Goodwill: Through a Critical Theory Lens

When buying clothes from Goodwill Industries consumers believe they are contributing to a better society — recycling clothing, giving to charity, and supporting the disabled workers Goodwill employs. However, it’s surprising to discover that the CEO of Goodwill makes more than half a million dollars per year while Goodwill’s disabled workers are paid less than minimum wage (Hrabe, 2012). Now how good can consumers feel about donating and shopping at Goodwill? It appears Goodwill is operating with the best interest of its employees in mind; however, in examining the controversy and misunderstandings regarding employee compensation, this may not be so true. Examining Goodwill through a critical theory lens and through the use of the communicative organization model, individuals can begin to make sense of the forces impacting employees’ lack of voice in the organization; those forces include the use of power, ideology or hegemony, and concertive control by Goodwill executives.

Goodwill operates as a charitable organization, communicating the ideals of altruism, charity, and “doing good” to the public. However, Blair and Chernev (2015) found that “socially responsible programs have been viewed almost exclusively as a tool for enhancing reputations and engendering goodwill among customers” (p. 1412). So how far does corporate social responsibility really extend? It’s important to note that Goodwill is not an organization engaging in socially responsible actions only to gain good publicity; Goodwill has been always been a charity, exempt from taxes, and thought to be exempt from public scrutiny. Yet, the argument can be raised that Goodwill believed the halo effect associated with its image as a charitable organization would extend to overshadow the news of the CEO’s large salary (Blair & Chernev, 2015). However, Goodwill’s halo was not bright enough to obscure its blunders; in fact, Goodwill’s standing as a charitable organization only made its blunders that much more shocking. Failing to recognize its interactions with the external environment in which it operates, Goodwill gave myriad excuses to justify the CEO’s salary when the news went public. Communication media spread the story to the public, and misunderstandings arose. Consumers felt they could no longer trust Goodwill as an ethical organization. The National Federation of the Blind began publicly protesting Goodwill (Marc, 2012). The organization’s standing was lost, and misunderstandings led to conflict both internally and externally.

Not only did the public misunderstand Goodwill’s values, internally, Goodwill employees were dealing with misunderstandings. The disabled workers employed by Goodwill felt undervalued, exploited, and seen as lesser than non-disabled individuals. Claims were made that Goodwill recruited disabled workers simply to save money (Marc, 2012). Rather than working to correct misunderstandings, learn from the conflict, and construct new ways of operating, Goodwill only hoped to contain the problem. The organization repeatedly cited the legality of its actions. Under section 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, disabled workers are not guaranteed federal minimum wage. Disabled workers believe that as such, they are also not guaranteed dignity and equality (Bruce, 2012). In containing the misunderstanding by justifying the organization’s policies, Goodwill did little to show employees they were valued.

Goodwill devalued marginalized societal groups and insulted society as a whole through its communicative actions. Goodwill communicated a lack of respect for its disabled workers, failing to recognize the viewpoint of the workers; Goodwill was only on the defense. Moreover, the organization upset society as a whole, attempting to cover up its blunders rather than admit to any wrongdoings. Finally, Goodwill devalued the poor individuals that the charity claims to support.

The poor individuals that Goodwill donates proceeds to are not truly valued by the organization. There is a disconnect between the organization’s mission and its true practices. Bishop (2008) analyzed 20 television ads for Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana and found stereotypical, demeaning portrayals of both poor and well-off individuals. The advertisements seemed to “suggest that the shoppers want the satisfaction, not to mention the congratulations, that comes with the charitable act” (p. 411). The poor man depicted in the advertisements was kept “at arm’s length,” never getting too close to the shoppers and donators (p. 411). Through Bishop’s analytical article in the Journal of Poverty, individuals are again reminded of Goodwill’s problematic communication dynamics. Bishop suggests in his conclusion that the poor man depicted in the advertisements have more contact with the shoppers and donators, educating individuals on the uncomfortable issue of poverty in America. Bishop notes that while the ads are made to help the poor, “the nation opens its wallets and credit cards, and perhaps its hearts, but not its mind” (p. 430). Goodwill operates from a history of charity; however, in practice, Goodwill seems to shame and marginalize the very people it claims to support.

Goodwill is not the first organization to enforce oppressive practices on its minority workers. Since the 1970s, the organizational communication field has been using critical theory to analyze “the oppressive atmosphere in organizations for workers” (Butler, DeWine, & Modaff, 2012, p. 113). With the National Federation of the Blind protesting Goodwill’s employee compensation policies, it’s evident that workers don’t feel welcome in their organizational atmosphere. Moreover, with the CEO earning more than necessary while disabled workers are earning less than standard, Goodwill can be viewed “as a site of domination where the interests of the dominate group are elevated above the interests of the subordinate group” (Butler, DeWine, & Modaff, 2012, p. 113). Critical theory utilizes three major concepts — power, ideology or hegemony, concertize control — to illustrate the notion of an organization being a place of domination. It’s believed by critical theorists that through the use of the three major concepts, a level of unethical control over subordinates can be gained and exercised by superiors.

However, critical theory is nothing more than a model until applied to a real-world organization. Goodwill’s problematic communication dynamics can be examined through a critical theory lens. Goodwill executives used the power granted by the Fair Standards Labor Act of 1938 to pay their workers the bare legal minimum. Goodwill’s ideology of recruiting disabled workers represented the sectional interests of top-earning executives as universal because disabled workers don’t require as high of earnings as non-disabled workers. Through the use of concertive control, Goodwill executives “constructed norms based on an overall vision provided by management” (Butler, DeWine, & Modaff, 2012, p. 118). The norm was to comply with the law, neglecting workers’ needs and desires.

