Monday, 16 June 2008

Firing for Values?

As a subscriber to "Diversity Inc" my interest is always piqued when they get round to the core discussion of "values". This month's issue has a really interesting comment in their "Legal Section" simply they pose the question "Can you fire employees with different values?".

Weldon Latham a discrimination law attorney suggests that companies should exercise caution in these cases. He uses the example of those companies that operated in South Africa during apartheid, he goes on to cite examples of those companies who did not permit the external prevailing rules of apartheid to operate within the rules of their controllable corporate environment. Weldon gives a cautionary note however that a corporation cannot exist entirely removed from the country in which it operates. This is a great point, recently I've been reading about the rights of women workers in Iran - legally they are only allowed 1 term of maternity leave, if they become pregnant again they are forced to resign. In a similar vein, when women are ill, the social security office pays them 66% of their daily wage while men are paid 75%. In the face of national, institutionalised discrimination surely a corporation has a hard road to follow - they can fight the prevailing hegemony of the country in which they operate or chose not to operate in that region at all.

These are broad sweeping issues, polarising to those outside of the countries in question. The question “Hands up who wants to work for a racist company?” is pretty easy to answer, but then what “values” are we willing to negotiate on? As a consultancy should the values-led organisation be wary of which clients they are willing to engage with? Should an organisation ask expect an individual employee to put aside their personal values, attitudes and beliefs for the company’s profit margin?

At ThoughtWorks we do have stated values. They exist as in many other organisations as a web page, in some people’s email signatures and as handy “non-discrimination” notices at the bottom of recruiting ads… how then do we ensure that they amount to more than this? Too often “values” are sloganeering in the extreme, more about marketing position and candidate attraction as hollow as a sweeping “we recruit the best”. How can an organisation ensure that it’s stated values do not loose meaning overtime? In ThoughtWorks we have an answer. The values we publish are the subject of a constant conversation around their use, meaning and also as a set of checks and balances to guide decision making. There are often questioning voices as to the “values alignment” of a particular project and also occasionally of particular individuals, certainly it’s a feature of our recruitment processes, and figures as part of the “Cultural Fit” interview.

There are those people who would take a contract in Iraq at the height of the conflict as it came with a massive salary, “danger money” if you will! There are those people who would only ever consider working for a not-for-profit organisation and even then some are deemed “too corporate” or “only about the money”. I don’t think ThoughtWorkers exist at either of these extremes nor as a body of people are they stuck in a particular mindset – instead happy to measure the flow of information against their own checks and balances – filtering through their own personal values. It is this discussion around our values that gives them their strength – they cease to be meaningless corporate lip-service and become a living, breathing part of life at ThoughtWorks, we don’t expect people to recite them by rote but chances are they are already living them.