Highly Principled


A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both – Dwight D. Eisenhower

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbiesJon Stewart

Values. Principles. Ethics. Humanity. Wellbeing. Culture. All key themes from the CIPD annual conference that I’ve been a small part of over the past couple of days. Two days examining how to apply these in the organizational world with a view to putting the human back into Human Resources (although stopping referring to humans as resources might not be a bad start).

We also heard about the digital deluge and the need to retain mastery over technology. And it was the relationship between humanity and technology that got me thinking on the train back home. And then it occurred to me that there is already a set of laws laid down (in the context of robotics), by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, that are especially relevant today as technological advance threatens livelihoods like never before. Asimov’s laws are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

People in businesses are very good at coming up with a list of values and sticking them up on a wall somewhere. They’re not so good at actually behaving like they hold those values very strongly, if at all. And that’s when other people come to harm.

Rather than values then, what we really need are a set of operating principles (or laws if you prefer) that take precedence over any other espoused values (Stuff like speed or agility. Which aren’t actually values when you come to think about it. They are things we value. There’s a subtle difference.).

So, I’ve had a stab. Could you show these to any person, at any level, in the business in which you work and have them disagree?

Operating principles for a business

  1. This business will not injure or otherwise diminish any human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. This business will be directed by such human beings as are appointed except where such a course would conflict with the first principle.
  3. This business may protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second principles.

Picture credit: http://thinkingmomsrevolution.com/



  1. Like this Simon & it strikes me that those principles are already present and active in perhaps all organisations… They are just in the reverse order. Additive to your suggestion perhaps we should also read this opposite reading to leaders to see which version most represents reality versus desire?

  2. Really interesting blog Simon. It made me think of the debate around self-driving cars at the moment though, which I’d summarise as this: your self-driving car is programmed to protect your safety at all costs. But, say the brakes fail. The car has to make a “choice” between killing you by veering into a wall or killing a group of people standing at the side of the road – but probably saving you. How should it be programmed to react? The same kind of dilemma does apply in organisations – and to some extent is my simplistic take on redundancies I’ve been involved with. Sometimes we have to accept that the best we can do is to do the least possible harm to the greatest number, a kind of warped utilitarianism I guess…

    1. Hi Tim. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that a more pragmatic approach might be required as circumstances dictate. However, I’d also say that if you aim for the moon and miss, at least you’ll still end up amongst the stars.

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