Corporate Values: Beyond the Bathroom

Pretty much every organisation has values. In many cases, they look remarkably similar from organisation to organisation; a result of “benchmarking” or, if you want to be cynical, a lack of imagination. But what are corporate values actually for?

One definition of corporate values is: “Corporate Values are the fundamental beliefs upon which your organisation and its behaviour are based. They are the guiding principles that your business uses to manage its internal affairs as well as its relationship with customers.”

Now, that’s quite an impressive statement. If they’re fundamental to YOUR ORGANISATION, why do we see so much similarity between the values chosen by different organisations? Surely, they should be as unique and diverse as each organisation, especially as none of them would describe themselves as “just like so-and-so”. And, especially in service-based industries, surely your organisational behaviours, attitudes and the relationship you build with your customers are key to differentiating you from “the rest”?


Part of the answer comes from the importance given to defining and, more importantly, living the values within organisations. In more than one organisation, I’ve seen the values proudly displayed as a poster on the bathroom wall. When I’ve mentioned it, the response given is normally “So everyone sees them, every day”. Unless one of your values is “Clean hands”, I’m not sure how effective this communication method is.

Another part of the answer is that it’s not just about the words you chose; it’s also about how they are defined. The values should provide the “moral compass” for the organisation; the reference point when faced with a difficult decision. That’s what the “guiding principles” part of the definition means. And, like all things excellent, it’s not always easy to live the values; to actively put them into practice. But, it’s when decisions get hard, you find out how important values really are.

Let’s take Google as an example. They famously started with the value of “Do no evil”. A very honourable statement. But is this being lived? A quick look at the news quickly reveals a number of instances where this value is being questioned. To the extent that Google appear to have quietly dropped the “Do no evil” reference from their corporate materials.

From a personal perspective, I was asked to do something in an organisation I previously worked in which I felt went against its values and, whilst not illegal, was clearly unethical. I refused. After a number of heated discussions and my continued refusal, my position was made redundant (which was actually not a bad outcome as I’d already prepared my resignation). When asked what had happened about a year later by someone I know, I told them the story. Their response was “You can’t let ethics get in the way of business.” I replied, “If you can’t let ethics get in the way of business, how can you say you have ethics?”

And that’s the question you, and your organisation, should ask. Values, by their very nature, are something that we place value on. And, if we value something, we have to be prepared to make sacrifices; and is it worth sacrificing your values?

When children ask me about difficult decisions they face, I normally annoy them by not telling them what to do but to think about the impact of that decision; “Will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow morning?” If the answer to that is “no”, the decision is “don’t do it”.

And, for excellent organisations who actually value their values, the same should apply. The business world isn’t different to the real world; it’s the same. Why would you do something in business you wouldn’t do in your private life?

If you value your values, can you afford to ignore them?

Should change initiatives ever be hidden from those who might oppose them?

The question makes the implicit assumption that the change would be positive for the organization as a whole even if not for all stakeholders. And, it’s very broad.

Does it include small changes that would force top management into micromanagement if they were to be involved or only more significant change? Does it mean hiding initiatives from political opponents in senior positions of power or from other stakeholders such as customers, partners or the organization’s workforce? exactly is been hidden – the fact that change is being considered and options are being evaluated or the fact that a decision has been made?

Irrespective of the details, the short answer is “no”.

I believe that in order to be a good leader people need to be able to trust you. Hiding change initiatives from those who oppose them undermines your trustworthiness. This makes my position not simply an ethical stance but also a pragmatic one.

Leaders (at all levels) need to respect an organization’s people. This includes those with conflicting opinions and, indeed, it is often these opinions that need to be heard and evaluated to ensure the implicit assumption is correct.

I’ve led change in different industries, in 9 different countries/cultures and, while it has seldom been easy, I have found that being open is the best approach. Rather than keep key opponents to change in the dark, include them. Listen to their concerns and involve them in making the change happen. This has the following effects:

  • If they have legitimate concerns, they are heard and can be taken into account
  • They have less time “outside the room” to work an undermining the initiative
  • As things progress, their involvement detracts from their ability to oppose the change

Don’t compromise on objectives or timelines (unless it really makes sense) but stay open to strategic learning. You won’t always win over opponents but that’s not the objective, the objective is to implement the change.

Use governance to differentiate

EY’s 13th Global Fraud Survey (new tab), published a few weeks ago, found that 11% of CEOs are willing to misstate financial figures. As this is both unethical and illegal, this is the equivalent of finding that over 1 in 10 CEOs are not fit for their jobs.

7% of CFOs (and other senior financial roles surveyed) and 3% of General Counsels were also willing to misstate financial information.

One consequence of this lack of integrity is that it makes it more difficult for all organizations to earn the trust of their people, customers and other stakeholders. Nonetheless, the findings will trigger no action in most organizations (even when leaders are aware of the EY survey).

This apathy results in a missed opportunity to differentiate and win some hard earned trust by working to enhance the organization’s governance not for the sake of compliance but for leadership. Leadership that earns trust and builds brand equity.

Why not be one of the few organizations that responds?