Does your company have a set of official values? Do you know what they are? Does it matter to you that they are coherent and authentic?
For some people, company values are a bit like office wall art – nice to have, but not to be taken too seriously. (And that’s ironic, as they sometimes do end up as office wall art.)
My position on company values is that we do not take them seriously enough. As a discrete project, those who ideate and sign off on the company values might well give the initiative their all – but only briefly, and only in the way that we get very serious about our new year’s resolutions, before letting them fall by the wayside, one by one, as our enthusiasm wanes.
Why do I think we need to take them more seriously? Because appropriating people’s internal worlds is a dangerous, potentially very alienating game. And as millennials take over the workforce, with Gen Z not far behind, authentic and coherent messaging is absolutely paramount. These are the generations that have been utterly swamped by messaging. Our list of values has to work hard to hit home.
Take a look at employee engagement company 6Q’s blog post listing examples of various big-name companies’ values. As I read them, my frustration grows and grows: ‘What does “Be bold!” actually mean in practice?’ ‘“We are one team”? Prove it to me!’.
And it’s not just the expression of the values that suffers from wishy-washiness. Take this article about the issue from BrightHR, which includes the hedge-betting claim that “when your workplace is known for a strong culture built on real values, word can travel fast. Your reputation as an employer could grow, meaning more people will want to work for you.” Word can travel fast; your reputation could grow.
Yet note how the author of the post describes the values in this list: ‘brilliant’! There seems to be a tendency in many quarters to blithely assume that if you create a list of values, your work is done. Not a bit of it – deciding what you’d like your values to be is the first step on a very long and difficult journey.
Here are some pointers for ideating and working with your company values.
Recognise the difference between senior and junior staff
It’s obviously incumbent on senior members of staff to embody the values. But then, it’s pretty easy for them. They get paid better; they don’t do the menial work or feel they’re the ones to pick up the pieces when things go wrong higher up or company strategy does a 180.
So how do we get more junior members of staff to embody it, too, those members of staff who have less investment in the company? Perhaps we don’t expect them to. Perhaps we acknowledge that our values are first and foremost a pledge by the company, not a set of commands.
Acknowledge that it’s really hard to make core values coherent
And don’t expect people to swallow them whole. Ask for staff to point out the contradictions. Generate an ongoing discussion around them. Reach out to the public for feedback on how you’re doing against them. Ask new hires to do the same, to tell you if they make sense. If you get this right, if your values imbue every area of the company (not just the walls) in a way that is all-consuming, junior and new members of staff will echo the values of their own accord – or leave.
Accept that there will be ‘contraventions’
Company values are not rules and regulations. This is not a psychological dictatorship. The company does not own your inner world. Individualism of thought is the norm (and, indeed, a sprinkling of subversion is good for creativity). In a world where psychological diversity is increasingly valued, where mental health issues and feeling low are no longer taboo, Yahoo!’s ‘Fun’ value looks plain silly. When do you discipline someone for not being fun enough?
Throw resources at the value project
After all, if they’re done right, great candidates will notice. Produce videos. Create forums, both real and online. Prove to the workforce and the world that you value your values.
Introduce values at the recruitment stage
Ask candidates if they agree with them. If they do, ask how they’ve embodied them in their daily lives. If they don’t agree with them, ask why.
Make social good part of your values
It’s a turn-off for many people to be asked to align their inner world with a profit-making enterprise. A company does not have an inner world. So you can be up front about that: We are a money-making enterprise; we don’t expect you to love the company for its values. But we commit to these types of social good, at least, and you can take time out to get involved, if you’d like to, while working here.