Company Cult | Business Cults
Anywhere people gather in groups, there's potential for coercion and undue influence to occur.
Working is a part of life, and the businesses that employ us are often balancing a wide variety of interests. `
Unfortunately, some businesses rely on coercive practices to manipulate employees and consumers for their own gain.
On this page, we'll discuss what some of these businesses cults look like, how they operate, and what you can do to be vigilant of their practices.
What Is A Corporate Cult?
Companies or corporations that operate in coercive and unethical manners are sometimes referred to as cults. Although this term is typically thought of in religious settings, there are other instances that can be cult-like - such as families or academia.
Organizations that have a coercive company culture share many of the elements of other cult groups. This can include:
A high level of in-group/out-group thinking
Excessive devotion to leadership
Inability to discuss dissenting opinions
Lack of transparency on company culture, practices, or partnerships
Focus on achieving company goals at all costs, many times at the expense of employee, community, or environmental well-being.
Poor work-life balance for employees is used as a systemic means of control
Hiding of unethical or illegal conduct - such as sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, or harassment
A competition heavy culture that encourages people to work against each other instead of collaboratively
Coercion in a business can lead to a toxic work environment, low employee morale, and high turnover rates within the company itself.
Perhaps more importantly, it can have negative impacts on individual's mental health, financial well-being, and their ability to self-actualize.
Furthermore, corporate cults that rely on unethical or illegal practices can have incredibly negative impacts on the communities and environments where they do business.
Businesses that persist on these paths may be constantly fighting legal issues and negative publicity.
It's important for employees to be aware of the signs of a company cult and to speak up if they feel they are being coerced or treated unfairly.
Employers should also be aware of the potential for a company cult to develop and take steps to prevent it, such as fostering a culture of open communication, proactively empowering work-life balance, and encouraging dissenting opinions.
Multi-Level Marketing Companies
One of the most notorious types of coercive businesses is the multi-level marketing scheme, referred to as an MLM or pyramid scheme.
Although there is technically a distinction between pyramid schemes and MLMs according the the law, they are commonly conflated and do share some coercive elements.
MLMs tend to rely on a relatively loose structure that encourages newcomers to see along two lines:
1. The products themselves
2. The addition of more sellers "downstream"
This effectively means that participants are required to both sell and recruit new sellers. Sellers that one recruit (and people they recruit) are incentivized in the same way, with the idea being that more people recruited = more financial gain.
In the past, these have been referred to as pyramid schemes due to the fact that growth creates a structure resembling tiers in a triangle diagram. As more participants enter lower levels, competition increases but income continues to pass up the structure to a small group.
Unfortunately, many people have been drawn into these organizations through the promise of financial growth.
Other cult-like habits of these groups include:
Encouraging further spending on the company's products to improve an individual's ability to sell
Creation of small groups to encourage community and comradery with other members of the group
Creation of instructional or coercive material to help incentivize members or prevent thoughts of quitting
Making claims of huge earning potential without proof (or highlighting the 0.01% of highly-successful instances as the norm)
Pressure to avoid learning more about the company
Fear of missing out (FOMO) as a selling tactic for participation
It should be said that in some places these organizations are still legal, and in the United States they are monitored by the FTC to ensure that they act within correct parameters. This does not mean that they aren't controversial or
Startups, Non-Profits, and Founder's Syndrome
While many startups and non-profit organizations offer great services and act within ethical guidelines, some operate with cult-like patterns that should be recognized and understood.
Many elements of a company's culture are determined by a small number of people in these instances, and since they often lack organizational accountability they fly under the radar.
Here are just of a few of the red flags that these small organizations can display:
Proudly offering free beer or meals, ping pong tables, and other small favors as "benefits" rather than investing in employee health and wellbeing
Mandatory participation in bizarre rituals, a compulsory company cheer, or inappropriate team building activities
Core values are used as tools of control and abuse
Company policies enforced for low-level employees but not higher-ups.
Creation of smaller, sometimes "elite" groups that leaves others to feel excluded
A focus on maintaining the "status quo" of culture to the extent of employee health and well-being
In essence, any practices that discourage critical thinking and places the company over the individual should raise alarms.
In recent years, the leadership of some organizations have begun to resemble a phenomenon known as founder's syndrome.
This constellation of behaviors is usually seen in a company that needs to change its culture, strategy, or leaders, but fails to do so because of tightly held beliefs by high-level decision makers. In the setting of coercive control and undue influence, it could be said that such individuals act as "cult leaders".
Marcus Coetzee (linked above) offers two interpretations of instances of founder's syndrome:
The leaders are acting knowingly as dictators for their own benefit
The leaders are acting within learned or developed mental models that undermine their stated goal
Whatever the case, it's worth being aware of founder's syndrome as it becomes a more popular and widespread concept. Any corporate culture that relies on cult-like leadership should be scrutinized by its employees and partnerships.
Major Corporations and Fringe Groups Within Companies
Larger organizations can still fall prey to many of the issues listed in the section above, but the destructive power is backed by resources and infrastructure that often only stops with immense public pressure or government intervention.
These groups are difficult to crack, but participate in some behaviors that are worth sharing:
Creation of new terminology and habits to instill a sense of belonging
Over-emphasis on rituals and compulsory activities
Forced enthusiasm in rote or demoralizing work
Threats or promises of retribution if an employee quits or leaves for a new job
If your workplace actively discourages open communication, flexible culture, or another red flag, it's worth considering a different career option when possible.
For those who wish to stay involved, be careful. It's easy to think that one can change an employer, company culture, or workplace environment with more participation. This attitude is commendable, but may be unrealistic or wishful thinking.
What Can We Do About Corporate Cults?
Unfortunately, people need money to pay their bills, but necessities, and improve their lives. For most people, this means going out and getting a job in a suitable career field.
We can't always control our situations and the companies that we work for, but that doesn't mean there aren't options.
Simply playing an active role in your corporate culture can sometimes be enough to influence others, curb coercive practices, and help businesses stay out of the cult territory.
In cases of abuse or coercion, rest assured that there are options and resources that can help you recover, find a new place of employment, or strike out on your own.
Talking to a professional about your situation may help, but you may also want to rely on fellow professionals, friends, and family to help you.
Talk to us!
Everyone's situation is unique.
If you are interested in resources, curious about intervention, or want to help spread cult awareness, get in touch!