It might be that they're involved in an industry that woodchips pristine wilderness areas. Or they're the head of a firm that utilises sweatshop labour to produce goods cheaply; or maybe the CEO of a company that manages an offshore detention centre for asylum seekers. Perhaps you ask yourself: how do they sleep at night?
For people like John Smith*, the answer is: not well. The 32-year-old executive won’t ever forget the time he got talking to a man in a shopping centre and when the conversation turned to employment, Smith revealed he was working for the tobacco industry.
“My wife died two weeks ago from lung cancer," the man replied sadly. "She smoked all her life.” It was a defining moment. “What do you say to that?” says John.
John had previously worked as a marketing manager in the leisure industry, making less than $60,000 a year. Applying for a job as a brand manager with a large multinational tobacco company, he was hired.
“I became part of a trade team that would go out to present new products to retailers,” John says. “I was suddenly on $95,000 a year. Was money an incentive? Definitely. It was more than $20,000 above the average pay for that role, plus I’d just taken out a mortgage.”
As to the ethical dilemma of working in an industry implicated in the death of about 19,000 Australians each year, Smith told himself that people can do whatever they want with their lives. “I made a conscious decision not to get emotionally involved,” he says. “And then one day my neighbour asked me if I’d changed jobs. I said ‘yeah, I work for the tobacco industry’. He said, ‘why would you do that?’; I didn’t really have a response.
“It made me think, do I want to be associated with such an industry, especially when I came from a background where we encourage people to be fit and healthy?”
He began to hide what he did for a living. He removed all references to employment from his Facebook profile and never updated his LinkedIn account.
“As I got more into the role, I became less comfortable, because it didn’t reflect who I am,” he says. “I was embarrassed and I became concerned about what people might think of me, so I would lie about what I did.”
After seven months, John wanted out. He resigned and returned to his former industry, taking a $25,000 pay cut in the process.
“I’ve only been back for two weeks, but I’m happy again,” he says. ”It’s great not being embarrassed to tell people what you do.”
The problem with placing talent
Paul Barbaro is the executive general manager of Clarius group, a company that specialises in recruiting to executive roles. He says he finds it increasingly difficult to place people in positions with companies associated with ethically dubious practices.
“We have at various times been challenged by some of the executives we have placed,” he says. “They have questioned the ethics, and/or the product or services of the company that we may be representing. It’s becoming more and more prevalent as people become more selective about who they work for and what that company does.
“And so a tobacco firm does find it challenging to find top talent at times, because often that talent has a problem with the products the firm produces.
“Any organisation that has a massive carbon footprint without any clearly defined strategies about how to reduce this footprint will also find it difficult to recruit the right people; this could be a manufacturing plant or a mining company. Interestingly enough, some banks have come under employee scrutiny subject to certain decisions or policies they have put in place.”
Like big tobacco, companies involved with gaming can also find attracting top people challenging. Aristocrat Leisure is the largest gaming machine manufacturer in Australia, and one of the largest manufacturers of slot machines in the world. Managing director Trevor Croker declined to be interviewed for this story.
However, Barbaro says he knows of at least one Aristocrat employee who left the company because a family member had been affected by gambling. “We don’t deal with Aristocrat, but I can certainly say there have been certain candidates I know of who have left because they don’t agree with the platform under which they operate,” Barbaro says.
It's a matter of respect
Debt collection is another much-maligned industry with its populist images of “sending the boys around” or preying on people who are financially stretched. But Craig Hobart has no qualms about his role as the Australia and New Zealand general manager of Baycorp, one of Australia’s largest debt collection agencies.
“I concede that there has been a negative view of debt collection,” he says. “And until I got involved in the industry I probably thought the same thing. But I have absolutely no problem with working in this industry. A lot of what we do is actually to help people get out of financial difficulty.
“We recognise that circumstances change and people can find themselves in a predicament. We respect that. It’s about us finding a palatable outcome that respects that these people are contractually obliged to pay back what they owe, but also recognising that they can only pay what they can afford.”
*not his real name
What white-collar job would you refuse to do, regardless of the pay packet?