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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bad corporate behavior and human behavior I can't explain

This is a story in which I've changed a few details to protect the guilty. It's about some human behavior I have yet to understand.

So there was this person, and he worked at a company which was all about energy. They had a bunch of hydroelectric plants, geothermal plants, solar facilities, windmills, and the like. It was all relatively clean stuff, and it delivered a needed service to a bunch of people.

Sure, once in a while, one of their dams would screw up a fish migration, or a solar mirror farm would vaporize a lizard, or a windmill would permanently ground some wayward buzzard. It was unfortunate, but it happened in relatively low quantities considering their footprint. The company even did things to try to reduce the carnage in the name of being friendly to the environment.

This person didn't like when those critters were harmed by their power plants, but knew that nobody was doing it on purpose. His own involvement at the company wasn't directly related to such activities anyway, but he was making sure his area was as clean and green as it could be.

In the course of doing business, they always needed more real estate in order to park their energy-generating contraptions. They would sometimes get this land by acquiring other businesses which already owned existing plants. They had tended to focus on clean power with like-minded people running it, and things stayed more or less the same.

The thing is, times changed, and the company changed with it. They started making acquisitions which weren't so much like what they had been doing before. They wound up with a whole bunch of new assets the likes of which had never been seen at the company before. Now they had a bunch of nasty dirty plants which did evil things to the environment. Now they had coal plants which flaunted EPA rules and belched nasty smoke into the local environment. When townspeople complained, they just said "the plant was here first" and laughed.

The company started buying more companies like this, and in so doing, slowly turned into them. As this went on, someone high up in the power company apparently realized they were missing out on a tremendous opportunity with all of this animal-based collateral damage from their power plants. They started harvesting the carcasses and started selling them to dog food plants for extra money.

This turned out to be surprisingly profitable, and so they slowly backed down on their abatement policies. They would no longer have people at the company who were hired to do damage mitigation for the environment. Rather than just firing them and sending a clear signal, they just let them disappear through attrition.

Still, through all of this, the person in my story still continued to work there. It's not clear exactly what he thought could be done about it, but he kept going in and doing his job. He did get concerned about some things, and wound up having irregular lunch meetings with a bunch of like-minded friends. They'd all get together and talk about things like how their latest satellite-based microwave plant just barbequed a small town south of the border, and they'd shake their heads. They got very snarky and cynical about what they were doing.

A bunch of them started talking about leaving. The attrition of those people who had been looking out for wildlife and the environment had not been missed by them. It took a while for them to realize that something was happening, but by this point several years later, it was clearly obvious. Eventually, even this guy who is the star of my story started talking about going somewhere else.

The lunch group started shrinking. He stayed on for a long time, longer than most, and then, one day he quietly put in his two weeks, worked out his time, and quit. That was that, and his friends congratulated him on making the step. Over various lunches and dinners, he'd tell the story to new people and would confirm that his former employer had truly turned into a bunch of people who did things he really could not condone, and clearly did not agree with it.

Three hundred and sixty-four days later, he went back.

Naturally, this raised more than a few questions from the other "true believers" who had also left the company. What about all of that stuff he said? What of the bad things they were doing, and continue to do? How can you possibly reconcile what you've been saying with what you just did?

His answer was astonishing: every time they've done something substantially wrong, he had been contributing to an environmental defense fund in outer Elbonia and was buying things like carbon offsets. They paid really good money, so that's how he would balance it out. His plan was to keep taking their really good money and keep doling it out to his Elbonian interests any time he felt his conscience rise up and nag him.

As for the exact timeframe of his return, well, that's a quirk of HR. It turned out that if you went back within exactly one year, you got to keep your seniority and everything which comes with it. For instance, your vacation days continue accruing as if you never left, instead of resetting back to what a new hire gets. Other things also go back to their old rates and carry on from there. After a while, it's like you never left.

I heard about this and was mystified. According to him, there were no other job opportunities. I hadn't personally looked for his kind of job since that's not my line of work, but I knew there were energy companies both big and small all over the country. Besides, there were plenty in the region where we were living. There were two big cities anchoring either end of a 60 mile long Interstate highway, and there were hundreds or even thousands of little energy concerns in between. All he had to do was look.

But, somehow, none of those were acceptable, or so I was told. He wound up going back to the one place in that 60 mile span of commerce in which he already knew what was going on inside, and supposedly hated it.

I never got to figure out what was really going on. Had he been just going along with the crowd when he said he hated what the company had been doing to those poor animals? If not, why did he change to accept what they were doing? Did they offer a spectacular amount of money to ignore what he claimed were his morals?

I still can't understand what happened there.

...

I've actually seen this happen more than once. The industries, bad corporate behavior, identities, personalities and locations change, but they all do the same thing. They say it's bad and quit, then they wait 364 days and then go back.

I just don't get it.