Corporate Values – Are They Still Relevant?

About 15-20 years ago everybody started jumping on the well-intentioned “values” bandwagon.  Not surprising when you consider that identifying an organization’s values was meant to create a foundation for defining how work is performed, how people were to conduct themselves, what qualities and behaviours best reflect organizational practice and culture, etc.  And a lot of HR people, like me, put in a lot of time facilitating focus groups, aligning values with performance indicators, building them into our employer branding, and demonstrating how values would enhance the organization’s strategic direction.

Now, 15-20 years down the road, where are we really?  I’m interested in the experience of others because mine has not been all that encouraging given how long we've been working at this.   None of my musings are based on scientific research or professionally crafted survey questions, but simply by observing and listening to staff in a variety of work settings.

In many instances I hear about how values are nice sentiments and look great on the reception area wall, but everybody knows that’s not what is really valued around here; that staff are expected to reflect the values, but managers are not (or if they are, non-compliance is tolerated); or that one or two of the values are legitimate, but others simply aren’t acted upon.  As long as the bottom line is healthy, most other things are overlooked.  The CEO is often the only person who believes that the values are alive and well .... s/he references then liberally when discussing corporate culture, the execs all nod and and agree, at least publicly, but when you ask for demonstrated examples it becomes a little like the emperor's new clothes.

So, is it time to re-open the values conversation?  If you’ve had values statements in your company for 15+ years, is it time to reflect honestly and openly about how valid they are given the realities of the workplace.   Let's face it, a lot has changed over the years.  Would it make sense to engage in candid conversations where you can agree that the extensive list of values written back in 1995 was ambitious, and that practice has demonstrated that in your culture there really are only 2-3 things that are truly valued.   It’s not defeat, just an informed recalibration.  And if you’re not sure which values you may want to consider dropping, watch employee’s faces the next time the CEO gets up and starts talking about how important your values are – the ones  where people start glancing at each uncomfortably or rolling their eyes are likely candidates for exclusion.

If dealing with each other honestly and forthrightly is stated, or at least implied, somewhere in your values statements, it may be time to take an honest look at what's really valued in your workplace.

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