Exploring different organizations over the past decade, I have spent time researching how brands integrate their values into their companies’ DNA in efforts affecting employee treatment, growth, and client excellence. When I think about corporate values, like Passion, Integrity, Excellence, Honesty — these words are strong and meaningful, but I wonder how do they hold up in a company’s behavior? I’ve discovered that organizations spend a lot of time writing, debating, and revising — but how much effort is the team spending on bringing the values to the core of the organization’s behavior? If you’re not doing that, the values are meaningless.
Perhaps the real question is, how do you move forward in a values-led organization in a society that values culture over salary? According to a 2019 survey at Glassdoor, 56% of workers ranked a strong workplace culture is more important than salary, with more than three-in-four workers saying they’d consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there. Here’s the cold hard truth about values, if you’re unwilling to accept the real pain that values incur, don’t bother going through formulating a values statement. You are far better off without one. Teams who have the drive to carry the effort all the way through will undoubtedly see a higher return on value from propagating a sense of purpose with their values.
Unsure where to start? I’ve offered some ideas below to inspire where you can affect change in your organizational views around values.
Understand the Different Types of Values
- Core values serve as a guide for the company’s actions, and they serve as its cultural cornerstones. Core values are inherent and often sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, neither for convenience or short-term economic gain. Core values often reflect the importance of the company’s founders— as the source of a company’s distinctiveness and must be maintained at all costs.
- For example, a core value can be integrity, meaning that the offerings are built with quality, and customers should expect direct communication and honesty. As the organization grows, they will lead by assisting others instead of being boastful.
- Aspirational values are values that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks. A company may need to develop a new value to support a new strategy, for example, or to meet a changing market or industry requirements. These values must be managed to ensure that they do not dilute a team’s framework’s core.
- For example, during the recent shifts in the workplace, a company may adopt flexibility as an aspirational core value to encourage the organization to remain adaptable when it seems that the world is continually shifting.
- Accidental values arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time. They usually reflect the common interests or personalities of the organization’s employees. Accidental values can be useful for a company, such as when they create an atmosphere of inclusivity. But they can also be opposing forces such as creating cliques within an organization, leading to toxic behaviors. Keeping an eye on this can affect the overall temperature of the health of one’s team.
- An example of this in company values can be seen in organizations that embrace the use of their product, examples being focused on athletics. Being careful to continue to align a diverse workforce based on core values instead of accidental values can positively broaden efforts.
Many companies view a values initiative in the same way they view a marketing launch: a one-time event measured by the initial attention it receives, not the authenticity of its content. Doing so can undermine an organization’s leaders’ credibility and pause the momentum of aspirational movement in the value initiative in the first place.
Sometimes leaders who take a values initiative seriously can also sabotage them by implementing bland activities that aren’t driven with purpose. According to a look at the Fortune 100 companies, 55% claim integrity is a core value, 49% espouse customer satisfaction, and 40% tout team-work. While these are inarguably good qualities, such terms hardly provide a distinct blueprint for employee behavior. Cookie-cutter values don’t set a company apart from competitors; they make it fade into the crowd.
I am not stating that the words describing the values aren’t authentic; it has to do more with the organization’s adherence to the values. For example, I read of a company whose primary value was professionalism. In a time when their competition was laden with pizza boxes and cargo short attire, they maintained that their employees had to refrain from eating at their desks and adhering to a dress code. The adherence to their value not only distinguished them from their competition but drove the prospective for employee success to act professionally on the job. While this exact core value may not work for some, adhering to one’s values can help provide structure to an organization, even when things are going well.
Own the Process
It is far too often that I hear of leadership teams embarking on values initiatives and quickly handing off the effort to the HR department, which will most likely use the initiative as an inclusive feel-good effort. There may be campaigns to survey employees and hold a variety of meetings to gather input and build consensus to engage teams. In my opinion, that approach may work for your organization, but it doesn’t work well with all organizations and can often create a distraction for the work that needs to get done. A values initiative is about imposing a set of fundamental, strategically sound beliefs on a broad group of people. And nobody else can do that but the leadership team.
When I worked in an organization of around 20 people, I launched a campaign to survey personal core values and a set of values that aligned with the company. Doing so worked as an excellent start-off point, but at the end of the initiative, the value effort and decision was made by a small team that included the CEO, the other co-founder, and our leadership team. If you want to give your team the ability to collaborate, may I suggest a survey and collaboration before the final decision is made and implemented? A good values program is much like an aged cheese; it’s never rushed and takes time to curate. It is far more critical for the values to arrive at a statement that works than to reach a decision it may later regret. The values team should discuss values over several months; they should consider how the standards will play out within their corridors.
Allowing time for reflection proved helpful at the organization that I had the opportunity to implement a set of values. We debated the word loyalty since internally, it felt much like an effort to keep everyone working long-term. A member of our leadership team even described it as a mafia-type word. When we thought about loyalty further and defined it like this: “Respect traditions and have a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself.” We all felt like we could embody that while working at the organization and beyond.
When we rolled out the company values and vision, everyone was satisfied that they had some sort of contribution to it, pre-survey down to the small team we deployed to generate the final beliefs we wanted to impose on the team.
Weave Core Values into Everything
So you have aligned on values, now what? Suppose the goal is to integrate the values into every employee-related process, including hiring methods, performance management systems, criteria for promotions and rewards, and even dismissal policies. In that case, employees should be reminded that core values form the basis for every company’s decision.
Several companies have successfully created strong cultures by integrating their core values into every system that directly touches employees. In the hiring process, job candidates, from receptionists to vice presidents, are screened not only for their skills and experiences but also for their fit with the company’s values. This can be done by asking candidates questions about workload expectations and past accomplishments. There are creative ways to weave a value assessment into the interview process, such as having someone describe something they’re passionate about if one of your values is passion and seeing their response could make or break their fit for the role.
Upon hiring a new candidate, remind your employees repeatedly that the company’s values are more than just words. Use them in the peer and performance evaluations, and when it comes time to award stock, bonuses, and raises, use the values statement as a metric. Even the decision to let someone go is driven by values.
Once a company has embedded its values into its systems, it should promote those values at every turn. It’s been said that people will not believe a message until they’ve heard it repeated by executives seven times. Given the cynicism surrounding values these days, leadership could embed the belief by repeating them every chance possible.
Given all the hard work that goes into developing and implementing a reliable values system, most companies would probably prefer not to bother and they shouldn’t, because poorly executed values can poison a company’s culture.
Make no mistake: Living by your stated corporate values is difficult. But Core values have an impact, especially when they’re authentic and aligned with what matters to the organization. If they are drawn from the behaviors an organization exemplifies, they can have steel strength. Like any principle or strategy, core values are difficult to forge and take time to develop and cure but the return on value will sustain your organization and culture if they’re well-formed.