Evasiveness: the number-one corporate value

Have you noticed how so much business English is written in a bizarrely evasive style? As if it’s been picked over and emasculated by Legal and a host of other paranoid “key stakeholders” (as they no doubt like to be called) before publication? Nowhere is this timorous tone of voice more obvious than in those lists of corporate values that companies feel they have to compile (presumably because everyone else does).

I recently stumbled across a set of corporate values that had the hallmarks of such writing by committee all over it. Here’s how I imagine it happened:

From: Hapless Copywriter

To: Killjoy Corporate Lawyer, Paranoid PR Person, Anxious Investor Relations Bod, HR Have-a-Say and Apprehensive Internal Communicator

Subject: Seven Pillars of Excellence

Dear all

Our external branding agency has advised us to get some corporate values. So after extensive consultation with the Executive Board, I have come up with the following “Seven Pillars of Excellence” (branding agency's term) to which all 63,000 of our diverse employees subscribe:

1. We have integrity 2. We are responsible 3. We are ethical and professional 4. We put our clients first 5. We’re honest 6. We don’t harm the environment 7. We look after our employees

Please let me know if you’re happy with these. As soon as I get your sign-off, Internal Comms can inform our 63,000 diverse employees around the globe what their new values are.

Many thanks

Hapless Copywriter

------------------------------- From: Killjoy Corporate Lawyer

To: Hapless Copywriter

Cc: Paranoid PR Person, Anxious Investor Relations Bod, HR Have-a-Say and Apprehensive Internal Communicator

Subject: Re: Seven Pillars of Excellence

Dear Hapless Copywriter

Please DO NOT publish our Seven Pillars of Excellence before implementing the following changes. To assist your understanding, I have included everyone's core reasonings regarding the final, approved values of our 63,000-strong diverse employee base.

1. We have integrity Can we prove we have integrity? Perhaps safer to say “we have a reputation for integrity”? Killjoy Corporate Lawyer

Think we need to understate the reputation bit, given the fraud case that’s about to hit the newswires. Suggest “a reputation for integrity is essential for our success”. Can’t argue with that! Paranoid PR Person

Sensitivities around the word “success” given our share price has fallen 31% in the last year. Need to emphasise we’re playing the long game. Anxious Investor Relations Bod

Therefore, although not technically a “value”, the following, irrefutable, statement is preferred:

Integrity - A reputation for integrity is essential for our long-term success.

2. We are responsible Not keen on “we are responsible” - sounds like an admission of guilt. KCL

Agree - responsible for what? How about “we are responsible to our shareholders”? PPRP

Again, not with that 31% fall in the share price. Can we fudge with “stakeholders”, which could refer to anyone really? AIRB

Given the above, we suggest the second value shared by our 63,000 diverse employees around the globe should be:

Responsibility – We take responsibility for our actions and honor our commitments to our stakeholders.

3. We are ethical and professional Is there a conflict between the terms “ethical” and “professional”? Esp with “Deviousness” now officially a Core Competency in our Sales team’s Strategic Talent Development Framework Initiative. HR Have-a-Say

How about “we behave in an ethical and professional manner”? That requires our employees to appear ethical/professional, wherever they are on the MBTI Personality Pyramid. Apprehensive Internal Communicator

Agree. Additionally, would suggest insertion of the formula “we are committed” in this value. Conveys our openness to the idea of appearing ethical/professional while protecting us in the event of the mask slipping. KCL

Given these concerns, we prefer:

Trust – We are committed to behaving in an ethical and professional manner.

4. We put our clients first This is a nice sentiment, but I wonder if there’s potential for a loss of brand engagement, given that several large clients are suing us for mis-selling? PPRP

Isn't our defence case built around clients being culpable - our partners in crime, as it were? Any scope to leverage the “partnership” angle? AIRB

Yes, subject to insertion of the ”we are committed” formula to hedge against possibility that we countersue. KCL

Therefore, please amend to:

Service and Excellence – We are committed to being a proactive, principled partner to our clients.

5. We’re honest

Not keen on “honest” - it doesn’t sound very “corporate”. Can we say “transparent” instead? It's the word everyone else uses. PPRP

I like the idea of “transparency”. But too direct to say “we are transparent”. Better to say “we are committed to transparency”? HRHAS

Agree, but we’ve used “we are committed” twice already. To avoid repetition, how about “we seek”? AIC

On the subject of honesty, I feel that not being criminal is a big strategic differentiator in our industry. Can we include a value about our ongoing efforts to obey the law? AIRB

Agree, subject to the insertion of the word “applicable” in relation to the laws to which our employees are expected to adhere. Non-applicable laws to which our employees choose not to comply are not our concern. It's a human rights issue. KCL

Given these points, please replace “We’re honest” with the following two values:

Transparency – We seek constructive, transparent and open dialogue with our stakeholders.

Adherence to Laws and Regulations – Members of the Board of Directors and employees are expected to comply with all applicable laws, regulations and policies.

6. We don’t harm the environment

How does this value square with recent accusations related to our non-retention of sub-recyclable bio-solids? PPRP

Dumping toxic shit on African villages isn’t an issue for our stakeholders, provided we do so sustainably. We need to stress that our view of the environment is long-term. AIRB

Therefore to express our support for sustainable harming of the environment (and the local communities of which we are proud to be a part), please amend as follows:

Sustainability – We conduct our business with a long-term view to support environmental and social sustainability.

7. We look after our employees Given our synergy-related headcount adjustment goals, we might prefer to express this message another way. PPRP

How about “we value the efforts of our employees”? (ie, we reserve the right to performance-manage them out of the organisation if those efforts don’t translate into results). AIC

Also, morale is disappointingly low among those still to be rightsized and we’re haemorrhaging talent. I feel we need to express our aspiration to be a good employer. Let’s be upbeat - we’re not there yet, but it’s something we’re striving to design! HRHAS

Therefore, please replace with:

Commitment – We value the efforts of our employees and strive to create a work environment that is designed to attract, develop and retain talent.

I'm sure you'll agree that the above amendments will deliver significant enhancements to our Seven Pillars of Excellence proposition.

Please confirm receipt of our key inputtings before sharing our new shared values with our 63,000 diverse employees.

All best,

Killjoy Corporate Lawyer


Related post: How committed are you?