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How college recruits can drive social change at companies

<h5>Robertson Hall, home of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.</h5>
<h6>Zane R. / <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodrow_Wilson_School_of_Public_and_International_Affairs#/media/File:Woodrow_Wilson_School_of_Public_and_International_Affairs_-_Robertson_Hall.jpg" target="_self">Wikimedia Commons</a></h6>
Robertson Hall, home of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
Zane R. / Wikimedia Commons

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

The term “corporate responsibility” has gained new weight in recent years. A 2018 survey conducted by Deloitte Global and Forbes Insights found that among business leaders surveyed, “93 percent of respondents [believe] companies are more than mere employers; they are societal stewards.” The survey went on to show that, “Ninety-five percent of respondents [were] planning to take bigger stands on social issues in the coming year.” 

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Driven by stakeholders’ and consumers’ desires for social change and a level of morality with the companies with whom they conduct business, major corporations have had to take a hard look at their policies on issues ranging from sustainability to paying a living wage.

It’s not just consumers and investors who have the ability to force change at these companies. As employers compete for top-tier candidates to bolster their ranks, like those found here at Princeton, students and recent graduates have the power to decide what is important to them when choosing a place to work. Is it simply salary and perks that matter, or is it something more? 

If Princeton students want companies to reflect their values, it starts in the recruiting process. While I recognize that I have not personally experienced the exhausting and rigorous consulting interview process, I have felt the downstream effects of companies failing to take corporate responsibility, and I am urging my peers to take a stand.

One of the largest consulting companies in the world, and a company considered to be a premiere job destination for graduating students, was embroiled in scandal over work that it had done. According to Forbes, McKinsey & Company, a global business consulting firm, recently made headlines for its settlement with attorneys general in multiple states for $573 million due to its involvement in the opioid epidemic. 

As a native West Virginian, I am intimately familiar with the impacts of opioid addiction. In 2018, over 42 percent of overdose deaths in the state were opioid-related resulting in the loss of over 700 lives, but West Virginia providers continued to write opioid prescriptions at an increased rate compared to the national average. 

Socioeconomic and geopolitical factors made West Virginia particularly susceptible to opioid addiction. West Virginia has the sixth highest poverty rate in the nation and approximately 40 percent of adults are living with a disability. Moreover, many West Virginians rely on physical labor in coal mines, oil rigs, and construction to make a living which results in chronic pain. 

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These circumstances compounded with the fact that Purdue Pharmaceuticals hosted all-expenses-paid luxury resort training conferences on pain management for 5,000 physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. And, they hired 671 drug representatives to encourage the prescription of opioids for conditions outside their defined scope of treatment in certain states, including Maine, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, causing West Virginia to be one of the regions most impacted by the opioid crisis. 

I can remember traveling to Huntington, W.Va., for a conference in high school and walking through a city park on a break. The sights of children playing and dogs barking were replaced with discarded needles as people transitioned from using prescribed opioids to cheaper heroin. Local librarians were trained to use Narcan and act as first responders due to the increasing demand. Even now, the community is battling opioid addiction. 

Last semester, I trained as an EMT in my hometown and not a day went by without at least one overdose that required life-saving intervention. While I share my experiences in West Virginia, the opioid crisis is a national issue that must continue to be addressed. There were many failings in pharmaceutical, medical, and consulting sectors exacerbating this crisis, but premeditation favoring profit over people is and should always be unacceptable.

What has come to light is that McKinsey had been hired by Purdue to help the company significantly increase sales of the highly addictive opioid Oxycontin after the FDA had previously put curbs on marketing. NPR reports that McKinsey launched a project with the goal to “turbocharge” sales. 

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The New York Times has reported that court documents show McKinsey’s recommendations included providing rebates to pharmacy companies for individuals that overdosed on Oxycontin and helping Purdue counter the messages from mothers of teenagers who had overdosed.

This news is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is the potential impact McKinsey’s work had on Americans struggling with opioid addiction. McKinsey was hired by Purdue in 2009, long past a time when anyone could claim ignorance as to the dangers of opioids. But this does not mean that McKinsey as a company is incapable of change. Maybe what they need is to hear loud and clear from those hoping to potentially join their ranks that corporate responsibility matters and that the societal cost of any work that they do must be considered. 

Companies like McKinsey come to Princeton to recruit new employees and even have a dedicated part of the company’s website to recruit from this specific university. According to the 2017 Princeton Career Development Report, almost one-in-five Princeton graduates find employment in the “Professional, Scientific & Technical Services” category — which specifically mentions McKinsey as a sample employer.

As students, we must be vigilant to do our own research to ensure that we only work for companies that share our values. The recruitment process is based on a symbiotic relationship between employers and those who need jobs. The common perception is that the power tilts in favor of recruiters due to the competitive job market, but if students and recent graduates come together to demand more of big corporations, we have the power to affect change.

The change that younger generations have affected in both the workplace and how companies approach consumer products is proof that a socially conscientious society can change the way institutions behave. Young employees want a different kind of work environment than their parents had. According to one survey, 83 percent of millennials rank work-life balance as the most important factor when considering a job. To entice younger talent, more and more employers are reevaluating their policies involving vacations, work from home, and flexible hours. 

These are just a few examples of how speaking out for better corporate policies has had tangible implications on the corporate world. So, while we fight for better working conditions and more social responsibility, let’s also call for corporate accountability and make it known that a company’s morality and societal impact are important to job seekers. We each have our own paths after Princeton, but we have all been charged to work in the service of humanity. We have the power to make change. Now we need to have the will to use it.

Sean Crites is a junior in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Buckhannon, West Virginia. He can be reached at scrites@princeton.edu.

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