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The Company You Keep

by [email protected]

Once when visiting a foreign factory, I stepped into the building in the midst of a major confrontation between a young sewing machine operator and a mid-level manager. The employee wanted her passport and the manager refused.  The confrontation escalated to the point that the manager threatened the worker with a hypodermic needle, which I can only assume contained a sedative. My team and I were appalled at factory management, and extremely concerned for the safety of the young worker.


When I asked the manager why she was refusing to give the worker her passport, she responded that all passports were kept locked in the company safe to protect them. This practice is indicative of a forced labor situation. Young women sent to work in foreign factories thousands of miles from home, in environments that are often unhealthy, culturally strange, and without the ability to move freely is unacceptable.


Seven years later, the labor conditions I witnessed in that factory continue to trouble me. The operation was a major supplier to a number of retailers in the United States, and their worker treatment was questionable, at best. Perhaps not surprisingly, the company was later involved in a worker sex abuse scandal.


I am reminded of Aesop’s Fable about the donkey [originally this is translated as ‘ass’] and its purchaser, which teaches us “a man is known by the company he keeps.” This lesson was taught to me by my parents and teachers. They wanted me to think about the people I called friends. Ultimately, it translates into making the right choices, having integrity, and conducting oneself with dignity. It also means surrounding yourself with individuals who have good values to strengthen you and help you through life’s inevitable challenges. Reflection on the choice of people in your life is an exercise meant to build personal character.


The same is true for our businesses. When it comes to trade compliance Aesop’s adage can be adjusted to read “a company is known by the companies it keeps”. This adage should encourage us to ask some hard, but important, questions. Who is operating within our sphere of business? Who are the key players in our supply chain? Do they all practice good business ethics, and strive adhere to best business practices? What is happening in that foreign factory that supplies the goods our company sells? Does our corporate brand stand for good business practices? Does our company pass the ethics and integrity litmus test? Does our company, by ignoring the players in the supply chain, give tacit approval to unethical behavior?


What company do we keep?