Do you value stability in your workplace? Do you expect to settle into a comfortable routine, and climb the ranks of seniority on a predictable upward trajectory? If so, you should not work at Netflix.
Netflix’s company values are laid bare for all to see thanks to its famous culture deck, which explains in no uncertain terms that the company demands the best from its employees.
Succeeding on a dream team is about being effective, not about working hard,” it says. “Sustained ‘B’ performance, despite an ‘A’ for effort, gets a respectful severance package. Sustained ‘A’ performance, even with a modest level of effort, gets rewarded.
This sink or swim ethos isn’t just talk: In 2018, the Wall Street Journal spoke to more than 70 current and former employees, some of whom thrived under the organization’s ruthless system; others of whom wilted from the constant anxiety of never knowing whether each work day would be their last. One engineer, Ernie Tam, had worked at the company for six years. One Monday morning he was called into his manager’s office and told that he was “no longer a star performer.” An HR representative then showed up to discuss his severance and take his laptop, and that was it.
“I just left the office and never came back,” Tam told the WSJ. “For a period of six years, I was a star performer, then all of a sudden I was not.”
Love it or hate it, you can’t argue that Netflix doesn’t deliver on its core philosophy, even when it’s painful. It takes constant vigilance for a company to stick to its values, and that means practicing them every day, whether it’s convenient or not.
Get rid of meaningless platitudes
According to a survey from Booz Allen Hamilton and Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, 90 percent of corporations identify “ethical conduct” and “integrity” among their principles; 88 percent include “commitment to customers,” and 76 percent preach “teamwork and trust.”
Writing for Harvard Business Review, brand strategist and author Denise Lee Yohn says these are among the five terms she bans in every core values list she works on, the other two being “authentic” and “fun.” Each of these values should go without saying — why wouldn’t your organization be ethical or customer-oriented? Aside from being obvious, none of them offer any information about what makes the company unique.
Differentiation is the key driver of brand power,” she writes. “Your company’s core values must embody what makes your company uniquely ‘you’ — what makes you stand out from others.
A good way to see whether a core value is unique is to ask yourself whether another company could claim the same value and execute it the same way. Zappos, for example, strives to “deliver WOW Through Service.” That goes well beyond simply claiming to be “customer-oriented” — it’s the specific spirit of the brand.
Hire in line with your values
To a large extent, a company’s values are reflected in its employees. That means an employer can’t claim to prioritize collaboration and teamwork, but then routinely hire and promote people who are only out for themselves.
Bob Sutton, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, famously developed what he calls the “No Asshole Rule,” which is what it sounds like: No matter how great a candidate (or employee) is, being an asshole is a dealbreaker. This is something I take seriously at my company, JotForm, where collaboration is core to our product development. For me, there’s no amount of individual talent that will ever be worth sacrificing the team dynamic over.
But while keeping your workplace asshole-free is great in principle, it can be hard in practice. What happens when they’re your top performers? In a post on Medium, Dr. Cameron Sepah writes that hiring in line with your company’s values is the most straightforward way to maintain the sort of environment you want. But hiring good people is hard, and false positives are inevitable. The problem is that even companies with a “No Asshole Rule” in place rarely practice it, and make all sorts of justifications for keeping a toxic employee on.
To assess whether to keep an employee, Sepah employes what he calls a Performance-Values Matrix: Incompetent Assholes should be fired quickly; while Competent Assholes should be given the opportunity to change through executive coaching or therapy. On the flip side, Incomptetent Nice Guys can be put on a traditional performance improvement plan, and Competent Nice Guys should be praised and rewarded accordingly. With this strategy, people have the chance to improve. If they don’t, they need to be shown the door.
Stick to your guns
Backing up your values can come with a cost, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. “Values are priceless, but they are not free,” writes Forbes contributor Curt Steinhorst. He offers the example of several large hotel conglomerates that claimed to “put people first,” but then ignored workers’ requests for better pay, year-round health care and resolutions to safety concerns — despite having a year of record earnings.
After resisting for months, the corporations finally provided restitution once it became clear the workers didn’t intend to back down. Unfortunately, they’d spent the entire interim operating in direct conflict with their core values, ultimately leading them to pay twice — ” once to deepen the divide over values like putting people first, family, and caring, and once to support them,” Steinhorst writes.
It can be easy to lose sight of your company’s values, especially when they seem costly or inconvenient. But failing to do so has a variety of toxic implications, from dispirited employees to loss of public trust.
To make sure you’re living your core values, don’t just tack them on the wall and forget about them. Talk about them. Integrate them into your daily communications, and acknowledge when people are living them, or breaking them. And, of course, practice them yourself: How can your employees be expected to rally around a set of principles that aren’t being upheld by higher-ups?
Don’t establish values you have no intention to keep. Netflix never promised a coddling, “A-for-effort” work environment, meaning it’s highly unlikely a new hire will find themselves blindsided by its ruthlessly competitive atmosphere. Adhering to your values will help guide you during uncertain times, and create an atmosphere that you, your employees and customers can rely on.