Jeff fit into our company culture at Digital-Tutors perfectly. For years, he used his talents as a designer to create and maintain the standards that defined our growing brand.
One day, I was shocked to find that Jeff harbored a prejudice against one of his co-workers. He passed it off as harmless joking around. Except it wasn’t harmless; it flew in the face of our core value of respect. I had defined that for my tribe as: We will not tolerate the disrespect of people or property.
Jeff’s conduct violated one of our core values, so I let him go.
It can be easy to let “harmless jokes” inch into the realm of unacceptable behavior. Left unchecked, they’ll perforate your tribe’s culture, crumbling even the strongest of them.
Sometimes it’s obvious when a joke goes too far. Sometimes it’s not. Things can get blurry without clear guidelines. When you’re using your core values to measure them, it gets easier to see when that line has been crossed.
Interviewing is your cultural gateway
According to studies performed by UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian, only about 7 percent of communication comes from the actual words spoken. The other 93 percent comes from body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).
Everyone reads body language differently, so at Digital-Tutors, our first interview was always done with a male/female pair. Having two different perspectives helped us compare notes on all those subtle forms of communication that speak louder than words.
Did the candidate look at the person asking the question? Or did they only look at the male or just the female in the room?
Having a pair of interviewers also helps break up any personal bias that a single interviewer might have, creating an internal checks and balance as well. The interview process is the gateway to your tribe. Guard it carefully. To borrow the old Russian proverb: Trust but verify.
Thinking outside the walls
Not all issues occur within the company. This came to my attention when someone told me one of our account reps, Claire, was being mistreated by Henry, the VP of procurement for one of our largest enterprise customers. Immediately, I had a chat with Claire to find out what was happening.
She knew Henry’s company accounted for a significant portion of our revenue. Henry knew it, too. The result was Claire suffering in silence for the benefit of the company’s bottom line.
As a customer, Henry didn’t know about our core value of respect. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t have cared. But Claire did. Asking Claire to follow our core values but tolerate daily interactions with someone who blatantly disregarded them wasn’t protecting the culture. That’s essentially holding Claire to a high standard while simultaneously sending the message that you’re not always going to be treated with those same standards.
My role as the owner was to build and protect our company’s culture. That means setting the expectations for how my tribe will be treated at work each day and then ensuring those expectations are upheld by everyone my tribe encounters on a regular basis—no matter what company’s name is on the paycheck.
The next time Henry called to speak to Claire, I spoke to him instead. Within a few minutes, I had fired Henry’s company as a customer.
At the time, I didn’t have a plan for how I was going to replace Jeff. There wasn’t a procedure in place for recouping the income loss after firing Henry’s company. As a leader, your actions speak louder than words. Jeff and Henry’s scenarios were a chance for me to show everyone in the company that our values were more than just words.
Establishing your core values sets the expectation for your tribe. Your values hold no value until they become more than words. It’s up to you, as a leader, to make that happen for everyone—employees, regular customers and even yourself.