The approach I took when considering what company I wanted to discuss throughout this blog post was to research companies with the best working conditions and then examine how this may, or may not correlate with ethical business practices. I ultimately came across Business Insider’s article, The 50 Best Companies to Work for in 2013, and was captivated by Facebook’s presence atop the list. Facebook is an innovative, young company and one that I figured would be interesting to delve into their record of stakeholder relations. Facebook topped the list with a 4.6/5 employee satisfaction rating, calculated through the use of anonymous employee feedback shared on Glassdoor’s online company review survey. The working conditions at Facebook are similar to that of Google, with open working conditions and conference rooms implemented to encourage creative thinking and teamwork. Other perks of the working at Facebook include cafes, ping-pong tables, walls adorned with artwork, outdoor recreational areas, gaming rooms and even a dry-cleaning and launder service.
Employees are given stock options, flexible work hours, including the option of working from home and 21 days of PTO (paid time off). Undoubtedly, Facebook seems to be a pretty nice place to work. The real question, however, as asked by Fran Hawthorn in Ethical Chic, is whether a “cool” company, such as Apple, translates into real ethical outcomes?
When thinking about a company with “cool” working conditions, like the one described above, a variety of adjectives come to mind. Companies such as this seem to give off an aura of intelligence, optimism, innovativeness, passion and happiness and are generally successful in attracting employees with synonymous features. These features, which I feel are representative of the company as a whole, are also ones that I would generally attribute to companies that would be more stakeholder oriented, as opposed to focusing solely on maximizing shareholder value. It’s difficult to articulate why this is, yet I feel as if like many would agree with this position. Regardless, when I dug deeper into the Facebook’s business ethics, it was not difficult to find situations in which they may have prioritized shareholder value over social responsibility. An incident that I found to be extremely alarming dealt with Facebook and their privacy settings. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission), which works to make sure companies live up to their privacy promises they make to American consumers, brought about an eight-count complaint against Facebook, stating that claims made by Facebook regarding user privacy settings were deceptive and violated federal law. The complaint itself can be found here. The FTC’s claim listed numerous instances in which Facebook made promises that it did not keep. Here are two:
- “Facebook represented that third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data – data the apps didn’t need.”
- “Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with ‘Friends Only.’ In fact, selecting ‘Friends Only’ did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.”
Ultimately, the case was settled by Facebook and, amongst other things, required that Facebook obtain periodical assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next twenty years.
Another occurrence that I found to be popular amongst individuals shedding light on the unethical nature of Facebook dealt with an unethical experiment. In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was described that Facebook had altered their algorithm by which they swept posts into members’ news feeds, using the program to determine whether text contained positive or negative words. In the experiment, certain people were primarily exposed to happy information from their friends, while others received primarily neutral or sad information. Facebook then evaluated the subjects subsequent posts to determine how they were able to influence positive and negative emotions of their users. As described by Kate Waldman in her article, Facebook’s Unethical Experiment, they “bent research standards too far, possible overstepping criteria enshrined in federal law and human rights declarations.”
As I concluded my research it seemed pretty obvious that a good employer doesn’t always lead to good, or ethical outcomes. What may seem like a “cool” company on the outside, may not be so “cool” on the inside. There is no doubt that Facebook may be tempted to, or have the opportunity to, act more unethically due to the industry they fall in, however their actions can be, and have been, harmful to many of their stakeholders.