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.