Maria Bamford On Questioning Employer Ethics

Imagine you’re a recognizable celebrity with a gig promoting an even more recognizable brand. 

At first, your image of the brand and excitement to do their ads is running as high as the size of the paychecks. Your family has spent at least the better part of your lifetime loyally shopping at their stores. Nobody around you has ever uttered anything objectively “bad” about them. 

But then, as fans, internet friends, and strangers reach out to you, you start to realize your personal ethics may not be aligned with the company’s actions. It’s starting to feel really uncomfortable. The more you know, the more you feel like you’re doing something wrong.  

What would you do? 

When Maria Bamford found herself in this situation, she wrote the NYT Ethicist for advice. 

Anonymously, of course. 

She mentions the story in her new book, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere. It’s worth seeing the original NYT column. 

It’s hard to tease out what we believe in, why, and what we’re willing to do about it. 

It’s hard to risk those ideas (not just beliefs!) into our networks.

It’s hard to be accepted and given status, and then be rejected, reject ourselves, or be ashamed of the status our acceptance has created relative to others we say we care about. 

It’s hard because, courage. I think. 

Courage is hard. 

We’re all walking versions of these ethics all of the time. The whole ESG investment movement/industry is built around a variation on it. Shareholder-Stakeholder alignment lives here too. 

Here’s how Randy Cohen in The New York Times magazine answered her back in 2010. It’s worth reading.

A job is not an identity. Unless you allow it to be. And if a job is out of line with our identity…

Read it and let me know – what do you think? What would you do? 

I am a “celebrity” — broadly speaking — spokesperson for a company I always loved. I shop there, enjoy its aesthetic and admire its charitable giving. But I’ve learned that its labor practices here and abroad are not so admirable, and I’m ashamed I took the job. May I use my Web site to promote organizations that oppose such practices — anti-sweatshop groups, for example? Would donating some of my spokesperson money to charity offset any harm I do? And most important, may I keep this job? NAME WITHHELD, CALIFORNIA

You should not act in ways that make you feel “ashamed” — a powerful word — and so you should not keep this job. A nagging conscience is, well, a big nag, and worth heeding. But it is not an entirely reliable nag, not an infallible gauge of morality. Nero fiddled cheerfully while Rome burned; my imaginary Uncle Milt is awash in guilt if he moves beyond the missionary position. Before heeding even my nagging, there are other factors to consider.

We should strive to live our values, but if we demanded perfection from our employers, none of us could work at all. Years ago I was a staff writer for David Letterman, when his show was on NBC, which was then acquired by G.E., major weapons maker, big-time polluter of the Hudson — from my perspective, bad guys. But I did not feel compelled to quit my job, which was peripheral to those activities I disdained. (And really fun. And well paid. Moral reasoning or self-justification? It can be tough to distinguish.)

Your position is more precarious because you actively promote a company that violates your principles. The more influential your post, the greater your moral responsibility. The C.E.O. is more culpable than the cleaning crew.

The gravity of the misdeeds is also significant. I believe, for example, nobody may honorably work for a tobacco company, the maker of a toxic product that, used as directed, annually kills 400,000 Americans. How grave is too grave? Alas, there is no universal bright line. But your employer seems to have crossed yours.

Your subsequent benevolence — supporting fair labor practices, contributing to charity — is less significant to your career choice. If an action is wrong in itself, it remains wrong, despite what you do later that day. An arsonist who donates a percentage of his profits to encourage fire safety is still an arsonist. And a hypocrite.

Ps. Bamford’s new book is brutally honest and charming. I still think she writes business books and this one only confirms it further. Share her with any/every (especially bootstrapped) founder who has the courage to accept their own weirdness.  

Pss. Don’t sell yourself to fall in love with things you do. You know what love is.

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