Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Remember the Employees

Written by: on November 7, 2019

I do not have anything witty or inspiring to say about any of these companies. I had planned on writing about how I fell out of love with Apple and found my way to open source software with its welcoming of all users. But the more I wrote the more it felt like I was just really bitter. I had thought about writing about how Facebook (or I guess as of this week it is FACEBOOK1) has betrayed their users with a false sense of welcome and how that was the opposite of true hospitality – because everything is a hospitality problem. That felt kind of trite, so I have moved on.

When I took my current job I had a coworker named Paul. He was quite respected around the office,then he got a job at Amazon and left. Having been hired at Amazon made many of us hold him in great esteem. A few months after leaving for Amazon Paul came back to visit us and regaled us with stories of cutting edge technology, funny high jinks at the office, and his huge salary. Eight months after that Paul left Amazon for Facebook. A year after that he left Facebook for a smaller, less well known shop. It turns out that working for Amazon and Facebook is not as fun as they would like you to believe. The stories Paul tells now are of stress, long hours, and exhaustion. There are no more funny stories and no more discussion of his huge salary. Instead he is working quietly at a place that allows him to do great work without the stress.

Most people see Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google as monoliths that just sort of exist. I have been fortunate to know several people that have worked for them, so they are not just monoliths, they are thousands of people and that is the way I try to remember them. As much as I hate that Apple continually tries to lock you into their ecosystem or that Facebook is willing to sell your soul for a dollar or that Google knows more about you than possibly even you do, it is important to remember that each of these companies are the result of hundreds or thousands of people. Many of whom are trying their hardest to provide the best product possible.

The impulse to reduce these companies into their respective brands is an easy way for us to push off the guilt of vilifying them. That is not to say that the vilifying is unwarranted, just that in vilifying the company we are actually misplacing the blame that should rest solely on the shoulders of the folks in the C-Suites. This of course gets into murky ethical water, because the employees are making the products so the unethical behavior can continue, which means that maybe they should hold some of the blame. This post is not long enough to argue that whole thing out, but I would point to the fact that it is not the regular employees that are making the decisions for how to use those services.

Whether we like it or not these companies are part of our first-world lives, so we need to deal with the reality that there are some ugly parts to all of them. But also, we need to remember that there are a lot of guys, and a few women working really hard to make them better for you. Those people are generally not the cause of your ethical frustrations and they are working really hard to make the product or service better.

An interesting thing about blame is the more we place it the less willing we are to accept it. There are a lot of people at Facebook2, Google3, and Amazon4 who are not pleased with the policies of their companies. If we continually blame the whole company rather than the executives who are actually the problem, we cannot expect to see those employees who are fighting for more ethical behavior to continue to fight for the users. We have to be willing to accept that part of the reason these companies have the power they do is because we have allowed them to become monoliths in our lives and as such we are partially to blame. We need to be willing to vote with our feet and walk away from companies that are not being ethical in practice, so as to support those who are internally fighting for things to be better.

1. Cantor, Matthew. “Facebook Rebrands as FACEBOOK: Can Capital Letters Save a Toxic Brand?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 5, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/04/facebook-rebrands-as-facebook-can-capital-letters-save-a-toxic-brand.

2. Isaac, Mike. “Dissent Erupts at Facebook Over Hands-Off Stance on Political Ads.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 28, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/technology/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-political-ads.html.

3. Bhuiyan, Johana. “How the Google Walkout Transformed Tech Workers into Activists.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2019-11-06/google-employee-walkout-tech-industry-activism.

4. Chan, Rosalie. “Read the Internal Letter Sent by a Group of Amazon Employees Asking the Company to Take a Stand against ICE.” Business Insider. Business Insider, July 11, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-employees-letter-protest-palantir-ice-camps-2019-7.

