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15 March 2012

Seeing the Micro/Meso/Macro Connection in Quitting

Not surprisingly, the op-ed piece by now-former Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith has been garnering a lot of attention and generating a lot of discussion. It reminded me of this classic scene from Half Baked (trigger warning):

Not as discussed has been this similarly-themed blog post from former Google exec, James Whittaker, and, in what is sure to be the first of several parodies, we get this parting shot from Darth Vader.

All jokes aside, I think that we can use this as a great teachable moment about what sociology can tell us about employees on the micro-level, organizations on the mezo-level, and capitalism on the macro-level. Catherine Rampell at the New York Times ask, "What explains the rash of...public exit letters? Coincidence, or sign of a shift in corporate culture?" Jay Livingston blogged, "Makes you wonder if maybe structural forces and not just greed have something to do with these changes," and with that, I think Jay points to an answer to Catherine's question.

The folks on the ground seem to be describing this as "culture." They seem to see this as a shift in values within firms driven by individuals. "If only we could get rid of those with toxic ethics," they seem to be implicitly arguing, "we could right the ship." I think that sociology would tell us that it's not that simple. Barry Ritholz, CEO at Fusion IQ, pointed out on NPR's Marketplace yesterday that "the change that really dramatically altered the cultures took place when they went from partnerships to publicly-traded companies." This points to those structural forces to which Jay alluded. The valuing of profits over clients is part of capitalism per se, full stop. Sure, there is greed among individuals that might drive questionable behavior (micro), and sure, the corporate culture within business firms often shifts from serving to extracting (meso), but both the micro-level greed and the meso-level organizational culture are driven by the larger social structure as defined by the political economy of capitalism (macro).

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