Deliberate Acts of Decency
Author: Steve Harrison (Reprinted with permission from Society for Human Resource Management.)
Posted: December 15, 2007
Words of Wisdom
"You don't need a budget. You don't need permission. You do need to take action."

by Steve Harrison

  • "Reuben Mark, chairman and CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, credits his success to a simple decision. "I have made it my business to be sure that nothing important or creative at Colgate-Palmolive is perceived as my idea," Mark says.
  • When he was CEO of Nabisco, Douglas Conant wrote five to 10 personal notes every day to employees and others recognizing their contributions.
  • Jim Donald, CEO and president of Starbucks, insists that hour-long meetings be completed in 45 minutes. While everyone appreciates economical meetings, the power of the practice goes to what Donald does with the time savings and invites others to do. Donald takes the extra 15 minutes to call someone-a customer, colleague, partner or vendor-whom he usually does not contact every day.

These are examples of practices I call business decencies. A business decency is a gesture offered without expectation of reward that in ways small and large changes the corporate culture for the better. You don't have to be a CEO or senior executive to practice decencies. You don't need a budget. You don't need permission.

You do need to take action.

What's a Decency?

Decencies represent many things. "Warm fuzzies" is one of them, and that's OK because that subjective feeling builds bridges between colleagues and engenders a comfortable sense of community. But decencies need to be more if we want them to be effective in molding a corporate culture. Effective decencies have most or all of the following characteristics.

  • Actionable. A decency is both an action and a catalyst for action. The only effective way for an organization to change is by changing behavior. The act of choosing to perform a decency signals an immediate change in the behavior of the manager who offers it. The behavior of the person who receives the decency may also change. He or she may be inspired by the decency to perform better or communicate more effectively, or he or she may emulate the decency to other co-workers. Taken together, the initial action and the catalyzed action affect the culture of the organization for the better.
  • Tangible. A decency is observable or causes a measurable change to the environment. An intangible decency, by contrast, is a virtue such as integrity or honesty. These are desirable qualities to strive for. When these qualities are expressed in a way that is tangible, the virtues become decencies. They are perceptible by the senses and memorable.
  • Pragmatic. A business decency must be guided by a sensibility that refers to good judgment, discrimination and balance. It's not hard to let one's imagination run wild in a world of no constraints, but in business where constraints are very real, decencies that are pragmatic have the best opportunities for success.
  • Affordable. A business decency must be within the financial means of the manager or the organization. Small decencies, by definition, incur very little or no monetary cost. Small decencies must also be affordable in other ways. They cannot encumber the organization with undue overhead, unfunded mandates, legal liability or costly precedents.
  • Replicable. A decency offered to an individual is always welcome, but if the gesture is so constituted that it can be offered to only one individual, it does not rise to the level of a small decency. It's a one-off. A small decency should be able to function gracefully for more than one individual, in organizations of various sizes. Or, it should be able to evolve within a single organization as the size of that organization expands or contracts.
  • Sustainable. Decencies are most effective when they are implemented for today but are also available for the future. A decency is sustainable when the good will it generates for the organization over the long run more than compensates for the resources invested in it.

A Small List of Small Decencies

Business decency, a subset of human decency, comes in many forms. Even saying "good morning," remembering someone's name and saying a quick thank you are elementary decencies. Those, in particular, are most conspicuous by their absence. Here are a few other decencies that are common in companies with strong cultures that try to do the right thing:

  • Rearrange seating at meetings to dissolve barriers and make it easier to connect with attendees.
  • Write one thank-you note on paper or via e-mail each day.
  • Give praise in public, criticism in private.
  • Take time to talk to receptionists, administrative assistants and maintenance people.
  • Acknowledge the family, friends and outside interests of people who work for you.
  • Convey bad news in person.
  • Make yourself easily accessible by having regular open office hours.

Take time one day to think of other small acts of decency you can use with your team. Then, empower your team members to come up with others that can be practiced and shared throughout the organization. Once people see that you're serious about it and that you practice the decencies yourself, they will want to engage in the acts as well. Pretty soon, as one leader, you will have helped to create a new kind of corporate culture.

Steve Harrison is chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison, a global leader in career management solutions based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., and author of The Manager's Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Harrison welcomes examples of decencies. For more on the book or to submit your decencies, visit