My company doesn’t have any values. There, it’s out in the open.
Does this mean that we’re dishonest, that we don’t believe in trust and integrity? Not at all. In fact, integrity is at the core of everything we do. But it’s not written on some stupid poster on the wall, reminding our staff what we stand for.
In most large corporates, the company values are a wish list rather than a true reflection of the attitudes and behaviours of the company’s employees. In other words, a group of senior executives sit around a boardroom table and decide between themselves what values they’d like their workers to display. Accountability. Responsibility. Honesty. Respect. Blah. Blah. Blah. It’s a lucky packet of buzzwords; take your pick. But none of it relates to how their employees actually behave in real life – or indeed how the senior executives themselves behave.
Your values are instilled in you during your formative years, a product of your upbringing and your environment. It is incredibly naïve to think that you will change your whole belief system because the company you work for thinks that it’s a good idea. It’s simply not going to happen. So a top-down approach to defining company values – set by the senior executives – is a complete waste of time.
In reality, the company values are an aggregation of the core personal values of the people who are hired to work for that company. It can’t be any other way. And this leads to two very important conclusions.
The first is that if you want your company to display certain values, then you need to hire people who already have those values as part of their core belief set. In other words, the list of company values is much more useful as a recruiting guide than as an employee-behaviour guide. It should act as the most important filter before making any new hire.
The second conclusion is a bit more disturbing. If personal values are difficult to change, then it means that telling existing employees to change their values in order to agree with the company’s stated values is an exercise in futility. The only way to ensure that the desired values are entrenched in the company culture is to get rid of the employees who don’t already have these values as part of their core belief system.
Harsh, but true. Especially because as you go higher up the corporate ladder, there’s often an increasing tendency to think that the company values don’t apply to you.
A scary (but revealing) story
I recently attended a talk by the HR director of one of the large retail banks. To set the tone, she started off by proudly showing off the bank’s eight values. However, two of them – “servicing our customers” and “delivering to shareholders” – are not values at all. At least not according to the Oxford Dictionary definition, which is: “principles or standards of behaviour”. The last time I checked, servicing a customer was a task, not a principle. And on top of that, it doesn’t say anything about how to service the customer. Come to think of it, most of their client-facing employees are pretty grumpy so it’s probably a good thing they didn’t think to change it to “servicing a customer well”. And “delivering to shareholders” is a business objective, not a value.
In fact, defining “delivering to shareholders” as a core company value is both disturbing and revealing. This bank recently underwent a huge retrenchment exercise – clearly to cut costs in order to enhance shareholder returns. The bank also has a history of introducing additional fees under the radar – at the expense of customers – without adding any additional value. Again, this practice is very good for generating additional returns for shareholders. At least the bank’s being consistent with its stated values.
The problem is that another one of its core values is “growing our people”. It’s very difficult to do this while you’re retrenching them. It’s also very difficult to “uphold the highest levels of integrity” when you’re secretly introducing fees that you hope customers won’t notice.
I asked the HR director how she deals with these glaring contradictions and inconsistencies in the bank’s stated values. I asked her how she deals with the inevitable disillusionment and cynicism when employees see that the behaviour of senior management conflicts with the way they want their underlings to behave.
She had no answer for me. In fact, she admitted there were many other contradictions in their values that I hadn’t even mentioned. It’s a sad indictment.
The bottom line
Defining company values can be a very useful exercise – provided the sole purpose is to formulate strict hiring and firing filters. Then you won’t have to tell employees how to behave – by default, it will be part of who they are already. And it will be driven into the company culture without having to put pointless posters up on the walls.
That’s why my company doesn’t have any values. We don’t need them.
Dr Gavin Symanowitz is the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables anonymous management feedback.