How Not to be Shitty in Business in 6 Easy Steps

don't be shitty

Let’s get right to it, shall we? I’ve been in business for 14 years and have seen all levels of shitty behavior, from my own, to employees and contractors, to clients. It will drive you crazy, and to deal with it, you have to have standards for the level and amount of shittiness you will or won’t accept, because it will find you if you have an ounce of generosity at all in your person.

I’ve also been a part of almost every networking or business group possible in Chicago, which also all have their own levels of shittiness. My close circle of friends agreed: We all just want to do our business with other non-shitty people, and walking into a room full of 300 people who may or not be shitty and hoping to find the good souls is a formidable task. So we decided to start a group, the Anti-Shitty Group, so we don’t have to spend the time looking for our people. Here’s the form if you want to tell your story.

Anyway, Here are a few lessons I’ve learned through major heartache and financial loss about how not to be shitty in business.

1. If your business has a social mission attached to it, actually do that

If you say in your positioning or marketing that your goal is to “support women,” then actually DO THAT. And supporting women (or whatever your cause is) is far more than just having a majority of women users. You actually have to support them. Like the ones on your payroll, your partners and vendors, your advisors. If they are women, then you have to do it. Otherwise it’s complete nonsense and let me tell you: KARMA IS REAL.

If your goal is really just to make money, then just make money like everyone else and quit saying that you support women. This is the point that gets me the most often. We only work with orgs and businesses who have a social mission, who want to make a community impact. Having one attached to a business is the new Thing To Do, and businesses do it to varying levels of greatness. Since this is the new thing to attract talent, users, and build trust, a lot of businesses want to do it, but if this isn’t at YOUR VERY CORE, it’s worse than not doing it at all.

So if it’s not real, don’t say it is because you’re wasting everyone’s time. Someone is going to give you their time or money because they believe what you say. And when you prove them wrong, you’re going to burn a bridge down to the ground in an irreparable way. Most people can forgive getting screwed financially, but if you’re working with someone who believes in your mission and you lie, then that is an unforgivable transgression in my book.

2. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it

Keeping our commitments is the #1 value in my company. As an owner, I have the hardest time with this one too, because I love helping people and spending time with them, and I easily overcommit myself. The hardest thing I do is scaling back on who and what I commit to so I can actually have the time to follow through. I always do it, but it does take me a while. In this point, though, I’m talking about a different commitment. In business, we have employees and vendors who we make promises to. Those promises are based on a mutual trust and respect for each other as humans. Sometimes, because we are humans and usually like working together, we trust to a fault and maybe start a project “on good faith” without a legally binding document. I believe that most people are innately good, and not out to get each other, so I operate my business on that assumption.

Let me tell you that has also worked to varying levels of success. I’d say about 90 percent of the time it’s OK and everyone holds up their end of the bargain. But that only works if the people we are working with are genuinely good, upstanding people who are willing to do the right thing even when no one’s looking. And we all know when we get into business with someone who is less than upstanding. I’ve done it. Here’s what happens: I want to believe that my generosity, honesty, and good faith will rub off on that other person. I try to show them a different way in which they don’t have to manipulate others to get what they want. Lesson learned: It doesn’t work. People do not change. So if it feels wrong at any level, don’t do it. Don’t. It’s not worth any amount of money.

3. People who subordinate others or silence them legally are weak and untrustworthy

When you sign a legal piece of paper so that you can settle a dispute, many times there are clauses that say you can’t say negative things about the other party, even if those things are true. (Helllooooo, Mr. President…) How about not being shitty and creating negative stories about yourself in the first place? How about that? A piece of paper isn’t going to shield the world from how shitty you are. People will find out.


4. The people who get the most coverage or press are not the smartest or the best. They are the loudest and/or prettiest.

We’re all used to seeing mostly dudes on business magazine covers. Thanks to some loudmouths and to especially wonderful reporters who source and quote women, we’re starting to make some moves into getting more coverage. A lot of the time, it’s not under a “business” banner, but more of a “women in business” banner like: how to have it all, or how to juggle family and work, or how this woman is in a male-dominated field.

