What We Owe Our Workers: Loyalty as Proof of Leadership

Does a business owe its employees more than the law requires? Are there moral demands, which transcend compliance with safety procedures and tax guidelines, a company should follow?

The answers to these questions tell us everything we need to know about a brand, exposing the fraudulence of “manufactured devotion,” where workers perform morning calisthenics – and shout, in unison, their love for the Dear Leader – in a corporate campus with a reality distortion field that would make even Steve Jobs blush.

For, when we see people so fearful of losing their jobs that they will say or do almost anything, that they would just as soon take a blood oath on behalf of the greatness of some would-be demigod, a CEO secluded in a massive office and surrounded by yes-men, we witness tyranny disguised as compassion.

And, when we see companies treat their employees as disposable parts, when one billionaire executive would sooner station ambulances outside his warehouse than install air conditioning to spare his workers from heat stroke and the privations of 12-hour shifts, we observe everything but genuine allegiance. These men and women collapse because of physical exhaustion, not sincere dedication.

So, I ask the question again, “Does a business have a responsibility to be as loyal to its workers as its employees are to their employer?”

If a CEO responds negatively – if he or she expects unflinching support, with no reciprocity for the employees on the line – look at the things before your very eyes: The warehousing of the workers themselves, packed into otherwise naked buildings filled with cots and outfitted with rooftop nets to prevent suicides, and enforced by a frightening code of silence.

Such is the workplace of the present, which I detest, where there is maximum cleanliness (compared to the vermin-infested factories of the past) and zero purity of the heart. These company towns, fenced with razor wire and periodically visited by some fist-pounding, monomaniacal CEO, violate every principle I cherish and represent every wrong I seek to right.

These businesses ignore the one force that connects us, as partners in a shared endeavor and professionals in an ongoing example of excellence. The bonds of family, not the slavish actions of a cult, are the soul of a great brand; they are the tissue and pulse of a living creature, beating within the chest of each employee and every vendor.

I write these words with reverence for my family, and the extended family of workers, suppliers and distributors that make my company, Mano Swartz Furs, a family business.

I compose this message without interruption, refusing to separate blood relatives from the lifeblood of my company, because ours is home for generations of families. Within the same environment, and infused by traditions bequeathed to me by my paternal great-grandfather, there is a proud family of many races and religions, of many hues and stories; of many dreams and ambitions.

My reply is both a matter of legal distinction and philosophical precision because a corporation is a person in a strictly judicial sense; the courts assign it “personhood” as a matter of record, regardless of how ruthless or cold that company is, while they overlook issues of decency, love, respect and kindness.

A company's articles of incorporation can thus be both certificates of birth and death, as lifeless as the paper that validates its legitimacy and as void as the documents that certify its identity.

Only when a leader assumes the ethical responsibilities of the office, when a CEO makes a “presidential pledge” to preserve, protect and defend the values of a company, can he or she earn the trust of workers and the confidence of that vast network of cousins, and nieces and nephews – a tree of many branches and deeply established roots – we call our family.

We accord each relative, from the seamstress who sows the family name on every label and the craftsman who stitches those letters in luminescent loops of cursive elegance to the driver who delivers our coats to retailers and the merchants who showcase our products behind decorative windows of holiday splendor, the highest respect. We give them our loyalty.

That means, by way of the long continuity of customs and traditions planted by my great-grandfather and tended by my grandfather and shaped by his son, my father – all of it is a reminder that we never surrender . . . and we never betray our family.

A great brand is a family for this reason alone: It has seen hardship and hunger, and weathered the lashes of hatred and the winds of war, to walk briskly in the sunlight of plenitude and profits; never forgetting the men and women, from the Old Country and the New World – from Asia and the Americas – who brought us here.

Our success is neither a secret nor impossible to duplicate. It is, instead, an issue of priorities.

If a company does not respect its workers it cannot respect its consumers.

And yet, too many executives delude themselves by reciting from a hymnbook of myths and seductive lies, with discordant notes about blind loyalty from employees and divine rights of corporate chieftains.

Such are the songs of greed and sloth, perpetrated by the worst instincts of man and perpetuated by the vacant chambers of the heart.

Such is the refrain of those who favor instant gratification.

These are the things a leader must avoid, and these are the temptations a family must never indulge, because “the price of greatness is responsibility.”

We have paid it in times of sacrifice, and during years of surplus; and we shall continue to pay it, together, as a family.

That is the seedling carried across a continent and a mighty ocean, placed within the rich soil of a continental nation on the Atlantic coast.

It still grows, giving love and comfort to newly emigrated citizens and the descendants of a legendary name.

It is a family.

Richard Swartz is President of Mano Swartz Furs, America's oldest furrier, established in 1889.

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