Steve Harrison, co-founder of Lee Hecht Harrison, later LHH of The Adecco Group, died July 10th, 2021. Our last task together was to co-author a book

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A tribute to Steve Harrison 1939-2021 cover
Steve Harrison headshot

Steve Harrison, co-founder of Lee Hecht Harrison, later LHH of The Adecco Group, died July 10th, 2021. Our last task together was to co-author a book published by McGraw Hill in 2020 called The Decency Code, The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust. His business was outplacement, and his leadership style was of extreme humility, and his passion, indeed his obsession, was finding ways to encourage others to perform, to rely on, and to teach others how to bring small decencies into everyone’s life at every opportunity.

His life accomplishments are on exhibit in the thousands of people, who with the help of Steve’s global company, found jobs after losing them. I will write more about Steve in the future, but for today, I would like to use his words to help you remember who he was, and what his life was about.

These are excerpted passages from the final chapter of The Decency Code, which was primarily written by Steve. It is a powerful and poignant explanation of why so many were lucky to know him and be helped by him.

From Harrison, Steve, and James E. Lukaszewski. The Decency Code, The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust. McGraw Hill, 2020.

We selected the term “decency” for this book because we wanted a word that reflects our view that small, constructive institutionalized gestures build great companies, families, and communities. It would follow that developing an enabling and civil environment could help fortify a company against misconduct. We believe that by fertilizing the foundation of corporate cultures with decencies, there's a likelihood that real engagement will improve, and a better than even chance that compliance initiatives can more easily take root.

Decencies serve a culture by adding impact to ethical standards. Leaders play a prominent role in this process. When the “little things”— small, yet meaningful gestures—take hold, they create stories and traditions that can enrich a culture. They can be felt by everyone. They are a unifying set of experiences that coalesce into resilient, value-driven cultures, resistant to the corner-cutting that is preliminary to serious misconduct. It turns out that “little things” have much bigger impact than we generally imagine and often last a very long time.

A leader’s commitment to a civil and enabling business environment is essential. Small decencies are part of that commitment. Gestures that are visible, actionable, and scalable. Woven into the fabric of a corporate culture, these acts make the concepts of respect and integrity more vivid and palpable: Leadership accessibility and transparency; non­ financial rewards (“psychic income”), exhibiting trust, handwriting notes of thanks or job-well-done, downsizing with a velvet glove when downsizing is necessary, banning executive pomposity and pretentious perks, demonstrating the power of humility, and remembering, finally, that tough love is not an oxymoron.

Every absence of decency where decency is needed dilutes the culture of an organization. The stories that a company tells about itself are critical. Institutionalized decency gives the organization important clues about what its values are and how committed it is to their expression.

Decency and Civility Powerfully Enrich a Culture

The role of decency and civility in enriching a corporate culture has little to do with softness, submissiveness, or indecisiveness. You could argue that it is exactly the goodwill built up by decencies that help allow the organization to make it through the tough times.
Culture enrichment gives an organization sustainability, employer-of-choice reputation, and yes, even promotes regulatory compliance. Cultural enrichment is about getting a uniformly positive response to the question, “How does it feel to live in this environment and be shaped by it?”

The well-studied leadership attributes—vision, courage, trust, optimism, inspiration, humility, communication—are important. But more is required to succeed as a leader of the future. In addition, leaders require authenticity, adaptability, global-savvy, environmental-savvy, social-savvy (EQ), compliance-savvy, and future-focus. Along the way, there will need to be a decencies tool kit that can provide preventative medicine to remove leadership tripwires. Used effectively, this can help inoculate a culture and its management from misconduct and incivility. There are many ingredients for effective cultural leadership. However, the most effective leaders seem blessed with enough of “the right stuff” attributes to earn a consistently constructive response from his/her followers.

Strength in Humility

Great leaders see the strength in humility, sharing the limelight and catching people doing things right. They have a passion for stamping out demotivators, that can suck life and energy out of an organization. They make room for innovators and give them permission to fail.

And during turbulent times, great leaders avoid evidence and symbols of hypocrisy or mixed messages; they exhibit an unflagging sense of purpose. They're accessible out of office listening to people being visible. They keep promises. They tell people what they know, and what they don't know, and they convey a sense of hope. It’s these habits that foster and build employee engagement.

#MeToo: A New and Important Vehicle to Help Victims of Sexual Harassment

The #MeToo movement has given our book even more urgency. We are convinced that decency will go a long way to creating more equity and better working conditions for men and women in the #MeToo workplace.

The #MeToo movement started as a grassroots effort to give voice to victims of sexual violence. It sparked a national dialogue on the broader problem of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and bullying in the workplace and beyond. The increased awareness of the issue has given women a voice and the courage to speak out about working safely and achieving career success. Both women and men are better for having the conversation.

The first wave of the #MeToo movement seared all forms of intentional bias and sexual power dynamics into the collective consciousness of the public. What the #MeToo movement has also exposed are the dual underpinnings of most forms of workplace harassment: unequal power and implicit bias.

Decency is a potent response to #MeToo because, by definition, it challenges the power dynamics that fuel sexual harassment and gender inequity. Decency requires a new set of skills far more than new rules.

Companies and their leaders need to demand decency early, often, and loudly in gestures of all shapes and sizes to create values-based, transparent working conditions at all levels. This book encourages a commitment to daily dialogue and discipline as uncomfortable and demanding as it may be. It means respecting the truth-tellers, the whistleblowers, the leaders who have zero tolerance and the idealists who believe that we can look forward to a better tomorrow.

An ethical and civil culture should be seen as the sum of the tangible, homegrown, specific behaviors and time-honored traditions that form the fabric of an organization, help ensure its sustainability and help reduce its vulnerability. It’s one way of saying, “That's how we do things around here.”

The Future is Watching

Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Leadership in Turbulent Times says “a leader is aware he is the object of many eyes. This puts a responsibility on him to act in a certain way-with respect for his own dignity and yours. Even if he's not in the mood, he must uphold standards of presentation. Children are watching and taking cues. That means the future is watching.”

Decency is the attribute that controls the thermostat for a corporate culture. Decency can only develop in an environment of trust. Jim Lukaszewski has a very simple definition of trust: the absence of fear. Therefore, fear is the absence of trust. People who trust will follow, and every leader knows it’s committed followers who will help them accomplish the goals they aspire to achieve.

People who love their jobs have a sense of purpose. They feel valued and are energized to contribute thoughtfully to the success of their teams and organization. Employees are looking for meaning. Part of the responsibility of managers and leaders alike is to see and hear each employee’s unique purpose and values, help them develop a plan to achieve their goals, and foster relationships built on trust and honest feedback. When leaders see their employees as whole people, employee engagement becomes an enrichment of the human experience.

We started this chapter suggesting that the progress Corporate America has been making the path to decency-driven employee engagement is best described as baby steps. Maybe so. But we can make the entire journey that way.