Busi­nesses that say it as it is meant to be

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Lucy Kell­away

LAST week, af­ter a long pe­riod of stu­pid­ity from the cor­po­rate world, three as­ton­ish­ingly sen­si­ble things passed over my screen all at once. Two of them came from small com­pa­nies, but the third came from one of the world's largest - and re­cently one of the least pop­u­lar - or­gan­i­sa­tions: Ama­zon. The first ex­am­ple was sent to me from a reader in South Africa, who had just landed a new job and had to sign the com­pany's code of con­duct. This read: "Do The Right Thing, At The Right Time, With­out Fear­ing The Risks." That was it.

Even though the state­ment is un­spe­cific, it is a big im­prove­ment on the usual in­ter­minable list of don'ts. Most codes of con­duct are so long that the only in­tel­li­gent thing for an em­ployee to do is tick the box at the end with­out hav­ing read a word (thus dis­obey­ing the code be­fore they've even started) and for­get all about it.

A sin­gle scary sen­tence in block cap­i­tals is an im­prove­ment as at least it con­veys the gen­eral idea that wrong­do­ing is not the thing.

The next ex­am­ple came from a small Aus­tralian hedge fund look­ing for a new hire. In­stead of spout­ing the usual non­sense about proac­tive team play­ers and skill sets, it said it wanted some­one "(a) very bright (b) in­ter­ested in the in­vest­ment process, and (c) most im­por­tantly cu­ri­ous". It added: "What we re­ally want is a b******* de­tec­tor" - for which it spec­i­fies an ap­ti­tude for maths and science.

It wound up with the warn­ing that "be­ing a small or­gan­i­sa­tion you are in­evitably "long" us as we will be "long" you. There is ca­reer risk. This can be good and bad. If you do well and we do well it might be very good. If ei­ther of those things don't play out this might wind up be­ing a bad ca­reer choice."

This is hon­est, funny, ac­cu­rate and help­ful. It al­most makes me want to ap­ply; if I were any good at science, I just might.

Both ex­am­ples, from Machi.biz and Bronte Cap­i­tal re­spec­tively, show how big com­pa­nies could do things bet­ter. Yet I fear that if ei­ther of these out­fits ever gets big, they will for­get how to be sen­si­ble.

Size means com­pli­ance and HR de­part­ments, which en­sure that good sense - let alone per­son­al­ity or sharp­ness - are elim­i­nated. Yet then there is Ama­zon, which has be­come my pin-up for the no-non­sense large or­gan­i­sa­tion.

For a cou­ple of years we've known that the re­tailer is mean to its ware­house work­ers. Now we know it is hard on its of­fice work­ers, too. Yet as I read the latest ar­ti­cle in the ' New York Times' and clicked through to the com­pany's 14 prin­ci­ples, in­stead of be­ing re­pulsed I found my­self cheer­ing its good sense.

Prin­ci­ple #9 is fru­gal­ity, which I've never be­fore seen held up like this. Of course lead­ers should be fru­gal - it's not their money they are spend­ing. Another prin­ci­ple reads: "Have back­bone; dis­agree and com­mit." I like this one too. In most com­pa­nies ev­ery­one thinks just the same (de­spite the pre­tence of di­ver­sity) and those who don't, keep quiet.

Yet the prin­ci­ple that had me throw­ing my hat in the air said lead­ers "are right, a lot".

To any­one not well schooled in cor­po­rate non­sense this might seem a bit ob­vi­ous. But most com­pa­nies have so fallen for the trendy idea of "fail fast, fail of­ten" they have started to talk as if be­ing wrong were su­pe­rior to be­ing right.

So what are we to make of the fact that this com­pany, which is so sub­ver­sively sen­si­ble, is so hor­rid to its work­ers? I have a nasty feel­ing the two things are con­nected.

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