Behind the Face of Facebook

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.

Make-Shift Conference Space
Make-Shift Conference Space
Facebook Game Room
Facebook Game Room

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.



8 thoughts on “Behind the Face of Facebook”

  1. Zach, thank you for bringing up these points about the difference between what people think of a company and what is actually happening behind the scenes. Since it appears that there have been many instances of Facebook not acting in an ethical way to their users, do you think that employees who love working there know about these? Do you think that they would think less of their employer if they knew that the service they think they are providing for people all over the world also comes with consequences that many wouldn’t be okay with? I think you bring up a really unique and important idea about how just because people think this company is amazing, doesn’t mean that they should automatically trust everything they say.


  2. Facebook has definitely elected to push the boundaries of privacy over the years. This is a key example of something Steve Jobs always stood by, and it is that customers don’t always know what they want, you have to show them what they want. Facebook was able to use the ignorance of the general public to push privacy boundaries until people began to notice and call them out for it. However, Facebook’s strategy was to go way over the boundary, and then negotiate down from there, still ending up much exceeding what was previously the limit of privacy in our society. They were able to do what they want, change societal values, and still continue to grow their massive user base while retaining current users.


  3. Reading your post I was drawn back to Ed Freeman’s speech in which he talked about re-imagining the 4P’s of marketing to include, among two others, promise and privacy. Promise, being the extent to which a company provides its customers with what it pledges to do; privacy, being a company’s ability to protect the information/data of its customers. Surely in both regards, Facebook is lacking (or could perhaps do much better.) If two of these are the key to good stakeholder management, then I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts on where Facebook falls on the debate of stakeholder vs shareholder, and the extent to which we think Facebook fulfills its promise and privacy obligations.


  4. Zack, you bring up an awesome point. Yes, although some companies may appear “cool” on the outside that does not necessarily mean that internal operations are running smoothy. I believe that the goal of many companies is to distract consumers with external aspects, such as office designs and company perks, so that internal dilemmas are ignored. For example, I knew that Facebook had many similar stakeholder aspects as Google, but I was never away of their violations. By doing this, their consumer market is not affected and they still appear as a chic company. It is important for consumers to be aware of both internal and external aspects so we are educated on knowing which companies deserve our income.


  5. Thanks for the comment Emily. I would have a hard time believing the employees of Facebook don’t know about the companies past and/or current wrongdoings. That being said, it’s difficult to say whether or not they think less of their employer; the likely answer would be yes, they do. When thinking about whether or not they’re okay with this type of corporate culture, I find myself thinking about the type of people employed by Facebook. Many of the young employees at Facebook undoubtedly come from prestigious schools and are very much invested in their professional futures. That being said, even if they aren’t okay with some of the unethical decisions made by higher up employees at Facebook, do you think they would have the courage to step up and say something?


  6. Santi, you bring up a few interesting points in your comment. Are these “cool” companies distracting consumers with external aspects, such as innovating office designs, or distracting their own employees as to what goes on behind the scenes? Maybe both? Also, I would argue that unethical internal decisions, such as the ones examined in my post do certainly affect the consumer market, especially with issues of social media privacy. Your last point in which you discuss the importance of consumer awareness in regards to a company’s internal and external actions, is one that I certainly agree with. The consumer-company relationship between Facebook and their users is quite unique though. As you know, consumers do not pay, as Facebook’s income comes almost exclusively from advertising. Do you think this has an impact on whether or not consumers care about unethical internal procedures? Typically I would say that a free product would lead to more leniency from consumers regarding the actions of a company, however the extent in which Facebook’s unethical actions have affected their consumers is significant.


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