You can’t run a company on fake values

by | Feb 5, 2011 | Marketing

If your values live only on your company’s walls, you might as well not even have them

You may have heard of a large energy company called Enron. Here’s a fun except from their code of ethics:

Respect. We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.

Integrity. We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.

Communication. We have an obligation to communicate. Here we take the time to talk with one another, and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

Excellence. We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Those values were posted in their lobby. They were engraved on plaques. They were given away as paperweights. There was even a puzzle.

What happened? According to Wikipedia:

At the end of 2001, it was revealed that Enron’s reported financial condition was sustained by an institutionalized, systematic, and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has become synonymous with willful corporate fraud and corruption.

It turns out those weren’t Enron’s real values. While those plaques did a great job of impressing outsiders with the appearance of a stable and righteous organization, the company’s core was rotting.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, key Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins said that “Enron’s unspoken message was, ‘Make the numbers, make the numbers, make the numbers—if you steal, if you cheat, just don’t get caught. If you do, beg for a second chance, and you’ll get one.’”

The company’s performance evaluation process, which had the unofficial internal nickname of “rank and yank,” required departments to conduct annual peer reviews and fire the lowest-ranking 20% of its employees. You can imagine the kind of backstabbing that must have happened during those peer reviews.

Had they really lived those values, Enron probably would have had a long and prosperous story well into the future. Instead, they tried to cheat the system, and turned one of the world’s leading energy companies into one of the history’s largest bankruptcies, a business scandal that devastated countless individuals and families and sent shockwaves through the economy.

There are countless companies around the world who treat their stated values with similar disregard. They live on plaques and marketing pieces, but they don’t live in the hearts of the people who work at those companies every day. They’re not living up to their own promises, and that can only have negative consequences in the long run.

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