A few years ago the board of one of the companies I worked with called all the employees together in a series of meetings to debate the nature of the company's culture. To start the discussion we posed the question: "If your neighbour asked you what sort of employer you worked for, what would you like to be able to say?"
Once the ice was broken we listed the business's immediate stakeholder groups--customers, suppliers and employees on the business side; lenders and owners on the financing side--and asked what kinds of relationship it should seek to establish with each one. All relationships were double-sided, of course: what could we expect from them and what could they expect from us ?
Unsurprisingly, the question of what the employees could expect from the company generated the most animated discussion, but the issue of pay was handled very quickly--by reference to the market. What took the most time was the consideration of training and development, which the employees felt ought to be provided, mainly so that they could enhance their skills, and so increase their value to the organisation. In return, they accepted that the company was entitled to a fair day's work from them, with particular reference to seeking to delight the customers.
Next up for debate was the relationship with suppliers. The company, everyone agreed, was entitled to expect quality and reliability on reasonable terms. In return, the supplier should be able to rely on the company to pay its bills on time. The discussion drifted into one concerning customers, because that relationship was quickly seen as a mirror image: what we expect from our customers, our suppliers are entitled to expect from us, and vice versa--"do unto others" and all that.
We could delight customers, suppliers and employees for a while, of course, only to find that the business has run out of cash and has to be abandoned. From the employees' perspective, the dangers were dear, and this led the discussion naturally on to the company's relationship with its financing stakeholders. The providers of funds (lenders and owners) were entitled to a return on their investment--which was reasonable, given the risks they were shouldering--and to as much forward-looking information as possible.
By this point, the importance of balancing the different interests of the various stakeholders was recognised and the word "integrity" began cropping up in the discussion in two forms. On the one hand, it was clear that people wanted to work for a company of which they could be proud--ie, a firm that could be relied upon to do what it agreed to do. On the other hand, the symmetry of our agreed positions relative to those of the various stakeholders struck people as an important outcome--such a company is one that can be trusted in whateverit does. …