Most business owners want to have a positive impact on the world. However, one way to ensure that your positive impact is limited is to tell yourself pleasant myths that distract you from actually doing something about unpleasant facts.

With that in mind, there are four commonly-made corporate statements that simply aren't true and which, in my view, are making things worse:

1. "Our employees are our most valuable asset."

This is a very pleasant sentiment, but like many sentiments, it sugarcoats a not-as-pleasant reality.

If employees were really the "most valuable," they'd be the first to reap rewards when a company does well and the last to be discarded when a company does poorly.

This, however, is seldom the case. When companies do well, they tend to stockpile money, build new facilities, reward investors, and expand through acquisition. Employee raises and bonuses are usually pretty far down the to-do list.

Similarly, when companies do poorly, the knee-jerk management reaction is typically to reduce labor costs through layoffs and outsourcing. Indeed, many companies pursue such tactics when they're doing well.

So the actual truth, for almost all publicly-held companies, is something like: "Within the bounds of what's legal and what won't become a PR nightmare, we do whatever it takes to remain growing and profitable."

And maybe that's okay. I'm no economist, but I think that's called "capitalism."

2. "We are a meritocracy."

Every company claims to hire the best and promote them accordingly.  However, corporations are created, run, and inhabited by human beings and humans are tribal animals.

Tribes stick together, and in the business world, this mean people tend to promote members of their tribe. Knowing the right people--and looking the same as them--is almost always better and more useful than possessing some sort of intrinsic talent.

The problem with pretending that the situation is otherwise allows people to pat themselves on the back for being smarter and better than everyone else, when in fact they just happened to be born into the right tribe.

This is not to say that companies don't try to be meritocracies.  If we were going to speak the truth, though, it would probably look something like this: "We try to hire and promote the most talented people for each job. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not."

3. "We are an equal opportunity employer."

I realize that there may be legal reasons why companies make this claim, but for heaven's sake, let's stop pretending it's actually true.

Consider: Even though every company has been claiming to be an equal opportunity employer for decades, today only 60 (12 percent) of the Fortune 500 have female CEOs and only six (1.2 percent) have black CEOs.

There only two ways to account for this discrepancy. Either sexism and racism are endemic in the business world or white males are inherently better leaders--which of course is sexist/racist nonsense.

Unless you truly believe that your company is the one among thousands that actually is "equal opportunity," perhaps the best thing to say on the subject of equal opportunity is, well, nothing at all.

4. "We are environmentally friendly."

Your corporate headquarters may run on solar energy and have a grass rooftop with grazing goats, but if you use computers, tablets, or cell phones, you're polluting like crazy.

All electronic devices use semiconductors and manufacturing them involves the release of toxic chemicals which either must be dumped or expensively converted into something else.

Most semiconductor manufacturing is today done in China and Taiwan, where lax environmental regulations are seldom enforced.  In Taiwan, for example, there is a river so polluted that people have died, not by swimming in it, but simply by walking next to it.  

Of course, the high tech firms that assemble electronics audit their supply chains. Unfortunately, that auditing is often just a "we're all green" paper trail without independent verification.

I'm all in favor of being eco-friendly, but pretending to be "green" when actually creating gobs of toxic waste only distracts businesses from fixing the problem.

Want less BS where you work? Buy "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Shortcuts and Secrets You Need to Know."

Published on: Apr 29, 2014
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