Are your company values important enough to fire people over?

Warning: Rant ahead.

Odds are the company you work for will fire employees for serious criminal conduct. And maybe for sexual harassment, or BSIP (Behaving Stupidly In Public).

But does your company fire people for VVs (values violations)? You know, values like respect and integrity (from Enron’s values list), or performance, innovation, progressive, and green values (from BP’s Lubricant Business).


I got a call recently from a BWKC (Big Well Known Company); it employs many VSPs (Very Smart People). Here is what they said:

We have a group of VHPS (Very Highly Paid Salespeople). They’re mainly commission-paid and very successful. Problem is, they don’t pitch-in on corporate initiatives—recruiting, people development, internal sessions.  They prefer to focus just on making more money. 

We want to incent and motivate them to be more participative. We’re looking for ideas from other commission structure industries that have figured out how to keep the high-pay but incent and motivate team behavior.

OK. This is like meat to Pavlov’s dogs. There is such a feast of things wrong with that statement: where, oh where, to begin! 


1. “Incenting Values” is an Oxymoron

The call came from a staff person. Which means somewhere, there’s an RDB (Really Dumb Boss) who is thinking, “How do I motivate my employees to live the company values?” Here’s what that boss should be saying:

“It has come to my attention that y’all are not showing up to do some real basic stuff. Further, I understand this is because you’re not ‘motivated’ or ‘incented’ to do these things.

“Instead, y’all are getting rich at the corporate buffet by cutting in line. You’re eating scrambled golden eggs while you’re starving the goose that lays them. You’re suckling at the teats of the money-pig and refusing to clean up the pen. So I got some motivatin’ for you.

“First, TCSRN (This Crap Stops Right Now). Starting today, if I see any more of this, it’s LDHYWGLSY (Let the Doorknob Hit You Where the Good Lord Split You). Adios. 

“And if that’s not incentive enough for you, I can OUCOWA (Open Up a Can of Whup Ass) and show you the door.

You don’t “incent” values. Values are Jacks for openers, table stakes. If you’re not motivated to live by your company’s values, your company should tell you that you’ve got the wrong company. If you insist on incentive for living your company’s values, your company should politely suggest that your employment contract should be incentive enough.

This company basically has three choices:

1.    Exempt the salespeople from the values, and say so publicly; at least that’d be honest;

2.    Tell the salespeople this is non-negotiable, and a firing offense (fat chance); or,

3.    Just keep the values on the website where they belong, away from the money, now walk away, nothing to see here…

2. When Did We Start Calling Boneheadedness “Smart?”

This company is hardly unique—and you all know it. We have an epidemic in Corporate America of what I’ll call behavioralism, the beliefs that:

a.    nothing’s real if you can’t measure it;

b.    management consists largely of placing the correct amount of cheese in front of just the right rats at just the right points of the maze;

c.     really ‘smart’ people are the ones who can model, quantify and produce metrics with respect to cheese, rats and mazes.

Push this line of thinking far enough and you get entire BWKCs, with lots of VSPs, who don’t have the commonsense to spot a values issue when it personally insults them to their face. And yet we call them ‘smart.’

The word ‘smart’ has come to be, in the anthropological dictionary that is daily corporate usage, synonymous with high SAT scores, good colleges, spreadsheet-dexterity, quantitative skills and a belief that human-life-is-messy-but-fortunately-we’re-figuring-out-the-neuro-secrets-behind-it-all-and-we’re-nearly-there. 

How else to describe VSPs (and the companies who hire them) who have no other mental construct for management besides money-cheese-rat-metrics? Concepts like wise, commonsense, intuition, curiosity, empathy, relationships—these have no place in the world of VSPs.

Let’s all just give up on ‘smart;’ that word’s been co-opted. Let’s find something else. May I suggest we take ‘wise’ for a spin. And start by not using it lightly.

3. Tactics Are Not Management

Three years ago I wrote about The CEO vs. the Bankers. The CEO was an MBA from the late 1970s and was, as he put it, amazed at how little the newer MBAs seemed to know. He was talking about VSPs, too—from, as he put it, “Goldman Stanley, Morgan Sachs.” 

It’s a great read, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the gist of it was: the new MBAs had been taught analytical techniques—tactics. The CEO had learned strategy: the wisdom kind, not the numbers kind. And when you read his story, you realize that in the real world, all those ‘smart’ models were dead wrong, and he was dead right.

Not only do we over-celebrate ‘smart,’ the concepts our ‘smart’ people are focusing on are not—systemically—wise. Our best and brightest are learning to do things that aren’t good.