Goodwill is plagued by internal misunderstandings between superiors and subordinates. So far, the only response has been defense; no real solution has been offered to reconstruct the organization and drive it in a new direction.

Goodwill requires the implementation of strategic planning to mend the relationships between superiors and subordinates. Aadland (2010) recognizes the dependence of organizational values on the organization’s actions. There is a disconnect between Goodwill’s publicized values and its internal actions. In order to reconstruct the organization, Goodwill needs to change its values and actions so that they properly align. Currently, Goodwill believes it values disabled individuals by offering them employment. However, this alone does not lend to the disabled workers truly feeling that value. Ju, Roberts, and Zhang (2013) found that employers feel good about hiring disabled individuals but hold negative attitudes toward them. Legal restraints prevent organizations from openly expressing the negative attitudes, so organizations continue to promote a false sense of socially responsible actions (Jans, Jones, & Kaye, 2011). Potentially, Goodwill executives hold negative attitudes toward their disabled workers, preventing the executives from going beyond what the law requires in order to satisfy the needs of the disabled workers. So, while Goodwill values hiring disabled workers, it doesn’t necessarily value them as much as it values non-disabled workers. In other words, there’s a limit to the value Goodwill gives its disabled workers. One possible solution is for Goodwill to change its values, erasing the line it has drawn for its disabled workers.

In order for Goodwill to reconstruct and extend its value of disabled workers, Goodwill must also address its communicative actions. While it’s too late to retract the defenses given to media outlets in response to the wage gap between the CEO and disabled workers, action can still be taken to correct Goodwill’s public image and its workers’ satisfaction. Goodwill needs to revisit the internal conflict and recognize the needs and feelings of its workers. Next, superiors need to engage subordinates, inviting their ideas into the decision-making process for a restructuring of the organization’s values. Then superiors will have made an effort to learn from the misunderstanding. Just in the act of reaching out and allowing employees to aid in decision-making, Goodwill has the potential to increase worker satisfaction. When the public becomes aware of this effort, Goodwill has the potential to recover its public image.

Currently, Goodwill’s public image is unclear at best and unethical at worst. Goodwill’s publicized vision and values don’t match its now publicized actions. Goodwill’s vision reads, “Goodwill’s leadership, program innovation, and determination transform its community into one in which all individuals have the opportunity to work!” (History & mission, 2015). The discrepancy rests within the word “opportunity” and what the word truly means to the organization. Clearly, Goodwill doesn’t believe all individuals deserve the same opportunity from the organization: the opportunity to fair compensation regardless of disability. One of Goodwill’s core values is listed as accountability, described as “honesty, transparency, ethical standards, communication” (History & mission, 2015). With Goodwill’s current communicative actions, the organization has failed to uphold what it claims to value in terms of accountability. Goodwill wasn’t honest with the public until forced to do so; Goodwill was not transparent in its compensation practices for its CEO until the news went public. While the organization may be acting within legal limits, the question can be raised as to whether those legal limits are truly ethical. Finally, Goodwill failed to properly communicate with its employees and the public beforehand. Again, there’s evidence of the disconnect between Goodwill’s stated values and its actions.

Goodwill must work to regain its image and its workers’ respect. While this will not necessarily be an easy task, it’s feasible. Goodwill must be willing to restructure the organization, allowing its values and practices to change. Goodwill must analyze itself through a critical theory lens, recognizing the conflict. Then, Goodwill must make use of the communicative organization model to address the conflict.

Moving the communicative organization model and critical theory from concepts to practices allows individuals to gleam more than just a real-world application for the two concepts. In examining Goodwill through the lenses of the communicative organization model and critical theory, a need to respect, value, and learn from workers presents itself as the overall motif of Goodwill’s conflict. In replacing the word “workers” with the word “individuals,” the motif of Goodwill’s conflict has  universal application. Rather it be an organization, a community, a family, or one lone person, the notion of respecting the another’s viewpoint and learning from the misunderstandings another perceives is imperative. The only way to achieve a peaceful world is to step back and be willing to learn when misunderstandings and conflict occur. Taking a stance of defense doesn’t yield productive results; taking the defense only stands to hinder real progress achieved through the re-thinking of current actions.


Aadland, E. (2010). Values in professional practice: Towards a critical reflective methodology. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(3), 461-472. doi:10.1007/s10551-010-0518-x

Bishop, R. (2008). From a distance: Marginalization of the poor in television ads for Goodwill Industries. Journal of Poverty, 12(4), 411-431. doi:10.1080/10875540802350096

Blair, S., & Chernev, A. (2015). Doing well by doing good: The benevolent halo of corporate social responsibility. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(6), 1412-1425. doi:10.1086/680089

Butler, J. A., DeWine, S., & Modaff, D. P. (2012). Organizational communication: Foundations, challenges, and misunderstandings. Glenview, IL: Pearson Education.

History & mission. (2015). In Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Inc. Retrieved from

Hrabe, J. (2012, November 25). Goodwill’s charity racket: CEO’s earn top-dollar, workers paid less than minimum wage. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Jans, L., Jones, E., & Kaye, H. (2011). Why don’t employers hire and retain workers with disabilities?. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 21(4), 526-536. doi:10.1007/s10926-011-9302-8

Ju, S., Roberts, E., & Zhang, D. (2013). Employer attitudes toward workers with disabilities: A review of research in the past decade. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 38(2), 113-123. Retrieved from

Maurer, M. (2012). Minimum wage, backlash, shame, and determination. Braille Monitor, 55(11), 956. Retrieved from

Vail, B. (2012). Blind activists boycott Goodwill over subminimum pay. Braille Monitor, 55(9), 777. Retrieved from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s