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Ethically embarrassing jobs


Stephen Lacey

Why people take on jobs that are toxic in the eyes of many.

How much would you need to be paid to perform an ethically dubious role?

How much would you need to be paid to perform an ethically dubious role? Photo: iStock

We’ve all heard of people performing the types of jobs that make you wonder: How much money would they have to be being paid to do a job like that?

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.”

Ethical embarrassment

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

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  • Anything in the gambling "industry".

    Date and time
    July 08, 2014, 9:35AM
    • Most of the jobs in that industry are not white collar. Workers are exploited and paid poorly.

      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 11:14AM
    • Observer - you are totally wrong.

      Employees at the casino are paid quite well. They also get 20 minute breaks every 60 - 80 minutes of work. I know, because I used to be one.

      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 12:34PM
    • Really? I think that his job, "Marketing manager in the leisure industry"is right up there with "Tobacco salesman" , "Parking inspector" and "Politician", anyway.

      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 1:13PM
    • simon - you were still helping relieve poor people of their money and giving it to rich people.

      We work the black seam together

      kepler 22b
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 1:20PM
  • This reminds me of a wedding about 10 years ago, being seated with almost-strangers and making small talk. One lady who vaguely knew my now husband asked what he did for a job, and my husband replied that he worked in a neurology ward at a children's hospital, doing tests for kids with epilepsy. The lady made a big song and dance how surprised she was, and how from her knowledge of him, she thought he was a used car salesman (which was said with an air of disdain). We asked what she did and what her husband did, and he writes the computer programs for poker machines. Makes sure they are attractive and that you never want to leave, ruining lives in the process. So much for her disdain.

    Date and time
    July 08, 2014, 9:46AM
    • I had a relative with an impressive retail background who got a massive pay hike to move to a worldwide alcoholic drinks conglomerate. Soon enough he found it hard to reconcile the fact that he, an always teetotal father of teenagers, was in the position of being required to increase market share by targeting the youth market. Like the tobacco exec, he also moved to another position in food retail for a lower pay shortly after.

      The Seeker
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 9:49AM
      • I have been working in the motor industry (car sales) for 13 years now. Whilst we, as an industry, don't have the best reputation when it comes to ethics, I can honestly say I have conducted myself in the most ethical manner possible. I have even left jobs where I was expected, by management, to act in a way I wouldn't deem to be kosher. I know for a fact that my way of doing business has "cost" me deals but I know I can sleep at night in the knowledge that I will not lie, cheat or intentionally mislead a client "just to get the deal". My point is that whilst an industry may be tarnished, don't tar every operator with the same brush.

        Date and time
        July 08, 2014, 10:11AM
        • @Ethical - As much as I respect the fact that you have practiced ethics, I have to disagree with the wider reputation of the car industry.

          Yes used car salesmen have a reputation (It actually originated in United States not in Aus) but in general the car industry in Australia is far from being unethical.

          They don't sell products that cause cancer or cause people to gamble away their lives. They don't sell products or services that affect people's liver or cause domestic violence due to altering a person's brain due to high consumption etc etc.

          The point is, you work in a GOOD industry mate, as do I.

          Not Really
          Date and time
          July 08, 2014, 11:53AM
        • Whether an industry has a reputation for being unethical or not, doesn't mean it is unethical. Manufacturing and selling cars is hardly unethical. That some of your colleagues may behave unethically is no reflection on the industry or you. It isn't like you are working in a church...

          Public Joe
          Date and time
          July 08, 2014, 12:36PM

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