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Do We Lose Moral Self-Determination When We Work?

The kitchen area at a WeWork space in New York | Image credit: Wikipedia

The co-working startup WeWork made headlines recently with a new policy banning meat from company functions and barring employees from expensing any meat dishes. The move is intended to reduce the company’s environmental impact, with the company predicting a reduction in carbon emissions by 445.1 million pounds and saving over 15 million animals. Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and Chief Culture Officer, speaks of the policy as not just creating an environmental benefit, but also changing the minds of his employees and creating a culture of personal accountability at the company.

There is power in this type of change. WeWork is in the position to educate its nearly 6,000 employees about environmental sustainability and animal welfare and expose them to less environmentally damaging menu choices, which may carry over into their personal lives. It is no secret that money can influence change and that control over capital gives entrepreneurs an outsized power to shape the world as they see fit.

Social engineering by industry tycoons isn’t new. A century ago, Henry Ford created his Sociological Department, which was tasked with ensuring that workers lived a proper American, middle-class lifestyle (as defined by the Ford Motor Company). The Sociological Department would visit workers’ homes to inquire into an employee’s marital status, whether their children attended school, whether their wives worked, whether their furniture was paid off, and all other manner of personal choices. While the project undoubtedly created much good – Ford employees received assistance to achieve these lofty financial goals – they strike most modern readers as overly paternalistic and disrespectful of women and the myriad cultural values of Ford’s largely immigrant workforce. Eventually even Ford himself came to see his attempts at social engineering to be ill-advised.

Attempts at social engineering by corporations has seen a resurgence in recent years, cheered on by a majority of the Supreme Court. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court used corporate efforts to protect the environment as part of its justification for allowing an employer to circumvent employees’ statutory rights to contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The decision has been criticized by many legal academics, myself included, on the grounds that this new vision of corporate rights undermines Constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, especially for the poor. While the government can no longer prevent a woman from using contraception, zealous employers can refuse to include them in their employees’ health plan, despite extensive fact-finding by Congress that cost is a significant barrier to women’s access to contraception. In effect, the power to coerce morality that was previously wielded by the majority through government action can now be wielded by an elite minority through corporate initiatives that have the effect of forcing low-wage workers to acquiesce to their employers’ moral judgments.

Others have drawn the comparison between WeWork’s vegetarian policy and Hobby Lobby’s refusal to pay for insurance that covers certain contraception. In some respects, this comparison is unfair — employees do not have a statutory right to be provided meat options by their employers. The parallels between the two situations cannot be ignored, however, as we seem to be circling back to a time when employers feel not just a right, but a duty to impose their personal morality on employees as a way to affect change. Those concerned with environmental impact or liberal social justice issues could argue that taking a page from the playbook of corporate religious rights is fair play. If some corporations actively fight against birth control, for example, while others refuse to mandate sustainability on principle; will the net result be more people consuming more resources? Before jumping on the social engineering bandwagon, however, corporations should take a moment to consider whether they also believe that moral self-determination is a luxury item, available only to those who can pay out of pocket.

So, what is an employer to do? Socially conscious companies should continue to recognize that they have a responsibility to think broadly about their impact on society and the environment, which necessarily includes exercising management’s own moral judgments. But they should balance the desire to create a company in their own moral image with the right of employees to live lives according to their own moral judgments.

What does this look like in practice? Take WeWork’s new corporate policy. Paying for meat conflicts with the corporation’s vision for sustainability, but not allowing its consumption on the company dime may conflict with employees’ expectation that they may choose what to eat and to determine whether and how they prioritize environmental protection. A thoughtful balance must be struck that respects personal decisions made by employees. To my mind, providing only vegetarian options at company functions does not infringe greatly on an employee’s personal life as the company caters such events, they occur sporadically, and on company time. Employees expect to have little decision making with regards to such events.

Refusing to provide meat options in the company cafeteria, especially if it is the only place employees can realistically purchase and consume a meal within their lunch hour, is a daily intrusion in employees’ lives that seems less justifiable (perhaps that is why Google’s employees rebelled at Meatless Mondays in their cafeteria). The decision not to reimburse employee meal expenses if the employee chooses a meat dish while traveling on company business is even more egregious. It forces the employer’s morality on the employee during a time when the employee is forced to eat out due to the demands of his/her job but is eating that meal on personal time.

Admittedly, this is not an easy line to draw. There will inevitably be disagreements about the right balance. If companies demonstrate that they are serious about respecting the environment and respecting their employees, however, it can go a long way towards building a positive company culture.


Catherine Hardee is an Assistant Professor of Law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, whose research and teaching interests are in the fields of business law and torts. Professor Hardee’s current research focuses… [Read more about Catherine Hardee]


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