How we work
Are workers really quitting over company values?
It’s easy to say you’ll leave a job over ethics – but are workers really moving on, especially if they don’t get an offer that’s just as sweet?
When Jason accepted a software-engineering role at a Big Tech company, it appeared to be the pinnacle of his career. Not only was he offered a six-figure salary, but it would also be the opportunity to work at one of the most valuable firms in the world, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
But barely weeks into the new job, Jason was already questioning his decision: the company’s values gave him an ethical dilemma. “My employer would always claim that it was too hard to solve issues created by its algorithm: echo chambers, misinformation, mental health problems,” he explains. “However, given the company's sheer amount of resources and engineers, it never seemed like it actually cared about fixing them.”
Less than a year after landing the role, Jason quit. “My team had just finished a new feature, and it was a big milestone for the company,” he says. “And I realised I didn’t care at all: it wasn’t going to improve my career, and I wasn’t making the world better. It was only to benefit a company that was already worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The shake-up from the Great Resignation has shown that many workers are shifting to jobs that offer better perks: be it greater flexibility, work-life balance or even pay. But there has also been a growing narrative that more employees, like Jason, are now quitting based on how well corporate values align with their own.
Emerging data suggests employees are indeed becoming more ethically driven. In a recent study from California-based management consultancy Blue Beyond Consulting, seen by BBC Worklife, 80% of US and Canadian workers surveyed stated it was important that company values were consistent with their own. However, there also appears to be a disconnect: only 57% of employees reported that their values did actually align, with only around half of respondents stating that a misalignment would actually lead them to quit.
Although there’s evidence some workers are leaving their posts – and also refusing to take new jobs – at companies that don’t share their views, the narrative is complicated. Not all workers are walking the walk, even with the option to go. Many are also simply not in the privileged position to be able to leave, especially when they depend on the salary and don’t have an alternative lined up.
The visibility of values
In many instances, workers have never been more attuned to what companies value. “In the information and social media age, it’s easier than ever to find out where businesses stand on wider issues,” says Mark Bolino, director of management and international business at the University of Oklahoma, US.
Recently, worker conditions during the pandemic as well as social-justice movements have led employees to expect greater corporate transparency into where companies stand on crucial political, environmental and social issues – alongside their ethics around business. As a result, in the past two years, workers have increasingly pushed companies to not only speak out on these societal matters, but also follow up with action and accountability.
Workers are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers, and it revolves around what companies are delivering regarding workplace culture – Cheryl Fields Tyler
“Many companies felt beforehand that their stated values were just part of the background,” says Cheryl Fields Tyler, founder of Blue Beyond Consulting, which conducted the research. “But in the past two years, a combination of the pandemic, racial injustice and political polarisation has created a pervasive sense that people expect businesses to be a force for good in society.”
In some cases, the values companies espouse, as well as how they react to current issues, have influenced workers’ behaviours. Fields Tyler believes worker values are a significant component of the Great Resignation, which has seen record numbers of employees in multiple countries quit or reshuffle. “Workers are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers, and it revolves around what companies are delivering regarding workplace culture,” she says.
The trend isn’t just manifesting in terms of resignations – it’s changing how workers are considering and ultimately deciding where to work. According to Blue Beyond’s research, only one in four knowledge workers would be likely to accept a job if there was a misalignment in values.
And, as the prevailing narrative goes, there are signs younger employees could value a company’s ethics more than previous generations. “Our data was very clear that workers under 45 were more likely to quit over company values,” says Fields Tyler. “They’re more likely to have grown up in more diverse spaces and their values are increasingly being reflected in the workplace.”
Walking the walk?
However, reports of a mass resignation over a company’s ethics may be overblown – not every worker whose values are misaligned with their employer’s is packing up and leaving.
In some cases, employees are choosing the path of resisting a company’s values from the inside, while staying in their jobs. Rather than walk away or even rage quit, some workers are choosing to stage walkouts or organise diversity and inclusion efforts at their current firm. “That might be an easier alternative than leaving altogether,” says Bolino. He notes that workers could hold sway among individual decision makers, leading to gradual change at a company.“They may have a hard time pushing for an entire organisation to shift its values overnight, but they’ll likely have more influence over their direct supervisors and teammates.”
When corporate values are more visible than ever, many workers are finding themselves at a crossroads – stay or go? (Credit: Getty Images)
For other workers, monetary or other corporate incentives may simply be too sweet to leave on the table. At Jason’s company, he says “everyone was aware of the company’s ethical issues, but most seemed to overlook them. Employees focused on the positives instead: helping people communicate and having a billion people use a feature that they worked on. I think many of them did that to justify staying for the money and perks”.
And when his colleagues did leave their jobs, it wasn’t necessarily over values, adds Jason. In fact, he says many former teammates have switched to another Big Tech company for higher pay – one that he also considers unethical. Jason believes there is a tacit understanding among many tech workers that salary trumps ethical concerns. “Even before the Great Resignation, there were countless jobs all the time to choose from – it’s not like my fellow engineers were ever desperate for money or a job,” he explains. “So, I think organisational values would have already factored into any decision.”
Additionally, walking out over ethics – or not taking a job in the first place due to dubious or opaque values – isn’t an option for many workers. Some employees, especially low-wage earners, have little choice but to continue working for a company they deem to be nefarious.
Jason acknowledges he is among the privileged few. “I've been making very good money from very early on in my career, so turning down the richest and most powerful tech companies is a type of luxury,” he says.
The long-term picture
While company values may have seemingly grown in importance, they’re far from a pandemic-induced phenomenon. “There has been countless research over decades showing that people want to work for organisations with values that match their own,” explains Bolino.
However, the conditions the Great Resignation has created – an overabundance of positions for workers to pick from as well as options for better perks and higher salaries – have given some people the chance to choose companies that better align with their values, especially skilled workers.
I've been making very good money from very early on in my career, so turning down the richest and most powerful tech companies is a type of luxury – Jason
“The difference now is that workers have greater leverage – they’re able to act upon their values more,” continues Bolino.“Previously, if an employee didn’t have the best person-organisation fit, they may not want to work elsewhere for lower pay. But because of the job market, people can get a great wage and feel better about where they work.”
However, many of the quits driven by company values could ultimately be based on the worker-favourable state of the labour market – a trend that could well be short-term. “At some point, things will likely shift, and the balance of power will return to the employer – there’ll be a greater misalignment of values with reduced staff turnover,” adds Bolino. Simply, workers’ options may dry up, especially if they’re looking for high pay packets and flexible working conditions.
Alongside the wax and wane of the job market, the rising cost of living could also impact the number of ethically motivated quits. Much of the workforce, ultimately, wants a steady salary. “If employees feel they don’t have viable alternatives, it reduces the likelihood of them changing jobs,” says Bolino.
As for Jason, he ultimately made the decision to quit his job for ethical reasons. He now works at a start-up that not only aligns better with his values, but also happens to pay him more. Admittedly, it made the decision to jump all the more viable – a win-win that might not necessarily be an option for many workers.
Ultimately, if company values were to change writ large, it would take an ultra-privileged set of workers to begin shifting the dynamic between employer and employee so that firms would become forced to prioritise corporate ethics.
Jason hopes his actions will help pave the way for others to gradually bring forth change. “I’ve replied to repeated offers from Big Tech companies by straight up telling them I’m ethically opposed to working for them,” he says. “There's nothing more empowering than rejecting absurd amounts of money from the most powerful people in the world.”