At the core of every organisation lie the key values and the ways of doing business that help define how staff should behave.
While codes of behaviour are normally spelled out in the company rule or handbook – a document that every employee has access to, but which only the most dedicated will have read all the way through – their content is rarely controversial.
In the case of performance and talent management software firm SuccessFactors, which has attracted publicity recently for its bottom line on ‘assholes’, the official handbook has become a must-read.
For far from simply waving new recruits vaguely in the direction of HR or the company intranet – where a copy of the firm’s ‘bible’ will be open to perusal – SuccessFactors expects all would-be members of staff to read, sign and date a 15-point ‘rules of engagement’ document before they start work.
While most of the rules are as bland as they are unenforceable – number one is a commitment to “be passionate” about the job, while number 14 obliges employees to “have fun at work” – it is the rear end of the document that has prompted both praise and outrage.
By including rule number 15, which states: “I will be a good person to work with. I will not be an asshole,” critics claim that SuccessFactors has become a serious hostage to fortune.
But after six years of trading in which employee numbers have grown to 500 and the customer base to more than 1,300, HR director Jennifer Boyd – who says that the firm occasionally substitutes the word “jerk” when communicating rule 15 to more sensitive employees – does not agree that the company is in danger of making an ass of itself.
“Our rules may well sound a bit Big Brother-ish to firms that don’t spell out what they expect of staff in this way, but the vast majority of people we talk to find it refreshing that we are so candid about what we want and don’t want, and are able to use the appropriate language,” she says.
“I’m not saying that people here don’t occasionally act like jerks when they are under pressure, and on one or two occasions we have had to let people go because of out-and-out asshole behaviour.”
Boyd continues: “Because we are so open about these terms, though, it is perfectly permissible for a colleague to tell another that he or she is acting like an ass, or a jerk, and often to stop the negative behaviour in its tracks, without it creating all sorts of problems.”
While SuccessFactor’s candour has a growing list of US admirers – the company claims that Intel and Southwest Airlines are among the firms to be considering introducing their own, equally bold, rules of engagement for staff – the UK working culture, not to mention our linguistic attitudes, are very different, says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
“It’s fine to have this sort of thing in a media organisation or trendy PR firm, but I can’t see it catching on in the rest of corporate Britain, where most employers would consider the use of such pejorative language as a minor misdemeanour in itself.
“Asking people to sign up to the company rules is rather oppressive in my view,” Emmott adds. “It indicates a parent/child relationship between management and employees, which in most cases isn’t necessary, particularly not when basic employment law takes care of what we might call asshole behaviour.”
He continues: “I’d want a precise definition of what constitutes asshole behaviour, and how any breaches of the rules would be handled by the firm, before I signed that sort of document.”
Google doesn’t ask its staff to sign an agreement, but it admits to having forceful ideas about the people it wants to employ and how they should behave on a range of issues, including drugs and alcohol, weapons and workplace violence, and even bringing pets to work – Google being a ‘dog-friendly’ firm where cats aren’t always made welcome.
“Our philosophy and culture are very important to us and there are certain sorts of people who do far better here than others, but we would never expect an employee to sign something like this,” says a Google spokeswoman.
“Our informal corporate motto is ‘don’t be evil’, and while we generally relate those words to the way we serve our users, we also hope that our core values dictate how we behave to each other as Google employees.”
One of the SuccessFactors rules of engagement – number seven – concerns self-improvement, or what the Japanese call ‘kaizen’. It reads: “I will constantly improve – Kaizen! I will approach every day as an opportunity to do a better job, admitting to and learning from my mistakes.”
Despite the shared language, though, Robert Myatt, director of Kaizen Consulting, has no truck with rules of engagement. “I have no doubt that a ‘no assholes’ rule is catchy in some circumstances, but I think many people in Britain would be uncomfortable about using those sorts of words in a mission statement.
“The really important thing is that the business’s leaders stick to the principles that have been agreed on. It is their behaviour that will show new people how they are expected to operate and will also demonstrate whether behaving like an asshole is actually acceptable or not inside that organisation.
“It’s important to define what your values are, even if they are a list of well-trotted out clichés to do with integrity or putting the customer first, but if they are merely printed on mouse-mats or mugs, without being followed through day by day, they have no meaning whatsoever.”
He adds: “I feel strongly that there should be no attempt to make people sign up to values. Giving the nod to a code of conduct should always be enough.”
Case study: Google
“The perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want,” says Google’s co-founder Larry Page.
The Google Code of Conduct, which applies to all employees, contractors, consultants, directors and temporary workers, is to “hold yourself to the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct”.
In addition, the firm has come up with 10 basic ‘truths’ that it believes sum up many of the issues wrestled with by staff:
Focus on the user and all else will follow.
It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
Fast is better than slow.
Democracy on the web works.
You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
You can make money without doing evil.
There’s always more information out there.
The need for information crosses all borders.
You can be serious without a suit.
Great just isn’t good enough.
Case study: John Lewis Partnership
John Lewis Partnership uses the phrase “Powered By Our Principles” to encapsulate its basic company values or ‘DNA’. They are:
Although partners do not sign to signify their agreement to the firm’s values, Darren Sargent, general manager, employment policy and reward, says that “as the six are implicit in appraisals, any behaviour outside of these values can be picked up.”