My favorite (sarcasm) is when anyone is featured as a “X” in tech or “X” in whatever field and they don’t actually have a background in that field. I can’t tell you how many women in tech I’ve met who aren’t actually doing tech. They are great self-marketers.

And most media outlets still want a pretty female face to put on their cover. Men can look like whatever, but women — there is definitely a preferred type. We see the same faces and the same stories over and over, I’m still not sure why, when there are so many other stories begging to be told about people who are doing amazing things and accomplishing things that no over ever believed they could. I’m so thankful for Rebellious Magazine, who is telling those stories, but we need more of them all over the place. Think about how much more inspiring it would be to see someone who talked and looked like YOU doing amazing things and getting recognition for their work? Running a business is a lonely, semi-depressing endeavor, and having someone out front who you can point to and say — wow, she did it. She’s like me. I have to know her — invaluable.

This is one of the reason why we started HumanSense, our new podcast, to tell people’s stories who are actually doing the work and making change, no matter how small, regardless of who they know or how loud they are.

5. Meet face to face before you start working together

We get a lot of requests from companies who want us to give a quote on a project. I have two non-negotiables before we embark on a proposal:

  1. You have to tell us what your budget is (because you should know that)
  2. And we must meet face to face for 90 minutes

Why? Because people should do the research on how much they can afford. We’ve worked with budgets from all sizes and we need a place to start. But the face-to-face meeting is so much more important. If I’m going to sign up my staff to work on your dream for the next six months of their lives, we have to believe in you. And you have to be for real. I’ve had hundreds of sales meetings, and I’m pretty good at figuring out whether someone is going to be great to work with or not. In that 90 minutes, we talk about your life, what brought you here, what impact you want to create, how we both think about equity and justice, how we approach our work. We talk money. We get it all out on the table. If it lines up, then it makes sense to work together IF we BOTH agree. Time is precious. It’s an investment. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

6. Think about how your decisions impact others

We’ve heard the self-made entrepreneur story too many times: how this guy bootstrapped a business and now it’s worth X millions. Guess what? There were probably HUNDREDS of people who helped that guy get to where he is, and he may or may not have been shitty to them. The self-made story is a myth.

To take it a step further, women and people of color KNOW that we need each other to succeed and we’ve been doing forever. I recently read an article from a consultant who I deeply admire talking about how this communal yet competitive way of doing business is the next big model, and I’m here to tell you that we’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s not new just because a white man with privilege figured it out. Just ask us. We’ll tell you how it works. We know that when we make a decision it impacts everyone around us.

When I make a decision, I think about the seven families I’m responsible for: mine, my childcare providers, and everyone on my staff. My contractors, and the people I serve are also in that bucket to a lesser degree. It’s an ecosystem, and one bad deed or drop of venom will poison the well. Lost of bad actions and shittiness will kill it. And me.

I’m done with the shitty old system. I’m done with patriarchy. I’m done with “I win and you lose.”  I’m too old, I’ve seen too much, and I know the old way feels bad and doesn’t work for the people I serve and love.

It’s time for people to own up to their own shittiness and do the right thing. If you want to be a part of our Anti-Shitty Group, where we will hold you accountable, tell us why you aren’t a shitty person here.

Bottom line: If it feels shitty, don’t do it. Just stop. If you don’t stop being shitty, we’re all here setting fire to this old system and you’re going down with the shit.

11 I like it
0 I don't like it


Emily is the founder and president of LimeRed, a design firm working in social impact that is both a Certified B Corporation and Certified Woman owned. She founded LimeRed in 2004 with a plan to prioritize high-quality design, user experience, and meaningful social impact. She has more than 20 years of experience in business, which spans design, sales, operations, user experience, branding, marketing and strategy in both online and offline programs for multinational corporations, nonprofits, universities, startups, and consumer brands. LimeRed has won awards for three consecutive years for governance and changemaking. Emily mentors at 1871 and SAIC, and has two written two books with her partner Demetrio Maguigad: Branding for Changemakers, and New Brand Guideline Standards for Social Impact Entrepreneurs. Her third as a editor and designer will be released this fall: From Like to Love: A Social Media Strategy Guide for Smart, Emerging, and Impactful Brand. She and Demetrio also write and produce HumanSense, a podcast about the spark that compels us to do the thing that has never been done before.