What things? Looking at transactions, not systems. Believing that everyone only pursues their own interest. Believing that letting those who do pursue only their own interest somehow magically produces wealth and happiness for all. Believing that human emotions are most effectively dealt with through physical abstractions like chemistry and behaviors. 

Most of all: believing that values are something for which you can incent or motivate people.

What’s to be done? A good start would be to find out if anyone ever got fired for a values violation in your company. And if not, to seriously question how seriously your company takes its values. 

OK, end of rant-warning. All clear. Thanks for listening.

18 replies
  1. Jan Zerfoss
    Jan Zerfoss says:

    Hooray, amen, and thank you for posting this music to my ears; what a great way to start a new week!

    I’ll bet more RVCE (really value-consceinced employees) have quit a company because the company violated their personal values than the other way around.


  2. Ann Kruse
    Ann Kruse says:

    Charlie – What a great rant!  And a great way to start the week!  Now, the real question, of course is whether you KAR (kick-ass rant) or SW (sage wisdom) ever made it up to the executive suite of that BWKC.


  3. Jim Keenan
    Jim Keenan says:

    Fantastic post,  

    My favorite tool to manage through this is the results vs behaviors 4 quadrant matrix.   Results are great, and behaviors are equally as important.  

    The inability for companies to fire based on values is a result of fear.  As you said, they are not measurable, so to fire someone who produces measurable results for behavioral reasons takes courage few in the corporate world have. 

    Great post.  

  4. James A. boyd
    James A. boyd says:

    Great post Charlie,

    This makes me appreciate my employer even more.  I am commissioned sales, but also support company values.  That is becasue we have a very conscious and deliberate practice of hiring for compatibility with values and culture first and skills and knowledge second or third.  We can always teach the latter; the values and culture have to be part of the person’s soul.

    Make it a great day.


  5. Ron Buck
    Ron Buck says:

    Good Morning Charles:

    Predictably the sun has come above the horizon and Charles Green’s blog has come above the noise!!  Thank you for makin it another great day!


  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I think James Boyd makes an important point: “…We can always teach the latter (skills and knowledge); the values and culture have to be part of the person’s soul.”


    For me, this truly is the “heart” of the matter. Values – True, Core Values – are not intellectual, cognitive or mental-logical constructs, albeit many spend waaay too much time intellectualizing about them rather than walking/living/feeling them.  Values are constructs driven  by one’s heart and soul.


    At work (and dare I say, for many, at home as well), folks (have already) decided, albeit unconsciously, early on whether they take a “task-orientation” to life or a “person-orientation.” This is a continuum – on one extreme end is the “all-business” person(the drill sergeant, the bully, the obsessed…) and on the other extreme) is the “I need you to like me” person (sycophants, psychopaths, emotionally needy-types). Most of us are somewhere in the middle…


    Your graphic is apt, Charlie, for me, as we create our values at an age close to this little tyke, based on how  we were raised and how we experienced out parents’ experiences with work. Many of our values, first, are not “my values.” They are those of our primary caregivers, then relatives, then others we were around as we grew up. Secondly, many of our values are unconscious…habitual and programmed behavior…many folks spend more time justifying and rationalizing why they are “all business” or a “people-person” than they do wondering how their values came to occupy specific real estate in their brain (not their hearts).


    In my experience, a conscious, healthy balance between being “task-oriented” and “people-oriented  comes from an “inside out” perspective, where one has spent sufficient time reflecting on the value and worth of both tasks and people. For these folks the choice is “both/and,” not ”either/or.”  


    Incentive, too, is thus a “built-in” driver that is a function of what we do or don’t value. The operative questions here are” (1) whose values are “my values” anyway? and (2) why do I value what I value and de-value what de-value? That is, what makes me a “both/and” person or an “either/or” person? And, most importantly, why?


  7. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    Nice post Charlie.  I like it when you talk dirty like that.

    LDHYWGLSY & OUCOWA  hahaha

    You could boil it down further  "carrot or stick – which, when and how much of either or both?"

    One issue, perhaps not relevant to values, but related nonetheless: its all very well getting tough with people, but one has to be veeeery careful. Changing or refining the expectations under which people work, at least here in NZ, means a whole process of contract negotiations and written agreements. There is NOTHING worse for a small business owner than to get dragged through employment court – especially by a non-performing ex-staffer who is tearfully recounting their ‘harrowing’ experiences at my hands. So, its all about setting up expectations from the outset… and communicating these very clearly, then staying consistent in all cases with all staff.

    Cheers all


  8. Derek Irvine, Globoforce
    Derek Irvine, Globoforce says:

    (Charlie, my apologies if this is a double-post. I’m not sure I made it past the spam filter successfully.)

