startups, giving them an edge over competitors.
Another idea: Push your company from laggard to(wards) leader
There is however another version of that story. Bad companies may see their access to top talent reduced, but not eliminated.1 It is a hindrance, but not an existential threat. Meanwhile, those companies become less likely to improve, as the employees that might have pioneered change there now work elsewhere. A vicious cycle entrenching the status quo ensues.2
Of course, such companies may find themselves disrupted by a competitor and be forced to change or fail: see Tesla forcing other automakers to invest in electric vehicles. However, these dynamics will not replicate in all industries or for all issues. Across several issues – such as plastic pollution or human rights abuses – a few bad apples can still cause massive negative impacts. Having ethical alternatives is not enough; incumbents’ practices must change.
So if you work3 for an established company which might be contributing to some of the problem’s society is facing, don’t be so quick to look for the exit. Working for a more ethical company may feel better, but there is no shortage of competition for those jobs; if they don’t hire you, they’ll hire someone else. And if you quit, your company will replace you, probably with someone more indifferent to their negative impacts.
As noted in the previous newsletter, employees successfully pushing their company to be more ethical is far from unprecedented. Workers at Amazon got the company to commit to achieving net zero emission; lawyers got their firms to withdraw from Donald Trump’s lawsuits challenging the validity of the 2020 US presidential election. These successes depend on having like-minded colleagues prepared to support change.
The fact is we need both – workers taking up jobs at sustainability leaders and startups, making them better; and employees at traditional companies coming together and pushing for change from within. But it is the latter where we are significantly undersupplied.
Staying or going: The pros and cons
So: we need more values-driven employees within established companies pushing for them to improve their practices and have a more positive impact on the world. At the same time, that’s a gruelling path and is not going to be suitable for everyone. How to decide what’s right for you?
Here’s a rundown of some of the main considerations.
You: Advocate v Agreeable
By its nature, changing a company culture or practices requires a willingness to speak up, to have difficult and sometimes heated conversations, to be perceived by some as an antagonist, to suffer setbacks.
Some people relish this, while others may be prepared to tolerate it as necessary for making a change.4 For others, the prospect of having to fight to get agreement on what they consider to be basic decency may seem exhausting and disheartening. Such people are likely to be more energised and effective working for a company of like-minded people who are already on the same page about the goals they are pursuing.
You: Steadfast v Adaptable
We tend to overestimate the extent to which we are influenced by the environments in which we work and live – the assumptions, the ideologies, rules and etiquette. Your lens on what is possible, what is appropriate, what options on the table: all of this may narrow from your continued exposure to a particular vision in your workplace. I’m reminded of a scene from the film Law Abiding Citizen:
Be conscious, then, that influence flows both ways. That said, those who can hang onto their idealism and are able to marry it with a deepened knowledge of a company can have an impact no one else can – marrying an activist’s commitment to principles with an insider’s understanding of their company’s goals, circumstances, challenges.
You: Level of risk tolerance
Workplace organising is a risky business, and organising around ethical issues is the least protected of all. How indispensable are you to your employer? How would you cope with a sudden loss of livelihood, or impeded promotion opportunities, if your employer was to retaliate? Are there alternative employment options available to you? Depending on your company, leading internal advocacy efforts requires a minimum level of tolerance for risk.
Company: Open v closed
Companies tend to sit on a spectrum between those that encourage staff at all levels to share ideas and challenge conventional wisdom, and those that have a very top-down culture where staff’s role is to implement the vision of the company’s leaders, not critique it.
In the former there are likely to be more forums for expressing dissenting views, understanding whether such views are widely shared and building momentum for change. In the latter, there is a greater likelihood of retaliation against organising efforts by workers. This is not necessarily a reason to abandon such efforts, but does call for a higher level of risk tolerance and the use of more clandestine organising tactics.
Company: Incremental v dramatic change
It is one thing for employees to push a consulting company to restrict the work it does with fossil fuel company clients; it is quite another to push the fossil fuel company to do a 180 on its business model and shift immediately to renewable energy. There must be a reasonable, profitable path to a company adhering to employee demands if they are to have any hope of being successful. This does not mean that employee advocacy within a fossil fuel company is futile, just that its goals need to be achievable: accelerating investments in renewable energy, eliminating new exploration, addressing bad lobbying practices.
If there is not a reasonably achievable degree of progress that is compatible with your values, then finding a more values-aligned company is probably your best move.
Company: Convertible v opposed colleagues
No matter how determined or right you may be, you will never achieve change alone; winning over an appreciable number of colleagues is essential. Do at least some colleagues share your view on the problem facing your company, or can they be convinced? Don’t be discouraged if your immediate circle is not on the same page; green teams, employee resource groups and staff committees can also be a source of potential collaborators. But again, if the change you are seeking runs directly counter to the company’s raison d’etre, don’t be surprised if allies are few and far between. After all, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”5
The above is a fairly simple way of thinking about the kind of workplace where you’re best suited to making an impact. We need to change the norm of “good people should go work for good companies”; the world desperately needs more workers stepping up to challenge the practices of the companies where they work. However, for many people this is not where they’ll be most effective, and such people should take their talents to companies prepared to put them to good use for the world.
The holidays and the beginning of a new year are a good time for reflecting on our role in the world, so this month’s action:
ACTION: Have a long think about how you can be most additional through your work. Can you see yourself as someone winning colleagues to your cause, contributing to a movement to change a company from within? Or is your specialty finding solutions with like-minded people who have already agreed a shared goal? Then, whichever camp you find yourself in, the follow-up question: how compatible is your current workplace (or career path) with the worker you want to be? Is there a company out there where your unique value-add could have a greater impact?
Let me know what you conclude!
Reminder: Last month’s action
ACTION #1: Share this newsletter with one friend or colleague. Maybe it’s someone passionate about having a positive impact. Maybe a colleague in a position of influence. Maybe one of those people who are just annoyingly impressive at getting things done. Pick someone with whom you can talk about your goals and struggles, and you can hold each other accountable. Maybe share it with multiple people, form a little group of changemakers embarking on a journey together. Because change can start with one but requires many.
The number of business-school graduates choosing careers in oil and gas has dropped 40% since 2006, partly for ethical reasons. 44% of 20- to 35-year-olds and 62% of 16- to 19-year-olds found a career in the industry unappealing. Impressive, but this still leaves an ample pool of recruits.
There is a parallel here in the responsible investment world with the divest v engage debate. Many argue that sustainable-minded investors should divest from fossil fuel assets to delegitimise them and raise their cost of capital. Opponents argue that divestment has little tangible effect, and merely results in fossil fuel companies having shareholders which are indifferent (or worse) to their climate impacts. I tend to ally with the latter.
This whole post is geared to workers who are already working for companies with questionable business practices. In theory, an ambitious changemaker could actually choose to start working for a company with the prime intention of changing them from within. This is analogous to the labour movement’s practice of salting. Kudos to you if it’s something you’d consider, but be prepared for a long slog.
Internal changemakers should not be too conflict-oriented either. Restraint, patience and a willingness to compromise are all crucial to effective advocacy.