“Smoking kills!” – according to the warnings that tobacco companies put on packets of cigarettes. A counter-intuitive view is that this is not so much a warning as a declaration of strategic intent.
Tobacco companies, apparently by their own admission, cannot make a profit without hastening the demise of some of their customers cause and effect are accepted.
Of course, you won’t find any tobacco company with a mission statement declaring that they want to kill anyone. This poses a very interesting dilemma for their HR teams, however, because the loudest mantra chanted by HR in recent years is the need to engage your employees fully with the organisation’s real objectives and values.
This does not seem to present tobacco company HR departments with any particular problem in finding enough people to work for them. Their employees know perfectly well the sort of business they are engaged in. Each individual will reconcile their own need to earn a living with the means to do so.
Similarly difficult choices have to be made and traded off by all employees, especially when they increasingly have to consider issues such as environmental impact and corporate social responsibility. For example, how do NatWest managers feel about being taken to court by their customers who think they have imposed excessive charges? How do Tesco employees feel about putting small corner shops out of business? What about the views of Cadbury’s or McDonald’s sales people about childhood obesity?
But this is not just a dilemma for the profit sector. Doctors and nurses choose to perform abortions and no doubt some Ministry of Defence civil servants harbour personal views about the war in Iraq. None of us can escape having to reconcile organisational objectives with our own, most deeply held, beliefs.
The main issue here, from HR’s perspective, is motivation. If the purpose of HR strategy is to get the best value out of our human resources, and we believe that total engagement is the only way to do that, we had better make sure that engagement is at the deepest level possible. In other words, if we don’t want employees to compromise their values, we should aim to make the hard commercial values required, in high revenue or low costs, totally at one with their personal values.
The power of the ‘value motive’ comes into its own when there is no inherent conflict. But this is not another argument for yet more employee engagement surveys. What is required is a totally open, no-holds barred exploration of the real values that reside in the minds of the board and executive. In effect, a ‘value’ statement has to replace the conventional, anodyne rhetoric of the mission statement. Employees will only allow the organisation to unleash their full potential if they believe best use will be made of it.
Companies that purport to maximise shareholder value, while supposedly promoting their green credentials, need to be able to reconcile both with maximum employee motivation. BP’s recent annus horribilis, which included an Alaskan pipeline leak and a Texas refinery fire, was certainly not a bad year in terms of profits. So what values reside in the minds and hearts of BP maintenance and safety engineers? The value motive, when fully understood in the boardroom, would not treat safety, the environment and the need for profit as mutually exclusive.
When leaders succeed in reconciling all three objectives, making them mutually inclusive and interdependent, employees will not have a problem reconciling their own values either.
By Paul Kearns, director, PWL
Paul Kearns’ latest book The Value Motive – the ONLY alternative to the profit motive, is published by Wiley.