    Charlie, I very much appreciate your passion on this topic. I, too, agree INCENTING someone to live the values is a wrongheaded approach. However, I do strongly believe RECOGNIZING someone for demonstrating the values has very great power in an organization.

    The difference is significant. You’ve outlined well the processes for incenting. Recognizing, however, only ever happens after the fact and is always a surprise. If you allow anyone to notice and appreciate behaviors of colleagues that reflect your values, and you encourage such recognition frequently, employees begin to understand how to live out the values in their daily work — taking the values off the wall and making them real.

    The problem of values arises when a company has its STATED values (on a plaque on the wall, coffee mugs, ID badges) that are entirely different from the demonstrated and TOLERATED values. Regardless of the STATED values, it’s the TOLERATED values around which the culture is formed.

    Think of it this way — ENRON had several stated vales, included integrity. But they sure didn’t demonstrate integrity in their work. The company culture was very much one that encouraged deceit and profit at all costs.

    So how do you merge your STATED values come alive to contribute to and create the company culture you want? The most effective way is also the most positive — through strategic recognition. This is "after the fact" recognition that catches employees behaving in the right way, and then specifically calls them out for it. In a formal recognition program, we strongly recommend using your company values as the reasons for recognition and then allow anyone in the organization to formally recognize anyone else. What would this look like?

    "John, thank you for the INTEGRITY you demonstrated when dealing with customer X. It was a difficult situation for reasons ABC, but you consistently held to our standards as a company while still responding to X’s needs in the most appropriate way as well. Well done."


  9. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Derek Irvine’s comment: “In a formal recognition program, we strongly recommend using your company values as the reasons for recognition and then allow anyone in the organization to formally recognize anyone else. What would this look like? "John, thank you for the INTEGRITY you demonstrated when dealing with customer X. It was a difficult situation for reasons ABC, but you consistently held to our standards as a company while still responding to X’s needs in the most appropriate way as well. Well done." got me thinking.


    First, I find it curious that there’s a ”technology” for recognizing people for doing the right thing, i.e., “strategic recognition.” Curious because we, in Western society, seem to have/need technologies to drive behaviors that would appear, to me at any rate, to be common, if not normal, e.g., recognizing others, thinking positive, listening to others, fostering inclusivity, loving thy neighbor and the like – you know, being and acting like decent, respectful  human beings.  But, it is what it is.


    The comment calls to my mind the wonderful Liberty Mutual ads  – “When people do the right things it’s called responsibility…..” where folks just plain provide support to another on the spur of the moment, without (expecting) “recognition,” just because it’s the right thing to do.


    What I’m more curious about is this: Do many of the current “Recognition” programs popular in business often morph into  “Recognition and Reward” programs because, after time, “recognition” alone becomes “stale” and “worn?”  


    And, more, does recognition act like a progressive drug…the more I get it the more I need it and what happens if the recognition (reward) I received last (week, month, year…) is not forthcoming or is not as great in quantity or quality this time? For some/many, recognition starts out being a “nice to have” and then ends up being a self-limiting and self-sabotaging” need to have.” What then? Hmmm


    Which leads me to the values thing again….can we “incent” one to come from  their heart and soul (from where all True and Core values emanate)? Intellectual and cognitive motives (so-called values) for acting are ego driven and are seldom transforming or sustainable.


    I’m also curious if John acted in integrity because he actually “values” that value or for some other reason? (his boss was sitting next to him in the interaction; he knew his boss would ask the client how he behaved; he felt he was being coerced into to being compliant…) or whether, as in the Liberty Mutual ad, his heart led him to do the right thing?


    I return to James Boyd’s comment, “…That’s because we have a very conscious and deliberate practice of hiring for compatibility with values and culture first”— and I’m curious whether all/some of these  folks would survive and find purpose and meaning in  their work and live their values without a need for  “strategic recognition” (albeit it’s a nice to have)?


    True values are about self-management and self-responsibility. Motivation is always internal –  even those efforts we deem as external (strategic recognition) need to conform to one’s internal guide (conscious or unconscious) that motivates one to act, or not.


    When recognition leads to a “what’s in it for me” orientation to behavior, as it often does – if  we want to be honest and sincere about it – values may be operating but they are often misplaced or misguided values at best, and most often not the values espoused by the organization….ditto when children are taught “self-management and self-responsibility by allowance.” There are values and then there are values.


  10. Karen Jett
    Karen Jett says:

    This link was sent to me by someone who just yesterday heard me say in my Creating Company Values workshop that values are true 100% of the time and that even if your highest performing employee broke those values, you would fire them.

    I love your approach and couldn’t agree more!

  11. David
    David says:

    This would be a much more impressive article if the author were aware of the fact that "incent" is not a word.

