Peter Lynch of Fidelity Investments once told me that he always made a point of checking out the bathrooms of companies he visited when scouting for his Magellan Fund. I can't imagine what Lynch gleaned from those inspections, but who am I to quibble with the methodology of one of America's top stock pickers? Besides, I have an idiosyncrasy or two of my own when it comes to evaluating companies.
I believe, for example, that you can learn a lot about a company's character just by looking at its employee manual. I've made a study of these manuals over the years. The typical one reads like the corporate equivalent of a prenuptial agreement and leaves the reader with the distinct feeling that he or she had better retain counsel before entering into a relationship with the company that produced it.
Then there's The Fool Rules! A Global Guide to Foolish Behavior. It's the handbook given to anyone "Foolish" enough to go to work for the Motley Fool Inc., the folks who bring you the personal-investing Web site of the same name.
The Fool Rules! is, for my money, the model employee handbook. It's short, clear, and very funny--in other words, untainted by lawyers. "It was written by a small group of Fools," explains David Gardner, who founded the Motley Fool with his brother Tom. "They gave it to me. I added the jokes and corrected a few typos, and we published it.
"Keep in mind that we never planned to start a company in the first place. We were just cranking out a newsletter. The idea that someday we would have employees, not to mention an employee manual, never even occurred to us. One day we looked around and said, 'Gosh, we have people working here.' Sometime around 1997, we realized we should have something in writing that explains what we do, how we behave, and what we believe in."
In about 20 TV Guide-sized pages, the handbook covers just about everything a would-be Fool might want to know: it includes a mission statement, core values, employment policies, and pay and benefits practices, as well as guidelines for appropriate Foolish behavior. There's also a two-page overview of the company structure, describing what each of the various departments does. Those two pages actually give you a pretty good idea of how the company works. More important, they broadcast a sense of respect for the contribution everybody makes.
What's most striking about The Fool Rules! is its tone, which is set in the foreward: "Let it be said that this handbook cannot and does not cover every single little thing about working at The Motley Fool. For subjects not covered ('Why are there so many bald guys at this company?...') ask your supervisor....Just keep in mind that the meaning of life issue is a philosophical one and can really only be answered by you."
The manual includes a clear and spirited description of the company's mission, both to educate and to entertain: "By approaching the very serious business of investing in a down-to-earth, lighthearted manner, we take the mystique out of investing by making it understandable and, yes, even fun!"
And, of course, there's the requisite legal boilerplate. Under "Exit Procedures," for example, The Fool Rules! notes that "the company maintains an employment-at-will policy," and goes on to explain in plain English exactly what that means.
On the other hand, it's doubtful that anyone reading this manual would be interested in experiencing those exit procedures. The Fool Rules! makes you want to work for the company, not walk away from it. You get the clear sense that these people have an awful lot of fun, even as they're deadly serious about what they do.
"We love business," says David Gardner. "We love the game of it. We've always loved games. We're dedicated to the belief that the subjects of money and business shouldn't be intimidating. If that's true, then neither should our company be intimidating."
If The Fool Rules! is any indication, it isn't.
You can obtain a copy of the handbook by E-mailing HRinfo@fool.com.