Early in my career, a mentor offered me an excellent piece of advice. He told me that if I was to be successful in the plastics business, the character of my company would be critical. At least once a year I should ask myself two questions:
1. Am I proud of my company?
2. Do I trust my company to do the right thing?
He went on to say that while we are all careful when we make the initial decision to join an organization, companies can change. We need to be sensitive to how these changes affect the organization's key values, particularly in challenging times. It is easy to start peeling back the layers of our core values to fit short-term economic challenges.
At the time, it seemed like simple advice. While these questions are fairly straightforward, they have become more complex as time went on — as global competition reduced our margin for error. Beyond the surface of these two questions lies a larger, more compelling one, the one he didn't share with me: What do you do when the answer you get back to either of these questions is “no”?
All too often today we have seen the story of greed and deceit in the private and public sectors. It's the story of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and others. It's the story of actions that robbed thousands of people of their savings, jobs and dignity. It's the story of organizations that treated their values like a sales jingle.
As we watched the legal process unfold, we saw the perpetrators get what they deserved (or at least part of it). We were amazed at the pain these leaders had inflicted on shareholders and employees.
While these were obviously illegal activities, I have to wonder why they went on so long. They should have hit the organization's value “radar” long before they became the province of the legal system. Where were the organizational values that allowed this to happen?
For each of the Ken Lays of the world, there were hundreds, if not thousands of others who knew what was going on and chose not to take action. Was it for the profits these employees were reaping or was it out of fear for their jobs — each of us needs to understand this at the personal level.
Enron's motto was “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” The company's “Vision and Values” statement said: “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. … We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here.”
To my point, this is an organization that treated their values like so many words on a yellowing document framed and hanging in the lobby.
Who is responsible for the values of an organization? Does it come from the top down? Are senior executives responsible for a company's guiding principles? If so, what happened at Enron?
I propose that the character of a company is the sum of all its parts. While senior executives clearly have more leverage on values, they don't have more power unless they are granted that power by a disengaged workforce.
This is not just financial wrongdoing that we are dealing with. We have witnessed instances where companies have cheated their customers. Even worse, others have put their employees at risk by not supporting and funding a safe work environment.
These positions are becoming more frequently rationalized in today's competitive market. While we need to survive economically we cannot tie our values to external conditions — one set of values for good times and a second set for more difficult times.
Now, back to my earlier question, What do you do when the answer to my mentor's two questions is ‘no'?
Companies need to understand that compromising their ethics and values will cost them their best, most productive employees. When faced with the cost of losing key talent, the rationalization falls apart. It's easy to blame senior manager, but that is an excuse. If we tolerate unethical behavior, we then own it. We own the values we tolerate.
As demonstrated with Enron, can we afford to look the other way?
I propose that every employee is capable and, in fact, responsible, for establishing and maintaining the character and values of their organization. The employee sweeping the floor in the shipping department is no less responsible than the CEO in creating and sustaining the character of our organization.
We need to treat our values less like “cool words” on our website and more like a tattoo, permanent and visible for all to see. This is who we are; this is what we stand for. Each of us shapes our organization.
Homework assigment: The next time you put together your annual budget, take it out to the lobby and compare it to your company's mission statement. Make sure you can reconcile the two documents. If you can't, it might be time to update your resume.
Stuart is a principle at Carbon314 operations consulting company in Columbia, S.C.