    The correct word is incentivize.

    "incent" is a colloquialism, nothing more.

  12. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    David, I love grammatical fundamentalism as much as the next guy, but here are two definitions from the same source, Merriam Webster Online.

    INCENT: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

    INCENTIVIZE: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

    I realize it’s only Merriam Webster, and it’s only an online dictionary, but, you know, that language is pretty much here to stay.

    Not that you’re etymologically wrong, but–if that’s a primary determinant for you of whether this article was "impressive," go read all the others’ comments: they seem to have had no trouble finding substantive issues about which to be impressed or not without having to reach down past the content.


  13. Billy Pittard
    Billy Pittard says:

    Thanks for your post! Well said! I appreciate your good sense delivered with such passion! 


    When a company has appropriate and well-chosen values that are sincere, it actually becomes easy to fire an employee who does not share those values. They can see for themselves that they do not fit and the termination conversation takes a very civil tone.

    Well-chosen, appropriate, and sincere values also help everyone in the organization make better decisions – including who to hire, how to orient new hires, and how managers can provide meaningful feedback to the staff.

    Coincidentally,  my most recent blog post was also about values.

  14. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, let’s take this advice to it’s logical conclusion:

    You run a company. You are committed to running your organization by a specific set of values. Some people get it, some people don’t. You work with the bad apples. Some of them work it out, some of them don’t. At the end of the process, there are still employees who are never going to get it, and because you really do practice the values you preach, you help them find appropriate employment in workplaces to which their aptitudes and attitudes are better suited.

    And now you’re understaffed.

    So what happens next?

    When you go to hire new people to fill those jobs, how do you avoid your hiring mistakes of the past? What do you do to avoid collecting a new set of bad apples? Do you just repeat your original hiring process and hope that the same procedure will yield a different result? Do you cross your fingers and hope?

    Or, let’s say that you are starting a new organization, and you want to get the right people on the first try. (Good idea!) How do you do that? Is it about behavioural interviewing? How you run references? Blind resume screening? How you source candidates?

    I agree, totally, in the importance of hiring people who understand what your organization is doing and who will work to achieve your goals in a productive way that doesn’t sabotage your clients, your other employees, your reputation, or your long-term goals.

    So how do you find them?

    I hope you’ll address this in an article in the future. And if it’s outside your purview, that’s okay, but I hope you or your readers can share any information you come across on the topic. Because if we all agree to get rid of the bad apples but don’t know how to find the good apples, we’ve identified a problem but we still don’t have a solution–not really.

    In a similar vein, and related to this post, I’d love it if you’d address the related topic of succession planning (/knowledge transfer) in organizations committed to a set of values. If you’ve built an amazing company full of amazing people and you’re ready to retire (or leave for less auspicious reasons), how do you ensure that you can choose a successor who will continue your legacy? (Assuming that you really are committed to those values, and you want all of your amazing people and your amazing clients to continue to thrive when you’re gone.) It’s a slightly different question, but in a way, it’s still about, how do you find a good apple?

  15. Jerry Clegg
    Jerry Clegg says:

    Now, if a company should fire an employee for not measuring up to the company’s values, should an employee fire the company if the company doesn’t measure up to the employee’s standards?

    What should an employee do if his standards are higher than the company’s?

  16. Paul Herr
    Paul Herr says:

    Here is one example of a publicly-held BWKC that fired people based on values: AES Corp under the wise leadership of CEO and co-founder Dennis Bakke.  In his book, "Joy at Work," Bakke documents how he successfully battled (for the most part) legions of VSP both inside (his board) and outside AES (Wall Street);  at least until 9/11 and Enron conspired to devastate the power industry and take Bakke out of the game.   

    Bakke proved that it can be done.  You can build a big, happy, and productive company based values and principles.  The next time you are feeing glum, and see the whole system as corrupt, take a look at Bakke’s success story.  Other examples are Ken Iverson at Nucor Steel (see his beautiful book "Plain Talk"), and Harry Quadracci at Quad Graphics (see "Ready, Fire, Aim" by John Fennel).


  17. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie,  one of the great things about your primers is that it brings out posts that I would have otherwise missed.  This is one of your best rants ever and the volume and quality of comments speaks clearly to its relevance.  It has been said that you can’t claim a value unless it is held unconditionally.  Leadership is all about the passionate communication of a clear set of values.  Putting an incentive in front of a goal tells everyone that it is okay if you don’t meet it.   Either you believe that your value set is integral to who you are or you don’t.  If you’re not willing to make alignment with the value set a condition of employment, don’t bother wasting the ink.  Thanks for this one…it hit the spot!


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