There are all kinds of articles about why corporate values are critical to defining workplace culture and, ultimately, an organization’s success. A simple internet search will result in great information on this topic. (A couple of resources I recommend are by Gary Peterson and Bob Helbig)
I completely agree with the importance of strong corporate values. I can list at least half a dozen reasons why and how they can, and should, be used from recruitment to termination and everything between. In fact, when ACTivate HR was founded, one of the first things we did was identify and articulate our values along with our corporate mission and vision.
While you can safely say I’m on board with having corporate values, I want to talk about the darker side of when values hurt your workplace culture. To do that, I need to first highlight why they are important.
Corporate Values are at the Heart of an Organization’s Culture
They serve many critical functions. Here are just some of them.
- Communicating the company’s identity, principles and beliefs
- Serving as the basis for decisions
- Reflecting how the company treats both their customers and employees, and
- Helping a company stand apart from its competition
Essentially, a company’s stated values are the basis of any relationship. They should be fundamental, enduring and acted upon. Ultimately, values are the foundation of trust between a company and its employees, partners and customers.
These trust relationships are the very fabric of an organization’s culture.
When Corporate Values Go Wrong
If corporate values are the cornerstone of workplace culture, how can they possibly destroy an organization’s culture and create a toxic workplace environment?
The answer is simple:
The stated values don’t reflect the actual actions of the organization and its leadership.
When the company engages in actions that don’t reflect stated values, employees believe that leadership is being dishonest. Furthermore, employees choose organizations whose values are in alignment with their own. When the company isn’t acting under their stated values, employees realize that their values don’t align with that of the corporation.
Employees feel betrayed and the trust relationship suffers.
The actions of the organization don’t have to be unethical or lack integrity to destroy trust – they simply need to be misaligned from the stated values. A lack of trust grows with repeated instances of actions contrary to corporate values. Then, employees start to feel that adhering to the corporate values is optional. The culture suffers as a result. And, in extreme cases, the values become the topic of employee jibes.
Disengagement grows. Employees don’t trust leadership. And it also means losing any benefits from stating your values.
(Can’t get enough workplace culture content? Try this post next: Why I Made the Shocking and Heartbreaking Decision to Get Fired)
Reaping the Positive Benefits
To avoid this, and reap the positive benefits of core values, make sure your stated corporate values accurately reflect your organization’s priorities, beliefs and decision-making. While this seems simple on the surface, many organizations fall into the trap of identifying values they think they should have rather than what they truly value.
Remember: There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ values.
Companies should take time to identify what their values truly are and proudly own them. For example? If a company values achieving results then “Delivering Results” is an honest corporate value. A new employee should not be surprised, then, that they would be expected to work hard to ensure work goals are met.
Holding Your Team Accountable to the Values
Another common mistake is to develop corporate values based on employee input, but then make decisions in opposition to those values.
All employees need to understand and be held accountable to the values. This is especially true for the leadership team who need to consistently and visibly live them. This may mean making difficult decisions. For example, rewarding or promoting employees who succeed in achieving results. But doing so by violating the company values such as respect or collaboration.
While these types of decisions may seem counter to business success in the short term, they pay dividends in promoting a positive culture. Everyone benefits when a company’s values are a true reflection of the underlying beliefs, priorities, and value system an organization operates from.
Ultimately, companies don’t have values, the people working in them do.
So, companies want employees who internalize and embody corporate values. If an organization’s stated values reflect reality, they attract and keep employees that fit with their culture. Additionally, employees and leadership forge honest trust relationships and everyone in the organization can use the values to confidently drive decisions and actions.
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Did you learn a lot about corporate values in this post? Try one of these articles next:
- Employees Resisting Change? Here’s Why…and How to Engage Them
- Toxic Workplace Culture: 5 Ways to Tell If It’s Poisoning You
- CEOs, You’re Likely the Reason Your Culture Sucks
This article was first published in 2017, but it was updated in 2021 just for you.