Deliberate Acts of Decency

By Steve Harrison Jul 1, 2007

Cover for July 2007 HR Magazine Effective leaders use decencies to build great workforces one gesture at a time.

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. 

At biotech company Genentech, every member of the leadership team has at least one “open office hour” each month—taking a cue from academia, where professors are available to students during office hours. 

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 forty-five 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. 

A company’s culture can be molded—and for the better—by the cumulative power of small decencies. It’s about the way leaders choose to behave—the actions leaders embrace—every day, especially during the quiet moments when we think no one is watching. 

The Two-Minute Schmooze

While I’ve witnessed, received and done my best to offer business decencies throughout my career, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I understood how powerful decencies can be. That power came to my attention as I accompanied Ray, our new chief operating officer, to meet the people at our various offices across the country. We arrived at our first stop, a mid-size branch, and passed through the glass doors into the familiar reception area. As usual, Melissa, the receptionist, was on duty, and I greeted her as I led Ray toward the interior offices. 

Suddenly I found myself being pulled back into the reception area. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Ray said nothing, but guided me back to the reception desk. Then I watched as Ray made an ally and a memory. The first thing Ray did was stick out his right hand, a gesture reinforced by his charismatic smile that generated enough electricity to power a small town, and said, “Good morning, Melissa, I’m Ray. I’m new here. It’s so great to meet you!” After introducing himself, Ray launched into a dialogue with Melissa. She was obviously delighted with the exchange. 

As I closed the door to the meeting area, I looked at Ray. “What was that all about?” I asked. “It’s called the two-minute schmooze,” he replied. “Our receptionists meet or talk by phone to more people critical to our company in one day than you or I will ever meet in the course of a year—people at all levels from all of our branches, our customers, our suppliers, our colleagues, our bosses, our applicants and job seekers. Melissa and the dozens like her are the company’s concierge desk. They control our reputation. And anyway, it’s a decent thing to do, just the decent thing to do.” 

The same principle holds true no matter what position of leadership you hold in the company. The way you treat the employees who connect with the customers will be reflected in how those employees, in turn, treat the customers. Make sure it’s a good connection. 

Ripples in a Pond

I’d like to think I’ve mastered the two-minute schmooze, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. The two-minute schmooze subsequently became widely practiced throughout the company, as I discovered some years later. 

I was visiting another branch office, many miles and many years removed from the place I first encountered the two-minute schmooze. By this time, the decency came naturally to me. As Nancy, the receptionist, and I were talking, Gary, the regional vice president, asked Nancy to give me one of her business cards. Business cards for receptionists? That was new to me. Of course, I expressed immediate interest and she proudly put a card in my hand. Under Nancy’s name, her title stood out: “Director of First Impressions.” 

Ray’s initial decency had created ripples that spread to other locations, enriching the lives of an unknown number of people who work for the same company without necessarily knowing each other. Is it an impact that shows up on a balance sheet? Perhaps not. But maybe the impact is more significant in that it shows up every time a receptionist—director of first impressions—greets a visitor, answers the telephone or responds to a question. 

If the two-minute schmooze empowered just one receptionist, that outcome would be enough justification for the very little effort it required. But what is perhaps more interesting is how role-modeling by one person—one leader—can influence the behavior of many. What is powerful is how one small action that builds someone up can translate into visible, replicable manifestations of what you want your company culture to be. 

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 change 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. Ray’s two-minute schmooze was a discrete action—a conversation—that was a catalyst to encourage other managers to exhibit the same behavior.
  • 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. Melissa, the receptionist, probably recalled the specifics of her conversation with Ray many years later.
  • 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. If the telephone had been ringing or other guests were waiting to be greeted, for instance, it wouldn’t have been practical for Ray to engage Melissa for such an extended conversation.
  • 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. Ray’s two-minute schmooze didn’t cost a cent. 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. Repeating the two-minute schmooze did not in any way diminish its power. 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 Managers 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

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