How to punish corporate misconduct without exhausting yourself


Seems like there’s good reason to be outraged at outrageous corporate behavior every other week these days. From United’s brutal extraction of a passenger to Uber’s continued morass of unethical, illegal behavior. To be honest, it’s exhausting!

In large parts, this exhaustion stems from what the barrage of misdeeds is forcing us to consider all the time: Well, what are you going to do about it?

If you just do nothing, continue to buy the services and products of those who do wrong, you’re at least partially complicit, right? And if you take every opportunity to ban a company from your wallet because of every transgression, life quickly becomes complicated.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Maybe there’s room on the spectrum of judgment between “do nothing” and “ban them forever”. A place that’ll make it easier for us to just get on with our lives, while still sending a message that any manager accountable to the quarterly results will respect.

Let’s take the example of United. Absolutely vile behavior followed by an initial tone-deaf response by the CEO. High pressure and intensity well justified. But at least the company finally found an apologetic pitch that didn’t include egregious euphemisms for their concussion-inducing violence against a paying passenger. That’s a welcome progression, but some momentary embarrassment is probably not enough of a deterrent to encourage permanent, structural changes to their policies.

Then again, following the consolidation in American aviation, dumping United entirely and permanently is likely to be overly inconvenient for a lot of people. And perhaps it’s also a bit harsh, if they do come around to making proper amends with the poor doctor. So what if instead of condemning them to permanent exile from your travel plans, you just commit to taking the next three flights with another carrier.

You’ll suffer some temporary inconvenience, maybe some slightly higher prices, maybe a bit worse timing for travel, but you’ll know it won’t be forever. You’re teaching United an economic lesson that you can feel proud about, but you don’t need to permanently rearrange your life to do so.

That’s a practical sentence, maybe even a proportionate sentence, and one that, if followed by enough fellow travelers, is still going to send a loud and clear message that should motivate a rethink of booking policies at United.

The good thing about being practical about your corporate sentencing is that the odds of carrying out such a judgment probably look a lot better than the nuclear option of I’LL NEVER FLY UNITED AGAIN! I mean, I fully respect those who’re willing and able to commit to such a sentence, but I actually think something a little less severe is likely to have more takers and ultimately a bigger impact.

The other benefit is that it’ll keep the individual grudge plate from filling up with permanent sentences for transgressions of years past. There’s enough foul play happening every week that we simply can’t afford to have everyone’s corporate shit-list jam-packed with past offenders forever. Need to make room for the new ones!

If you take such a proportionate approach to punishing egregious corporate behavior most of the time, you’ll perhaps also leave room for the harsh, permanent sentence when that’s really called for. Like for a serial, unrepentant offender like Uber.



How to punish corporate misconduct without exhausting yourself was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Original post by DHH and software by Elliott Back