Companies and Liberal Social Policies

by Krishna on January 12, 2007

Recently, I read about an older article about Levi Strauss being criticized by some people of having workplace policies that are immoral. This was referring to the company providing insurance benefits to unmarried domestic partners — something that is now increasingly done by many companies. For some critics who come from a religious standpoint, this is condoning extra-marital relations. As ideas of morality change in society, inevitably governments and corporations will be drawn into conflicts over cultural and social issues.

Decisions on morals are very difficult for any company to make, because the morality of the decisions comes from a religious standpoint, which is not verifiable. For a religious person, it may matter a lot that the company condones certain actions, which in their view are sinful. For a non-religious person, it may not be a problem.

Questions like these are not debatable, because it is a question of belief. It is similar to other theological questions where there may be a conflict with scientific evidence – so the religious person has to re-interpret the theological information in terms of scientific evidence and co-exist with it, or consider the scientific evidence to be incomplete. When it comes to religious beliefs, it is very difficult for a religious person to abandon their beliefs and for a non-religious person to understand the passion of those beliefs.

Many companies usually take the less controversial route by maintaining the status quo until their hand is forced by legislation or a vocal section of the public. Companies that pioneer actions that upset the status quo (racial integration, extra-marital partners) have to deal with a divided society which may include their employees and customers. It also means having to accept reduced sales and employee loss due to incompatible views.

The main advantage of accepting some policies which are socially liberal, but viewed as immoral, is being on the side of an increasing section of society. In spite of growing economic conservative policies in governments across the world, society is gradually growing more liberal. Various factors include more mobility, more diverse society, advance of communications, etc. Companies that stand for policies that support the previously frowned-upon actions benefit when those policies become mainstream.

The short-term danger is that there is a reactionary backlash against the company that results in severe economic losses. There is a possibility that the negative reaction is long-term (meaning that the company misjudged the policies) and brings down the company.

This is all from an economic standpoint. In my opinion, ultimately, what matters is whether the decisions made to support certain policies are made in the best interests of the stakeholders, including the direct beneficiaries and the society at large. If the company feels that the benefits of its decisions are greater, then I believe, from an ethical standpoint, it should go ahead and implement them, irrespective of whether they are viewed as immoral or not.

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