"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Goodwill Dismisses a Solid Societal Norm: A Mentality beyond Unethical Conduct

When managers of a business or non-profit interact with a societal norm by openly rejecting any obligation to act in accord with the norm, the reaction from stakeholders can be utter disbelief. The refusal to act in accordance with the norm as it impacts the organization can be beyond bad management and even unethical conduct. The refusal to acknowledge a societal norm even as its impact on the business and stakeholders has been arranged by the business is beyond, though it can include, unethical conduct. Norms are not in themselves ethical, for as David Hume wrote, you can’t get an ought from an is; rational justification by ethical principles must be added before we can get to, “You ought to do X” from “X is the practice.” Yet ethical principles can be in norms, in which case we can say, “You ought to act in accordance with the norm because it is ethical.” In some cases, the norm-business relationship (i.e., Business and Society) can be more salient than an ethical principle in the norm itself. A managerial practice at Goodwill, a non-profit retailer based on donations for the poor, serves as a case in point.


Goodwill stores have tags of several colors on the merchandise. During yellow tag week, merchandise with a yellow tag is half off. Every other Saturday, all of the colors are half off. By the time the doors open, customers have likely formed a long line out in front. Such lines can cover most of the front length of a store. On one such morning at one store, I saw a customer stand by the front doors opposite of the line just five minutes before the opening. I saw the store manager let that customer in second, even though it was obvious that she was not in line. Curious, I entered the store to interview that manager. He told me that his responsibility is only to open the doors, not to determine that some people can come in and others cannot. His lapse would have been easily fixed not by telling the woman, who did not evidently think that store lines applied to her, that she could not enter the store, but, rather, that she would have to go to the back of the line. I asked the manager whether he believed that the line did not pertain to his store. “It is not on our property,” he answered. “We can’t say what people can do out there.” Observing my facial expression, he said he would make sure that customers come in first who are in line, and he even made an announcement lightly chastising “the individuals” who had not waited in line.
Nevertheless, later the same day, I returned to the store to interview two of the associate store managers, both of whom also touted the property point. “So if I come here just before 9am in two weeks, I don’t have to stand in line; I could go second or third?” I asked. “Yes,” one of the associate managers said, even as her hesitation in answering came, I suspect, from a recognition that her answer violates the ethical principle of fairness. This recognition should have given her the sense that something was wrong with the policy she was supporting.
Even though the violation of justice as fairness—it is just that people enter a building in order hence via making a line—is salient in this case, the fact that managers of a store disassociated it from the line to get into the store, hence pertaining directly to the store, is even more bizarre and thus significant. The societal norm here is that customers forming a line outside a store before doors open are to be let in first. For a manager to open a store door and assume that the norm does not apply to his store, and thus does not form an obligation on his part to see that the customers in line go in first, removes him, in effect, from the society or environment in which the store functions.
Even the narrow property-limits rationale is bizarre, for Goodwill leased rather than bought the land and building, and the line of customers pertained to the store even though it did not extend to the sidewalk in front between the building and the parking lot. That the line pertained exclusively to getting into the store overrides the question of property in terms of the incurrence of an obligation because the customers in line had the societal expectation of being able to enter the store in order whether or not the sidewalk was owned by Goodwill. The managers with whom I spoke dismissed the customer’s expectation, whose legitimacy is societal (a societal norm) rather than company-based. The sheer dismissiveness is rude, not to mention bad customer service. Even though the ethical principle of fairness is in the societal norm, the bad attitude toward the customers, the lazy approach to opening the store’s front door, and the decision that the societal norm does not apply to that store are not necessarily unethical (or at least an ethical argument would need to be made).
Narrow self-interest, which business managers tend to adopt, is not in itself unethical. For one thing, the business and financial systems have infrastructures and norms that virtually necessitate it at the firm level. Even so, if stakeholders (or others) are harmed as a consequence, then the narrowness is culpable ethically. In this case study, the harm to the customers in line from one person entering second from opposite the line is small. Few of the customers in line could even see the interloper, and none of the customers—in line or afterward—would have guessed that the store manager’s initial position (and those of two of his associate managers) regarding the store’s responsibility to let the people in line in first.
In fact, that the associate manager who answered affirmatively that I would not need to stand in line (because Goodwill is only concerned, by right, with what goes on inside the stores) had come to such a nonsensical conclusion (and stood behind it) is not in itself unethical. She was not lying, for instance; she really believed herself. Moreover, that a person could believe anything so nonsensical (including the property argument) is also not unethical. Perhaps in the field of business and society, psychology figures in more than does even ethics. Of course, the norms-based field of business and society is (or ought to be!) distinct from business ethics even though the two relate, such as in there being an ethical principle (e.g., fairness) in a societal norm that is not in itself ethical because it merely is.