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Are Companies Responsible for the Off-Hours Behavior of Their Employees?

A growing rift in San Francisco between techies and long-term residents raises questions about whether employers can—or should—encourage workers to be better neighbors.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Considering that the tech world is often an indicator of what will soon happen in other industries, business leaders might find it worthwhile to ponder the mounting culture clash in San Francisco. The amassed armies are (on one side) the young, well-paid employees of Silicon Valley technology firms who are increasingly opting to live in San Francisco, and (on the other side) longer-term city residents, who are mostly older and less affluent. Recent skirmishes have occurred over hot-button socioeconomic issues including: (1) the techies driving up rents and pricing current residents out of the city; (2) tech firms getting tax breaks to locate in the city, then not hiring locals; and (3) the private luxury buses that firms like Google, Apple, and Yahoo use to provide round-trip transportation for employees to offices down in the Valley. In particular, locals find the buses galling because spoiled techies are not forced to endure the crushing crowds and long waits for mass transit options like commuter trains and buses.

For their part, protesting locals seldom acknowledge the benefits the buses bring to everyone in the form of reduced car traffic and pollution, and less crowding on public transport. The protestors also are naïve in believing they are the first city residents to suffer the inevitable consequences of gentrification. (Personal note: Most blue-collar families in the San Francisco neighborhood where I was raised were driven out of the city by an earlier wave of “immigrant” professionals.) And few San Franciscans recognize that techie gentrification has led to a much-needed renewal of some decaying neighborhoods, along with jobs in construction and at the new bars, restaurants, and shops springing up around town, plus an influx of tax revenue. 

But there is at least one issue on which the locals’ indignation is on solid ground (and where the techies’ employing companies might assume some responsibility): Many San Franciscans say that the techies migrating up from the south are rude and arrogant, accusing them of insulting waitstaff at restaurants, taxi drivers, and others with whom they come into contact. More broadly, locals increasingly say that techies “stick to themselves,” don’t bother to acknowledge (let alone get to know) their neighbors, and don’t participate in community activities. In sum, techies are not viewed as good neighbors or citizens.

Many San Franciscans say that the techies migrating up from the south are rude and arrogant

I personally observed one skirmish that threatened to turn violent when a homeless man boarded a municipal subway car packing all his worldly goods in well-worn shopping bags and toting broken down cardboard boxes that served as his bed and shelter. A techie sitting across from him looked up from his iPad and snidely asked, “Oh, moving, are we?” The insult set the homeless man off, and things got nasty as other passengers began to take sides.   

Some tech execs are urging their fellows to counter the criticisms through philanthropy, but I doubt that would adequately address the industry’s growing image problems. In addition, I believe tech companies need to consider the extent to which they have responsibilities for shaping the off-the-job behavior of employees. Since ethicists often equate the concept “character” with “ethical behavior,” many companies have already implemented training programs in which they seek to influence the character of employees with regard to on-the-job ethical issues.

To be sure, the lines are black and white when employees misbehave on the job. A year ago, the Internet was set atwitter when two techies attending a conference on programming made lewd, sexist remarks that were overheard by a woman sitting in the row behind them. The woman snapped a photo of the two offenders and sent it to their employer, who promptly called them out of the seminar and subsequently fired one of them for violating its code of conduct.

Yet given the growing rift in San Francisco, it might make sense for Silicon Valley firms to design programs that encourage employees to be better off-hours citizens in the communities where they live. Admittedly, this is a grey area with little precedent. For example, it’s not clear if companies have the ethical or legal right to police the jerkish behavior of drunken employees at a bar (another common accusation that locals in San Francisco lob at techies).

I don’t advocate firing anyone solely on such grounds. Clearly, companies need to respect the privacy of employees. But the line that separates people’s private and work lives is blurring. Increasingly, tech companies provide services in the workplace—ranging from dry cleaners to gymnasiums to dog sitters—designed to keep employees on the job for longer hours. And as more companies acknowledge they have social responsibilities to their host communities—and, for example, encourage their employees to volunteer at local nonprofits—it’s not much of a stretch for them also to encourage employees to be better neighbors.

If the likes of Google, Apple, and Yahoo cannot find ethically compelling reasons to address the issue of how their employees are perceived by outsiders, they might do so simply because it’s in their self-interest to turn the tide of public opinion that’s running against them in San Francisco. After all, there’s a real question as to whether a company can succeed in the long run if its customers detest the culture it represents.

Moreover, the trendsetters in Silicon Valley might set a useful precedent for corporations in other communities where blue-collar workers are being replaced by higher-paid, better-educated employees who manage the high-tech gizmos that now do much of the repetitive work in process industries. It would be naïve to conclude that such efforts to “make nice” will, by themselves, do much to bridge the nation’s growing socioeconomic divide. But anything that corporations do in that regard, no matter how small, would be a positive first step.

James O'Toole

James O’Toole is director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

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