Corporate Values: Beyond the Bathroom

Pretty much every organization has values. In many cases, they look remarkably similar from organization to organization; 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 organization and its behavior 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 organizations? Surely, they should be as unique and diverse as each organization, especially as none of them would describe themselves as “just like so-and-so”. And, especially in service-based industries, surely your organizational behaviors, 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 organizations. In more than one organization, 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 organization; 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 honorable 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 appears 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 organization 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 organization 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 organizations that actually value their values, the same should apply. The business world isn’t different from 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?

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