About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

17 responses to “Remember the Employees”

  1. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Sean. Your post had similar undertones as mine, who should be taking the blame and I think we consumers must admit we are part of the issue which you conclude with. In a brand and marketing frenzied society it is so easy to reduce companies to the logo we see and you have done a good job at reminding us there are humans behind the brand. I do think we all have to take responsibility, even those who choose to work there. Your friend’s journey is a good narrative to tell.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Thanks Tammy. We’ve all been convinced that we need these companies and the services they provide to live, but we really don’t. Coming to that realization will help us to move away from them when they act in ways that betray our values. It’s hard but sometimes (often times) ethics are hard.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Your use of the term monolith made me think of images from Space Odyssey 2001. Perhaps these firms have become monoliths because we have elevated them to this status without examining their ethical practices more closely. Thanks as always for breaking down these “them” propensities and reminding us of the humanity of the individuals and the hospitality extended to each of them through Christ.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Harry, I think the monolith’s from Space Odyssey are a good metaphor for how these companies are seen. It’s like they’ve been here since the beginning of time and we don’t know how to make sense of them. But unlike the monoliths there is a clear history of how they came into being and what needs to be done to manage them.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great post, Sean. You have truly brought an awareness that I hadn’t thought about before. There is a human side to everything we do because we are humans. There are always 2 sides to the coin and you can’t have one without the other.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Mario, it’s all levels of nuance though with these companies. Yes there are humans behind them, but sometimes the question is what humans. I think there is a lot of unconscious bias built into these companies which leads to the sort of behavior they are called out for. So while I think it’s important that we remember the employees, sometimes we have to think about who those employees are and try to encourage a more diverse workforce.

  4. Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you for this reminder, Sean. I am certainly guilty of forgetting the thousands of people behind the brand. I wonder how many employees are like your friend, Paul. I also wonder how the church could be more intentional in our offer of a safe, restful place in the lives of employees of companies like the four. How could we take the grace-filled message of Jesus to them in new, creative ways?

    • Sean Dean says:

      Rhonda, those are some really good questions. I wish I had answers to them – it’s undoubtedly a hospitality problem. I think the bigger question is how can the church be a place of rest and sanctuary to a culture filled with overworked, stressed out employees? Thanks for the questions, I will be thinking about them.

  5. Jenn Burnett says:

    So much to think about here. I really appreciate your perspective as a tech insider Sean. How would you suggest we refer to companies when we are frustrated with them or calling them out? I completely understand we are talking about the main decision makers when critiquing them. So what does supporting the workers look like? And what is a faith shaped response to it all? What do you make of Calloway’s suggestion to break up these companies?

    • Sean Dean says:

      I think that when these companies step over the line we call out the people on top. When Facebook is screwing up we need to call out Zuck and Sandberg. When Amazon is doing something wrong Bezos needs to here from us. And the same thing with Google and Apple. That being said, a way of supporting the employees would be supporting unionization and enforcement of worker’s rights.

  6. Mary Mims says:

    Sean, I thank you for your post and the reminder of the human side of these companies. I think if we all are honest, in many companies and government agencies, we are not happy about the policies. But the need to have a good job keeps us working. We need to be mindful of how we judge.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Mary, you are absolutely right. Not everyone is able to quit their job whenever their employer does something horrible. And surely government workers are in a similar boat to the employees of large tech companies. But remembering the human side will help us to call out the right people rather than vilifying all the employees.

  7. Great insight Sean, the human side of a corporate entity is so easily forgotten and we are to quick to blame the corporate without dissecting it into its parts, in due consideration of who is truly to blame. We fake good and always see the wrongs of others because we do not want to take responsibility for our part of the blame. I like your perspective on who is truly to blame.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Wallace, we do all have to take a long hard look at how we have propped up these companies. Taking on our part of the blame will help us to make positive changes that encourage the companies to come back in to the ethical fold.

  8. Shermika Harvey says:

    Sean thank for your post. I too have friends who work for Amazon and my nephew work for Microsoft which a part of the Big Tech, their stories come from a different perspective. My friend has been working at Amazon for years and she is a Senior Program Manager – Global Diversity & Inclusion. She travel in state and aboard training and empowering the minority sectors including women engineers employed at Amazon while assisting in policy changes. She however only speaks well of Amazon and her role with them. But, I understand everyone may not have the same sentiments and has their own experiences. You are right, however, wherein you started employees are ”trying to make services and product better for you” and some are even contributing to changes within the company as well.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Shermika, with these companies a lot of the experience is dependent upon which team you’re part on. I have a friend who’s sister-in-law is on the AI team and loves the work she does, wouldn’t trade it for the world. Other people I know are only staying as long as they have to before moving on because they are so stressed out. But it’s important to remember that every employee I’ve ever met is working on making the best product possible.

  9. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great points about our own complacency in using these technologies Sean. I certainly do use them, though often with a heavy heart, but still fall into the GAFA trap.

    I appreciate your call to walk away from companies that treat their employees so harshly . . . a challenge indeed, but one that is based in love and justice.

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