A New Corporate Responsibility: Shaping Attitudes Toward Work

By Blythe J. McGarvie


Future of the Workforce Workforce Engagement Private Company Governance Online Article

Private companies have an important role to play in perpetuating American's labor ethic. For generations, most Americans have viewed work as a dignified expression of economic opportunity—the means of fulfilling potential while pursuing personal goals. But, just as significantly, the jobs we did helped shape our identity, develop our social and professional networks, and provided an essential connection to the nation's political economy. Few things in life, perhaps only family, mattered more to people than their jobs.

Yet, as the world suffers through the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are choosing to stay home, not only to work remotely but even to forego employment altogether. Not only well-paid athletes and celebrities are deciding they can live without their paychecks. On recent visits to stores or restaurants, I have asked to see favorite employees only to learn that they have opted not to work, either for preventative health reasons or from changing priorities. The relative importance of their jobs has declined.

Of course, working remotely creates little of the satisfaction of going to a place of business. Working in one's pajamas quickly becomes a poor trade-off to the loss of social interaction, intellectual stimulation, and the change in eating, grooming, and shopping patterns. Americans may have become less formal over the last two decades, but the loss of any structure in one's job produces for some only alienation and dissatisfaction.

Congress responded to high unemployment with unprecedented jobless payments intended to alleviate the suffering of the unemployed and buoy consumer spending. But, fears of Americans' loss of a work ethic prompted republicans in Congress not to renew the aid package, even as the virus continues its rampage through American society. They argue that the aid reduces recipients' incentives to find or return to work and be productive. Of course, it also keeps some businesses afloat.

Management must respond by addressing the social as much as the economic value of work. One privately held retailer, Wawa, a convenience food and gas retailer on the East Coast, encourages its associates (employees) to think like owners and show up at the stores. Wawa associates can participate in an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which now owns 39.3 percent of this $13 billion company. This fifth largest ESOP in the US provides financial rewards in a culture that encourages all workers to value people, be they co-workers or customers, embrace change, and be passionate about the business. The associates know that the company more than depends upon them, that they, in fact, form the company. In recent months, Wawa has worked to codify its social purpose by creating a board-level culture committee to cultivate community. A major aspect of building this community is promoting the associates' involvement in local outreach programs, awareness of food quality and healthy-eating options, sustainable packaging, food recovery, and other practices to protect and improve the environment. At the same time, management is recommitting itself to building a more diverse workforce, retaining and developing talent, and forging, in cooperation with associates, initiatives to promote corporate ethics and values. Providing livable wages and benefits is an important part of the program that can almost appear secondary in comparison to associate involvement. As a board member for many years, I have been privileged to see the positive results of a servant leadership culture that makes work meaningful, remunerative, and rewarding.

In these most difficult times, private companies, in particular, must use the relative freedom they have to reposition work as valuable for more than just a paycheck. 

Blythe J. McGarvie has served as a member of the board of privately held Wawa for 23 years and publicly held Apple Hospitality REIT, LQK Corp., and Sonoco Products Co. She has authored two books, including the best-selling Shaking the Globe: Courageous Decision-Making in a Changing World.