For the record, I’m taking issue with the Harvard Business Review. Earlier this year, HBR published an essay by Denise Lee Yohn, “a leading authority on positioning great brands and building exceptional organizations.”
Positing that a company’s core values should “inform, inspire and instruct the day-to-day behaviors of everyone who works at your company,” Yohn listed five words that absolutely, positively should not appear in a core values statement: “ethical,” “teamwork,” “authentic,” “fun” and “customer-oriented.” Yohn believes one shouldn’t have to state the obvious, that companies are supposed to be ethical, collaborative, etc., and therefore it serves no purpose to mention it.
Maybe. But, given the tenor of these times, I’m going to push back on “ethical.” Because I desperately want to know that a company values honor and integrity. I urgently want to believe it’s going to abide by its contracts, treat its employees well, encourage truth and honesty. Heck, the whole #MeToo movement is a welcome, overdue response to lax corporate and personal ethics. Telling us up front that you will do the right and honorable thing shouldn’t be that onerous.
Advertising your intent doesn’t make it so, of course. But I know that advertising it begets believing it. And believing it begets acting it. And then there’s this: Once you’ve committed, failing to act it begets shame and embarrassment.
Granted, some people are bereft of conscience. And some of these conscience-free scoundrels run businesses. And governments. All the more reason to demand they address integrity head on, the same way they might brag about on-time delivery, free returns and high ratings. If corporations — and their CEOs — start broadcasting that integrity is important to them, people might start to pay attention.
Imagine the impact.
Seriously. Imagine it. Because in less than two years, the reverse has happened. Boorish, dishonorable, unethical behavior — under the guise of making America great — has been vigorously, enthusiastically promoted as the way successful “winners” conduct themselves. Bullying is OK. Name calling is funny. Lying is standard operating procedure.
Look at what this approach has accomplished. A frightened, cowardly minority emboldened by someone who has the bully pulpit and, alas, the media coverage to actually foment sleazy behavior finds comfort and camaraderie in ethically questionable conduct. Scary how fast it can happen.
Ultimately, this abandonment of personal and organizational integrity will be reversed. I firmly believe it. Surely we can hasten its departure by embracing a widespread corporate culture that celebrates and actually champions ethical behavior. Hiding it, or failing to mention it at all, serves no purpose. And no one.
Curiously, Yohn ends her HBR essay asserting that a company’s core values should be unique. This means no other company should have the same core values as yours. That’s just plain silly. She’s actually suggesting that if Company A declares the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way to be its core values, then Companies B, C, D, ad infinitum, should not — cannot — accept the same values, no matter how noble.
Kindergartners know better than that. If I’m 5 years old and I learn from my teacher that honesty will take me farther than dishonesty, I’m probably going to make honesty one of my core values. And I’m perfectly OK knowing that most of my classmates are putting honesty in their core-value quivers, too.
Yohn may find this approach lacking in originality. Still, if every company in this country went on Facebook and Twitter, took out ads in their local papers, stood atop their local water towers with bullhorns and proclaimed ethical behavior to be the driving force behind everything else they do, I think it would make America pretty great.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at email@example.com.