Here is an annoying and gross thing about cats: they throw up in the night. Sometimes they are on your bed when that happens, which usually means a lot of thrashing around, trying to dislodge the cat before it creates unanticipated nocturnal laundry. Other times it happens in the hall, the bathroom or the kitchen, and the way you find out your cat has been sick in the night is by stepping in it (the barf, not the cat). Usually in bare feet. Occasionally it is still a bit warm. Mostly it is not.
Cat puke is nasty, and you know what else is? Corporate values statements. You know the ones I mean: seven to ten sentences that are meant to help you be a good person at work. They say stuff like:
All of our employees are important.
We act with honesty and integrity in everything we do.
Our customers always come first.
But let’s be honest, 99 percent of all corporate values statements are cat puke. Here’s how you can tell:
If employees find out about your corporate values by stepping in them, they are cat puke.
The stepping in usually happens when they join the company and some HR person shoves the little laminated card in front of them or gives them a pencil holder with the values printed right on the outside.
They also step in them on your intranet while they’re trying to get something useful done, or on the bulletin board when they want to put up a poster about not stealing yogurt or in the emergency meetings following an executive being perp-walked out by people in uniforms.
Anytime you have to put your corporate values out in front of your employees like a spike strip in front of a drunk driver, they are cat puke.
If you can’t remember ever firing someone for acting contrary to those values, they are cat puke.
Everyone likes to trot out Enron as the ironic example of a company that made values noises about integrity and then screwed the entire state of California; sadly it goes on all the time. Companies that find themselves scrubbing crude oil off waterfowl, recalling millions of cars and paying hefty environmental fines also have posters in their lunchrooms about operational excellence, honesty and being kind to bees. If someone violates one of your values, they should be fired. If living up to that value is not a big enough deal that it results in dismissal then it is a cat puke value.
If you have more than two or three they are cat puke.
Here’s how this goes: about every five years someone decides it’s a good idea to review the values (also, tragically, the mission and vision statements). HR gets involved, committees are formed and the lists just get longer because one of our values is that everyone’s opinion counts and that means their stupid idea for the values needs to be included.
Folks, values come from the top. They are the very tippy top of the organization declaring what they stand for and what they expect people to do. If your values can’t be Tweeted, you have too many and they are cat puke.
If they are thundering glimpses of the fuc*ing obvious, they are cat puke.
In most places, we hire adults. (If your company is hiring actual children, you really need to take a look at your values.) Assuming you have done a reasonable job of vetting your employees, you can probably assume they know to be respectful to their coworkers, polite to their customers, collaborative with their teammates and careful with the company’s money.
They will generate value for shareholders and increase your market share just by showing up, and most of them will act with integrity most of the time. If any of these things need to be spelled out for your workforce, you have got a very big problem that has nothing to do with values. If you employ grown-ups, and you have values that tell them to act like decent human beings at work, your values are cat puke.
If you are legally required to do these things, they are cat puke.
Let’s look at diversity. Now I know there are places where the law doesn’t offer much protection to some of the workforce, but for the most part, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual preference and other things. That means that diversity is really not a value it is an act of compliance and common sense. If you have diversity as part of your values and it is not in direct defiance of outdated laws then that is cat puke.
If the first letters of each of your values spell out any word at all, they are cat puke.
How hard could that committee possibly have worked on thinking about good values, when it was doing what amounts to a word puzzle? A certain food court juice vendor’s values spell out “Fiber”. That’s cat puke.
Creating a great culture in any company is difficult, but relying on a set of cringe-worthy pretend values is not going to get you there.
If you want folks to be creative and bring great ideas to the table, build a structure that rewards and celebrates innovation instead of printing it on a coffee mug.
Telling grown-ups to be positive and respectful is insulting. Acting toward them in a positive and respectful way is common sense and generally reciprocated.
If you want people to do the right thing, fire the people who are doing the wrong thing.
I think it’s time we acknowledged the inherent cat pukiness of corporate values lists and statements and simply stopped publishing them.
Let’s put our energy instead into living them.