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.

6 Replies to “Firing for Values?”

  1. On that topic, the values to which you linked seem to conflict.

    One value is “Actively promote the inclusion of diverse individuals on all teams“. But another is “Seek out truly excellent people who share our passion and values.

    Implicitly, therefore, either the “active promotion” of diversity is severely constrained by the requirements of the latter statement, or the sharing of passion and values is weakened by the promotion of diversity.

    How does it work in practice? Does one of the two conflicting values take precedence over the other?

  2. Hi Frank it’s a great point you make and in truth in real world terms there are possibly more conflicts in the values – how far back in history are we willing to “Redress historic discrimination” there are companies in existence in Germany who were an integral part of the Nazi war machine, there are those in the UK and USA who’s wealth was built on the slave trade. Where we draw the line has to be made on an individual basis, like the organisation that operated within apartheid South Africa – are they compromising their own corporate internal values in order to work in that country/domain/war torn part of the middle east? (Delete as appropriate).

    I do not see a major conflict in the active promotion of “diverse individuals” and those “excellent people …who share our values” – in this instance we are not looking at diversity of a value base at an individual level e.g. “all development teams must have at least one religious fundamentalist” instead the diversity criteria we are referring to are age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and further in a “normal” ThoughtWorks team individuals will have a wealth of life experiences – one recent project based in the UK office was for a US client, worked on by two developers one Brazilian/Japanese and the other Greek, they’ve since been joined by a Guadeloupian. That’s a diverse team make-up which will undoubtedly lead to a pretty innovative solution to the client’s problem. Here “diversity” is the different ways of thinking that act as an enabler for innovation.

    However, you’re right in your assumption that how this works in practice is often a problem, the pain of which is most felt in candidate sourcing. We have to search longer and harder to satisfy both of the criteria diversity/values they are not mutually exclusive for us. As a very simple analogy from biology we simply increase the size of our sample. Our recruitment advertisements are aggregated across the internet, to the “Girl Geek” communities, to ex-pat communities, to organisations promoting those with disabilities and to developer communities in developing nations. How does this help? We can choose to employ those people within those communities who share our values, attitudes and beliefs.

    In essence the interview process is one of sorting for us and equal weight is given to technical excellence as much as cultural fit which incorporates this “checking for values alignment”.

    Of course how to assess an individual’s “values alignment” in an interview setting is another on-going challenge!

    I do not see a major conflict in the active promotion of “diverse individuals” and those “excellent people …who share our values” – in this instance we are not looking at diversity of a value base at an individual level e.g “all development teams must have at least one religious fundamentalist” instead the diversity criteria we are referring to are age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and further in a “normal” ThoughtWorks team individuals will have a wealth of life experiences – one recent project based in the UK office was for a US client, worked on by two developers one Brazillian/Japanese and the other Greek, they’ve since been joined by a Guadeloupian. That’s a diverse team make-up which will undoubtedly lead to a pretty innovative solution to the client’s problem. Here “diversity” is the different ways of thinking that act as an enabler for innovation.

    However, you’re right in your assumption that how this works in practice is often a problem, the pain of which is most felt in candidate sourcing. We have to search longer and harder to satisfy both of the criteria diversity/values they are not mutually exclusive for us. As a very simple analogy from biology we simply increase the size of our sample. Our recruitment advertisments are aggregated across the internet, to the “Girl Geek” communities, to ex-patriate communities, to organisations promoting those with disabilities and to developer communities in developing nations. How does this help? We can choose to employ those people within those communities who share our values, attitudes and beliefs.

    In essence the interview process is one of sorting for us and equal weight is given to technical excellence as much as cultural fit which incorporates this “checking for values allignment”.

    Of course how to assess an individual’s values allignment in an interview setting is another on-going challenge!

  3. How do you choose your diversity criteria?

    “Seek out truly excellent people who share our passion and values.”

    Little diversity there by postively excluding people who don’t match your (narrow?) definition of excellence.

  4. I don’t believe we do have a narrow definition of excellence – ThoughtWorks is wholly inclusive based on an individual’s ability to do the job we need them to do. ThoughtWorks is a software consultancy as an example we employ a lot of developers – we wouldn’t employ a developer who cannot code regardless of any diversity criteria, an individual must first be capable to do the job!

    In my post “Hiring the Best?” I go to lengths to dispell the notion of “excellence” and “the Best” as they are largely lip-service to a set of standards that is uninforceable. I’ve known organisations that will only employ graduates from a “red-brick” university – I disagree with this practise as university choice is more often an indicator of economic position of parental contribution – why would I say no to someone who was an “excellent” developer based on the grounds of an arbitrary measure like university, a test score or the colour of their shoes?

    “Excellence” at ThoughtWorks is a multi-faceted thing, technical excellence with no social skills won’t get you in – we’re a consultancy after all – likewise an Ivory-tower architect who last coded in Cobol in the 80’s will not be successful. We look for bright individuals, eager to learn, to progress and who relish solving problems. We don’t use arbitrary measures and we don’t have a ThoughtWork’s approved brand of “Excellence”.

    As for our choice of diversity criteria this choise has largely been made for us. I’ve recruited for ThoughtWorks in Canada, Australia and the UK where the IT industry is mainly white, middle class and male. So diversity here would be female and non-white. ThoughtWorks go a little further however, we consider age, sexual orientation and ethnicity (not just where your passport was issued from) and personally I believe it’s all these things that go to make up an individual, it is the life experiences that shape them that will enable to offer a different perspective to the team they are in.

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