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Of FBUs and Dumb Dolphins

Over the past several decades America has shifted from a market economy to a market society. More specifically, America and we Americans have largely shifted from a capitalist economy and democratic society to a capitalist economy and capitalist society. This conversion is stark, significant, and increasingly damaging. We’ll explain.

Until only very recently with some nominal pivoting, virtually everyone from business and law schools, to corporations and shareholders, to media and the courts have espoused an ethic of maximize shareholder value. As a nation we should not be shocked that this ethic has mutated from our business lives and interactions (economy) to exert its choke-hold on our personal lives and interactions (society). Even as we collectively make progress tempering this ethic in our business DNA, recognize we have similar work to do extracting this ethic from our societal DNA.

A shining hallmark of our capitalist economy-capitalist society is the dehumanizing of the interconnected relationships in which we engage, relationships that support both a healthy capitalism and a healthy society. On one level, we dehumanize our personal interactions. Such as when one person insists on paying another for a kindness. In this way personal interactions become impersonal transactions. This happened to me one day when I stopped on a busy highway to help two stranded women whose car had stalled. Ultimately, their car needed to be towed and I voluntarily drove them to their home, only to have one of them insist on paying me for the ride as if I were an Uber or Lyft driver. After some conversation she agreed she could accept my help without making it a business deal.

On another level, we callously dehumanize others for financial gain. Such as when a CEO dismisses the reasonable concerns or needs of those within her organization because they interfere with her personal agenda. In this way she dehumanizes her people, especially if it’s within her power to address those concerns or needs. Consider the drama and failures of Theranos. Likewise, a CEO calling his employees ‘dumb dolphins’ and firing 900 en masse during a virtual meeting just before Christmas dehumanizes those who trusted you. We’ll share another lived example.

Photo Credit: Paige Page on

“FBU” is not a term taught in law school. Rather, we learned it while observing a law firm implode. This firm had an excellent reputation, in part because it recruited well and took the time to develop its recruits into excellent lawyers. The crisis this law firm faced during a rapidly expanding bull market, which feels very much like the current 2022 hiring environment, was that it was quickly losing attorneys lured away by substantial salary increases and signing bonuses.

During one emergency meeting of the partners, as reported by a junior partner permitted to attend, solutions to stem the loss of attorneys were hotly debated. He shared with a group of attorneys that during that meeting one of the firm’s influential equity partners argued strongly against increasing attorney salaries as a way to neutralize the incentive to leave. Reasonable minds could differ on that view, but not after it was revealed that the equity partner argued that the attorneys were merely “FBUs,” meaning fungible billing units. Such dehumanized FBUs could be replaced without increasing the salary expenses to him and the other equity partners.

Given the optics of the equity partner’s influence coupled with the apparent lack of rebuttal by the rest of the partnership, the stampede to the exit by attorneys (even those not previously inclined to leave but now alarmed by the FBU perspective) was swift and the firm’s demise almost as swift. Ultimately, the unchecked dehumanizing of the attorneys as FBUs cost every stakeholder in that firm—from the highest-ranked partners to every attorney, employee, related family member, and client.

Understand that FBU, dumb dolphins, and similar terms are race- and gender-neutral. Once a person in power has placed the value of money ahead of the value of people, and once people have been dehumanized by such labels, healthy workplace issues such as well-being and mutuality are for all practical purposes ignored. That’s when fighting for popular workplace efforts like inclusion or against age-discrimination, and now RTO (return to office) yields minimal advances. Because that’s not the real fight in the minds of those holding power. The real, upstream fight is over money, and control or power (by the way, no matter the race or gender of the person holding the power that perspective rarely changes).

We wonder about your FBU and dumb dolphin stories, and other signs of failure. What destruction and dehumanization have you witnessed as a result of our capitalist society? No matter your title, salary or role, you have influence to help reverse the capitalist society within your organization. Likewise, no matter how you spend your day, you have influence to help reverse the capitalist society in your community. We encourage you to join us in the effort to reconfigure and transform our capitalist society to a renewed democratic society.

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