Ethical Values Need to come from the Top

Published by The Nashville Business Journal

In light of recent big-company ethical meltdowns, I’d like to share something positive: a few highlights from the 30-year ethical history of Tractor Supply Company (TSC).  

Tom Hennesy—my mentor, boss and TSC’s decade-plus CEO in the 80s—was very clear, very regularly, about ethics in our organization. He talked to new store mangers about the importance of always telling the truth and standing behind our products as well as our individual actions. In conversations, meetings and writings he crystallized his position that there was simply no room for a lack of ethics anywhere in the corporation. And, perhaps most importantly, he said it a lot—like he meant it.

Doing the Right Thing
The topic of basic honesty became a bedrock principle of Tractor Supply Company. In fact, despite rapid expansion over 20 years, and the challenges that come along with communicating ethical principles company-wide, TSC took the time to put a moral code in writing. As the company formalized its Mission and Values (M&V), ethics became value No. 1. It reads: Do the “right thing” and always encourage others to do the right, honest and ethical things.

No-excuses Customer Service
Ethics extended easily to relationships. If a customer had an issue with a product, Tom taught us to say without excuses, “Mr. Smith, we are going do whatever it takes to make it right.” And regarding customer service, he reiterated one simple point: You can never get in trouble for taking care of a customer. And no one ever did. 

Relentless Communication
Taking over the mission for honesty in everything, current CEO Jim Wright ably leads a consistent and newly focused push for ethical values in all company materials and communications: handbooks, pocket cards, newsletters, all sales meetings and at Tractor Supply University. And this isn’t window dressing. When TSC employees meet new people, they often share M&V cards. And every “Tractor U” graduate can attest to restless—and passionate—senior executive talks about the importance of values. 

Today, and during my 28-year tenure, there has never been a doubt about Tractor Supply Company values. When an organization’s values agenda starts at the top, as it does at TSC, and is coupled with persistent communication, the potential for a massive ethical collapse is eradicated.

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