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Prof. Catherine Hardee on the Resurgence of Social Engineering by Corporations

Prof. Catherine Hardee

The co-working startup WeWork made headlines recently with a new policy banning meat from company functions and barring employees from expensing any meat dishes, writes California Western’s Prof. Catherine Hardee in a recent op-ed in Sustainable Brands titled Do We Lose Moral Self-Determination When We Work?

Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and Chief Culture Officer, speaks of the policy as not just creating an environmental benefit, but also changing the minds of his employees and creating a culture of personal accountability at the company.

There is power in this type of change, continues Prof. Hardee. WeWork is in the position to educate its nearly 6,000 employees about environmental sustainability and animal welfare. The hope is by exposing them to less environmentally damaging menu choices it may carry over into their personal lives. It is no secret that money can influence change and that control over capital gives entrepreneurs an outsized power to shape the world as they see fit.

Attempts at social engineering by corporations has seen a resurgence in recent years, cheered on by a majority of the Supreme Court. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court used corporate efforts to protect the environment as part of its justification for allowing an employer to circumvent employees’ statutory rights to contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The parallels between the two situations [WeWork’s vegetarian policy and Hobby Lobby’s refusal to pay for insurance that covers certain contraception] cannot be ignored, continues Prof. Hardee, as we seem to be circling back to a time when employers feel not just a right, but a duty to impose their personal morality on employees as a way to affect change. Those concerned with environmental impact or liberal social justice issues could argue that taking a page from the playbook of corporate religious rights is fair play. If some corporations actively fight against birth control, for example, while others refuse to mandate sustainability on principal will the net result be more people consuming more resources? Before jumping on the social engineering bandwagon, however, corporations should take a moment to consider whether they also believe that moral self-determination is a luxury item, available only to those who can pay out of pocket.

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