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Will Your Company Culture Flunk This Ethics Test?

All your effort in building a good corporate culture can backfire if your core values aren't communicated clearly. How to make sure your mission statement can withstand the law of unintended consequences.

In many companies, a positive workplace culture is associated with having fun, promoting a family atmosphere and creating an environment where team members enjoy their work every day. It is hard to poke holes in that approach.

But I've realized over the years that there are some inherent risks in this strategy.  Some might feel that because we might have a little more loose culture, it means a lower level of accountability or that we might favor fun over productivity. Not everyone interprets the impact of "culture" the same way.

Unintended Consequences

Case in point:  In my new role as chief culture officer of Stericycle, we are working hard to improve the culture of this global, public company. Not an easy thing to do, and our journey is just beginning. We started by working to define our core values and have opened up communication across the company. But a recent situation reminded me that the message doesn't always reach everyone the same way.

A team member was on-site serving a customer and did something that by all standards would be deemed unethical. The customer called us on it and asked how we were going to resolve the situation. One manager was clear--the team member needed to be terminated. Another manager disagreed and said that our "new" culture demanded that we give people second chances. The second manager even mentioned that the team member had a sick family member so that we should be more compassionate.

How would you handle the situation? In this case, the team member was fired, and I believe that was the right thing to do. And the only real choice.

Developing a set of core values that are genuine means having a set of behaviors that are non-negotiable. They are guideposts that inform our daily decision making and actually make it easier to handle situations like the one I described above.

You see, one of Stericycle's core values is integrity. If we don't have integrity, we don't have trust. And if we don't have trust, we don't have anything in business or in life.

Having fun and being compassionate are big parts of an employee-focused culture.  But that doesn't mean we aren't held accountable for the most important thing in business--our core values.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: Oct 18, 2013

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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