I wish I could afford to be more giving. When you run a tight budget, charity is giving yourself a present of brand new underwear every once in a while.
In 2011, I was working in retail sales for AT&T when an email came in asking employees to give to The United Way. The email gave instructions on how employees could deduct a dollar or more out of every paycheck. This wasn’t the first time the company had asked its workers to give to The United Way. I’d given in the past. This time, I didn’t.
There were multiple reasons for my decision not to give that year. I’d recently become aware of The United Way’s 1990s scandals involving criminal mismanagement of foundation money. In addition, AT&T was reducing pay and benefits for its employees. My biggest reason against giving that year was simple: I felt personal about giving money away to charity. My money, my decision what to do with it, including what charitable organization, if any, to donate to. I didn’t want to give to The United Way. Case closed.
“I didn’t know dignity was something you could actually see someone lose in tactile form.”
I didn’t make a big deal about my decision to not give that year. I wasn’t running around the store yelling, “Fuck The United Way. Fuck The United Way.” That would have been fun, but I didn’t do it. However, my manager, Ron, went around asking every employee if they had contributed. If they hadn’t, he asked them to. He didn’t care if you gave one or one hundred dollars. He just wanted you to contribute.
When he got to me, I let him know I wasn’t giving. He asked why, and I told him if I was going to donate to a charity it would be one of my choosing, not AT&T’s. I asked Ron why he cared so much. The answer should have been obvious to me, but it wasn’t. He proceeded to tell me his bosses expected him to have 100% participation of the people who worked under him. He asked me again to at least donate one dollar. I politely declined again. To his credit, he moved on, temporarily.
A week later, Ron was back, asking me once again to donate. I kind of felt bad for him. Ron was a nice guy. I worked for some terrible managers during my time at AT&T, but he wasn’t one of them. Unfortunately, his boss was a vicious, bloodless, opportunist. Her lack of integrity, ethics, and a soul made her prime leadership material for AT&T. Ron would turn into the Cowardly Lion whenever she visited the store or called him on the phone. One minute he was a cheerful positive guy, the next, he had the fear of God in his eyes. It was ugly to be around. I didn’t know dignity was something you could actually see someone lose in tactile form.
The pressure on Ron was clear as he kept pursuing me. However, he wasn’t going to outright threaten me. That wasn’t his style. He attempted to appeal to my good nature, talking about the stress he was going through, and asking if I would contribute as a favor to him. I told him no, once again.
Two weeks later, everyone had consented to give at least one dollar. I was the sole hold out. Ron came up to me. “What’s it going to take?” He sounded defeated. I thought about it, and decided there was a price to my principles on this issue. If I was going to cave in, I was going to get something valuable in return. The company had once a week 7:00 am meetings. They were mandatory if you were below the goal of any of three particular metrics. Occasionally, I had to go to these punishing meetings. I told Ron I would donate one dollar per paycheck if he would exempt me from the next two mandatory meetings I’d normally have to attend. Ron accepted my terms. Any other manager would have made sure to punish me for holding out. That’s just the AT&T way. Ron had real values and a core of decency. That was usually a one way ticket out of AT&T management.
In hindsight, I can’t say I’m glad I relented. I gave up a piece of my integrity, and though I got something valuable by capitulating, what AT&T does in connection with The United Way doesn’t sit right with me. AT&T literally makes billions of dollas in profits. It’s one thing for a corporation to let employees know the company is involved with a specific charitable organization. It’s an entirely different thing the minute they strong arm them into donating to that charity. That’s just… what are the words…..oh yes…total bullshit.
In writing this story, I did some research. It turns out AT&T has plenty of competition in getting employees to give to The United Way through high pressure tactics. Few big companies give to charity out of a sense of social responsibility or a sincere desire to give back to the community. It’s for image. A front, so they look good to the public. AT&T and most corporate benefactors of The United Way don’t care about The United Way or The United Way’s mission. They care about the good public relations that supporting The United Way gives them when scandals inevitably pop up down the road. GE, Dow Chemical, Bank of America are all guilty of horrible transgressions against society. All give large sums of money to The United Way. Because of that affiliation with a charity, they get to associate their name with something besides poisoning, corporate malfeasance, and swindling the public.
If AT&T or any other company really cared about being a good corporate citizen, they would donate a substantial amount where it hurts: from their profits. That sends a message that giving to charity is a core value of the company. It also lends legitimacy towards creating a good image as opposed to manufacturing one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In contrast, bullying employees into funding your good public image is distasteful, amoral, and shameful.