...unless of course your company values truly drive how you hire, promote, reward & fire.

They look great on a plaque

In my experience, company values statements that try to define your company culture provide minimal value. It’s not that these wonderful words copied from the holy book (whichever one you subscribe to) are bad. How can you not get all warm and fuzzy with all-star words like transparency, teamwork, honor, ethical, and my all time favorite: respect.

And they sure do look fantastic engraved on that plaque.

2 typical problems with company values:

  1. They’re often seen as something to sarcastically poke fun at. Like the word “associate” used to describe Walmart employees. They’re not taken seriously. Employees are rarely managed to these tenets. Dozens of clients later, and I have yet to see this Utopian premise in action.
  2. No one can speak to them. One of the first things I do when a client hires me is interview the staff. Ultimately, the conversation lands here:

    Me: Tell me about the company mission and company values.
    Staff: <crickets>

The Company Values Offsite

In theory, the concept of including company values to anchor your culture is sound and actionable, and can work. But only if you’re disciplined and prepared to hire, reward, promote and fire based on those values. If you’re not prepared to do that, save yourself the $20k consultant and the thousands of dollars in staff hours involved in the exercise of creating your values.

We’re all familiar with those infamous company values retreats. Yawn. Usually a painful exercise unless you have the top dog who is crystal clear about what they or the business stands for.

The exercise ultimately centers around a whiteboard with a list of dozens of words that describe puppies and flowers, and takes days to narrow down to 5.

Then comes the wordsmithing and massaging. Add another 2 days to debate “Do we ‘honor’ our employees or do we ‘respect’ them?”. Tack on another week to get buy in from Suzie the receptionist to make sure she’s ok with the list before the communication launch begins. Oh, wait, Suzie is sick this week. Make that another 2 weeks…

OK. You can see I’m not a fan. But only because in my HR career, I have tried so often to point to the company values to harness criteria for hiring and performance management decisions, only to be dismissed. It often felt like I was being ridiculed for actually taking the values seriously and for assuming they were to be used as HR measures!

4 ways Company Values can Work

I am not a professional values consultant facilitator type — or whatever they call themselves. But in the world of HR, I have lived and breathed company values for decades and at least know what doesn’t work.

If I had to write a book on the subject, the synopsis would look something like this:

1. Make sure your company values drive how results get delivered

Values are the how vs the what. Values have as much influence as raw performance itself.

If Dan exceeds his sales quota, but delivered results in a way that deviated considerably from your company values, it’s a performance red flag that deserves a conversation to drive improvement.

How do you want Dan to deliver those results? No, I’m not going to list any company values here. You’ll have to wait for the book. It would be too easy to copy and paste and it's best that you come up with your own company values that are right for your eco-system. (Too bad, because the list is spectacular!)

2. Hold managers accountable for their staff’s commitment to your company values

Ultimately, managers simply give Dan a big thumbs up. “I know Dan can be a real jerk and his negativity upsets everyone,” they say, “but he just landed that huge account and we don’t want to demotivate him. I’m sure he’ll come around”. Actually, what Dan and his manager are doing is sending a big fat message to the rest of the staff. The company values are a joke.

3. Make examples of people who exemplify company values

Provide examples, examples, examples. When we want people do display certain behaviors, those behaviors need to be modeled. Such as the most excellent modeling our teenage girls receive in Lady Gaga and pick a Kardashian. Look around. Modeling works! (But I digress).

Clarity about your company values is not going to happen with a 5 minute orientation conversation between HR and a new hire — even if it happens under the plaque. You need to clearly show examples of living your values. When you have a poster child (or children) for your values, show them off. Publicly. When someone does something in line with your values, acknowledge it. Publicly. When someone who exemplifies your values is promoted, celebrate it. Publicly. Staff will get the message with consistent examples, messages and reinforcement. Living the values has got to be built into your language and become part of your DNA.

4. Make examples of people who don’t live your company values

Here’s the tough part. It’s all good when you’re a big happy family and everyone is kumbaya’ing. But once Dan is given an opportunity to improve, and doesn’t, he has to be fired. Full stop. If your company culture and values are going to mean anything, you have to hang — publicly — those in your midst who would destroy it. Yes, it’s a grim image and yes, it’s meant to make a point. (Skip the hate mail). But building a high performance value-driven culture is not made of cotton candy and rainbows. It means making the tough calls and providing clear examples of behaviors that are not tolerated.

It means that the typical HR/lawyer party line of “Dan left because he decided to spend more time with his family” won’t cut it. Your staff needs to know the truth. “Dan had great numbers, but he didn’t demonstrate the company values.” Guaranteed that this communication will have more impact than a hundred “Our company values really, really matter!” speeches by the CEO, drafted by a communications person.

Last Word

If this sounds like too much work or out of your comfort zone, fair enough. You’re not alone. It is work and there will always be pain up front when you embark on any exercise that requires discipline and commitment. But once your culture gets past the initial muscle cramps and its heart rate settles into a steady 130 BPM’s, you’ll be rewarded in the long run. Guaranteed.


Ariane Laird
Ariane Laird is CEO & Founder of ConnectsUs HR, a company that provides tools & resources to quickly set up a Human Resources department.  
You can contact her directly from the Inquiry Type drop down menu.