It All Started With Google

It all started with Google. Almost inevitably it took an American company to really bring the idea of employee values to the mass market. “Don’t be evil”, they said. Whatever you think about the nefarious tax avoidance Google indulges in, it was at least a clear message to people working there. They’re thinking of changing it now, apparently. So just as the market leaders move out of the space, British companies are stepping in.

I was “shopping around” recently to find the best deal on a product that I never see and is utterly identical regardless of who sells it, when I noticed one supplier had just adopted the Google approach. It’s a large company; let’s call it “Utiloscam”. I’m saying no more to protect the horribly guilty. I’ll get to the way Utiloscam has presented its values in a moment. First, let’s look at Google. “Don’t be evil,” sounds fairly banal, doesn’t it? Are we expected to be grateful that a company implores its employees not to embody the ethics of Beelzebub? Well, up to a point. But it has its merits as a motto. Firstly, it’s quite striking. People remember it. It’s short, punchy and makes you think. It’s anti-corporate in its tone – companies never used to talk like that. And because it’s widely known, there must at least have been something nagging away in the back of the Google exec’s mind, as he toyed with the idea of stealing someone’s personal details for profit. Hypothetically.

So, as a value – something to identify the company in the minds of users and workers – it’s pretty successful. And when other companies recognised the usefulness of this, they started to think about doing something similar themselves.

Which brings us to Utiloscam. Now Utiloscam isn’t any more or less evil than any other large organisation, in truth. It seems to suffer from a similar level of delusion about its merits as nearly everyone else selling us stuff. It wants to convince itself that it’s more than what it is – another distressing trait of companies these days – but that can be forgiven for now. No, what is so eye-bleedingly awful about Utiloscam is its approach to values.

Seemingly convinced that one value is good, so seven must be better, Utiloscam has launched upon the world a set of statements so screeching meaningless, that in their faux-positivity, they become a black hole of dreadfulness. I’m not going to analyse in great detail the individual statements – partly because it’s not fair on you to be forced to read them and partly because that’s not really my point. Let’s just say that if you think, as an organisation, you need to tell employees that “we want to make things better” and then in the next breath “we communicate as people”, you are patently doing neither. You communicate as a 1980s Hallmark card and so make things worse.

There’s a reasonable test of the significance of a statement (which admittedly doesn’t always work) that involves stating the negative and seeing if that is worth countering. So, if you say as a company “we’ll reply to you within a day”, it’s not particularly inspiring, but at least makes sense when set against “we won’t reply to you within a day”. It’s got value to the reader – it tells you more about the organisation. However, if you say (using the test) “we want to make things worse”, you know the contrary statement is a waste of type. As for “we communicate as people”, it rather invites the question “what on earth else are you going to communicate as?” A short-haired musk rat?*

I understand what Utiloscam is trying to do. It’s trying to be “normal” and “honest”. It wants to make statements that are unequivocal and show it to be a straightforward kinda place. It has failed. Spectacularly. It’s done the opposite. It’s chosen too many values so it looks like it can’t decide on one. It’s left its audience bemused as to why it felt the need to tell us these things. In an effort to be natural, it comes over as trying so hard that it looks desperate. It’s the small child virtually dislocating its shoulder as it puts its hand up to shout out “Values! I’ve got values! Miss, miss! Me miss! Values!”

So what’s the lesson? These kinds of value statements only have value themselves if they sound sincere, are simple and say more than just the toe-curlingly obvious. If you read them and they make you question their existence – a sort of “that makes me think they’ve got something to hide” response, then they shouldn’t be there. What I thought after encountering Utiloscam’s values is that they don’t have any clear idea of what their values are, but they really think they should have some. It’s a worse than nothing approach.

Or, as Google might have said: “Don’t be needy”.

*I don’t know if such a thing exists. Hopefully it does.

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