The just end of a company?

Are ethically suspicious, corrupt or unethical companies less successful than ethical corporations? We might want that – but empirical research is unfortunately inconclusive. Many companies with dubious business practices operate very successfully at the market place. All of us can certainly list some examples.

But as soon as a company goes down the drain that was criticized recurrently as being unethical, the public seems to react with great satisfaction. This is currently the case with Germany’s largest drugstore chain. The company Schlecker is a privately owned business that grew rapidly after its start in 1975 and successfully expanded into several international markets. But at the same time the company repeatedly made it to the press with many different negative news. The highly secretive organization was criticized in particular for the way it treated its employees. Among other issues, trade unions and the press condemned exploitation, low wages, excessive workload and the fact that Schlecker seems to have spied on its employees in several of the 5,400 stores. The company was found to have kept negative lists about “problematic” employees and to have actively prevented the formation of workers councils.

Management tried to play the public criticism down, but new issues surfaced over and over again. – Even after the founder and owner, Anton Schlecker, stepped down as CEO and handed over control to his two children, Lars and Meike, who started remodeling and re-imaging activities. Early 20110 the trade union Verdi accused Schlecker of forcing permanently employed staff members into new contracts as temp workers with lower wages and inferior working conditions. This criticism was picked up by the government – and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, announced to start official investigations. Again Schlecker’s dingy image was confirmed in the public.

Schlecker had ignored an important lesson: All companies are dependent upon several different stakeholders that are relevant for survival. Most importantly next to the owners/investors (in this case the patriarch Anton Schlecker) are employees and customers. To be sustainably successful, companies need to constantly balance the potentially conflicting interests of these – but also many other – stakeholder groups. This is where Schlecker failed: The drugstore giant continuously ignored the interests of its employees – until this even started to have effects on a second stakeholder group: the customers. They finally didn’t want to shop from a company that was famous for treating its employees poorly and stayed away. The business model that was based on continuous growth and expansion was at stake.

The attempt to change the negative image came to late. In 2010 the company started a remodeling of its stores and tried to access new – desperately needed – customer segments. The company stopped the practice of using temp workers and came to a collective agreement with the trade union Verdi. But even now many activities failed: The attempt to access new customers in the internet lead to a major data leakage – sensitive data of 150,000 customers became visible. Schlecker also introduced a new slogan with a wild mix of German and English language: “For you. Vor Ort.” The slogan was criticism by a group of language purists – to which the head of corporate communication responded with a letter that leaked to the public and provoked vivid reactions: The PR person wrote that he – as person with an academic education in humanities – would also disapprove the usage of “Denglish” (a term used to describe the mixture of German and English), but the “average Schlecker customers” rather had a “low to medium level of education”. Again Schlecker was perceived as company that only focused on the interests of the owner and did not show respect for the other stakeholders.

Such dilettante mistakes prevented the planned success of the transformation. On January 20, 2012 the company had to file bankruptcy. As the company was operating as a non-incorporated, private firm (“registered merchant”/”eingetragener Kaufmann”) Anton Schlecker will be liable personally. According to press reports he might even run into personal bankruptcy.

This might now be perceived to be the just consequence for an unbalanced or even unethical management style. But we shouldn’t forget one important aspects: Yesterday the liquidator announced that almost half of the employees will need to be laid off and almost half of the store will be closed. The story illustrates that unbalanced management will harm all stakeholders in the long run – but it is very unfortunate that the ones suffering most will again be the employees. So shouts of triumph about Anton Schlecker’s suffering are completely inappropriate.

Proximity of stakeholders and cultural/national biases

I just finished the ETP Salon – an short executive education program exclusively for alumni of ESMT‘s Executive Transition Program. We discussed the broad topic of “Learning from crisis” from various different perspectives. During our discussions we touched a topic with interesting ethical questions:

After the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent problems with the Fukushima nuclear power plant, many international corporations immediately offered their expatriates to return to their home countries (see e.g. the German online portal “SPIEGEL Online“).

On the first sight, this seems to be the right thing to do: After sending their employees to Japan, companies can be understood to have an obligation to ensure their physical well being (see also here). Most of these expatriate employees will have been based in the greater area around Tokyo. The nuclear emission might not have passed the thresholds yet, but the threat was imminent.

So where is the ethical issue when companies act as they ought to do?

The issue lies in the scope / limitation of the target group of such rescue programs: Large international companies (such as Siemens, GE, DHL, Starbucks, McDonald’s etc.) certainly employ more Japanese people in Japan than expatriates. Is it fair just to help the expatriates? Why?

  • What are the limits of a company’s obligation to help it’s employees?
  • Is this just a question of numbers, i.e. the argument that even the large multinational companies just cannot afford/manage to bring all their employees out of the country and therefore have to limit their effort so a small number?
  • Or is the difference only driven by demand? The Japanese employees just might not have wanted to leave the country and/or they might not have been able to relocate to another country e.g. because they didn’t have the necessary visas or financial resources.
  • Is there a bias towards the people from the “own” country? (Which anyway is getting less and less clear: As employees, customers and investors of multinational companies nowadays usually do not come mainly from only one country, we know less clearly what the “own” country of a company is.) Are the expatriates closer to the company than the Japanese employees?
  • Is there a certain element of nationalism, e.g. the assumption that at the end of the day people should end up in their “own” country – so let’s bring back the Germans to Germany, the French to France etc. and sort everything
  • To see how messy it quickly gets, let’s just take the fictitious example of Hans. Hans was born in Japan as son of German parents that worked for Toyota. He spent most of his life in Japan. ┬áBut after his studies in Japan he was hired by Volkswagen in Germany. He went to Wolfsburg. But after two years Volkswagen decided to send him as an expatriate (due to his passport and German work contract) to Japan. Compare this situation to Hiroki: Hiroki was born as son of a Japanese couple that lived and worked for Volkswagen in Germany. After his studies in Germany he decided to get to know the country of his parents. There he joined Volkswagen on basis of a local contract. What is the difference in Volkswagen’s obligations to help Hans or Hiroki?

And then you can change the question one more time: How about the large Japanese companies that employ international staff in their headquarters? How about the French, English, American, Indian or South African employees of Sony in Minato, Tokyo? Should they be sent “back” while their colleagues stay in Japan?