Immelt on ice

My grandfather taught me the adage that “courtesy is cheap and pays big dividends.” It’s a quaint notion nowadays, but it seems to me a sort of democratic equivalent of the golden rule. As a practical matter, courtesy remains cheap and still proves beneficial most of the time. At least it doesn’t hurt.

Does it apply in a corporate setting? The question occurred to me when I read last week’s Wall Street Journal article about General Electric honcho Jeffrey Immelt. The Journal called on three reporters to tell us:

Chief Executive Jeff Immelt will give up control of General Electric Co. later this year. His colleagues were relieved to learn that he will also relinquish command of the office thermostat.

Mr. Immelt, who said this week he will end his 16-year captaincy of the conglomerate, is famous for preferring refrigerator-like temperatures in GE offices and meeting rooms. “He keeps it very cold,” one person who has regularly endured the chill says. “It’s part of the Immelt lore.”

As head of one of the world’s biggest companies, Mr. Immelt dines with heads of state and jets around the globe to seal multibillion-dollar deals. He also gets to mess with the air conditioning, often asking for a setting that feels like the low 60s. Some colleagues feel so chilled that they wrap themselves in a scarf or shawl to attend a meeting with the GE leader.

Immelt holds the preferred elite view on global warming. I wondered if he might be concerned about the possible contribution of air conditioning. You can’t be too careful to avoid the apocalypse. That’s not where the Journal goes with the hypothetical global warming angle, though:

Earlier this month, Mr. Immelt tweeted “Climate change is real.” He was referring to global efforts to combat rising temperatures. Folks inside GE might be forgiven for thinking their boss was simply reiterating his longstanding position on air conditioning.

I am not entirely certain the Journal story is to be taken at face value, but I think it’s serious if the Journal threw three reporters at it. It concludes on a jocular note:

People at cold Immelt meetings “laugh about it” but hardly ever register complaints, according to another person familiar with the situation. “Jeff does not spend a lot of time worrying where the thermostat is,’’ this person says. “It’s not that cold.”

But some do speak up. At a GE analyst meeting in the SNL soundstage in December 2013, an analyst questioned whether the building’s new owner was paying its heating bill, according to a transcript of the event. “I ask for this, this cool, this refrigerator treatment here,” Mr. Immelt responded.

“I wonder if we can cut this short,” the analyst joked. “So we can all get out of here and go warm up outside.”

The high temperature that day in Manhattan was 37 degrees.

Even if I held Immelt’s exalted position and shared his eccentric preferences, I wouldn’t be comfortable exercising the royal prerogative to impose them on everyone around me. The Journal suggests that the refrigerated approach does not produce optimal working conditions. I may be mistaken or put off by Immelt’s arrogance, but it seems to me that it’s not the right thing to do as a matter of courtesy either.

NOTE: On the question of the alleged effects of air conditioning I link above to a New York Times article with this classic Times correction: “An earlier version of this article misstated a type of appliance Honeywell makes. They make a variety of home appliances, they do not make dishwashers.”