Often ignored words and platitudes in values statements can become a powerful force when they are practiced and defended with conviction. So, how does that work? Dr. Todd Dewett has a plan.

Slowly but surely over the last few decades corporations have begun to value a variety of pro-employee and pro-community ideas.  This includes the rise of diversity initiatives, flexible benefits, casual dress codes, and an ever more creative list of employee perks.

One of the oldest and most popular behaviors of this nature is the use of corporate values. Sometimes they are simply lists of words like fun and integrity.  Other times they are lofty statements, such as, “We endeavor to empower positive change in the world through technology and innovation.”  These efforts are always interesting and well-intentioned, but what is the real impact?

We can all imagine some positive impact, however, more often than not, the impact is negligible, or even negative.

A positive impact can happen at the individual level or at the corporate decision making level. The decision-maker faces multiple options and could use a little guidance. They reference the lovely list of values, gain a bit of clarity, and move forward successfully.

More commonly, corporate values are simply unknown or ignored. No amount of internal advertising will change that. Consider the Ten Commandments – can you name all ten? Nope.

Sometimes, corporate values can actually cause harm. This is more common than you’d imagine. There are two main ways this can happen. Here’s the first scenario. The company has a lovely list of values in place. Great, but there are a few employees who go to work every day only to endure another day with a horrible boss. It might include neglect, ridicule, or simply a constant bad attitude that brings everyone down.

To the extent the employee has knowledge of the corporate values, how do you think they will feel about them? They might feel betrayed. They might feel lied to. They will definitely feel resentment. Predictable outcomes now become more likely:  lower engagement, lower productivity, a higher chance of turnover. In fact, this scenario often leads to behaviors that are not at all consistent with the stated list of corporate values.

The second scenario is when the employee base or members of the community become aware of unacceptable corporate behavior. Once again, we have a decent corporation with an inspiring values statement. Then the news bomb hits.  The company is caught cooking the books, or treating a certain class of people poorly, or maybe polluting rivers – who knows. Immediately, every observer senses the huge gap between the espoused values and the bad behavior.  Predictable outcomes once again ensue: more difficulty hiring, adverse reactions from business partners, outrage in the community, etc.

2016 Photo of Dr. Todd Dewett on HRExaminer.com

Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

What’s the solution? I certainly don’t suggest getting rid of your values statement. Their creation is an undeniable step in the right direction. However, two changes do seem useful.

First, corporate values must not only be written, they must be defended. If they matter and you wish to avoid the unexpected negative outcomes noted above, get busy enforcing them. Easier said than done. I know. However, doing the difficult job of enforcing ethics and proper behavior is vastly cheaper than dealing with the fallout associated with ugly lapses.

You have to make clearer rules, specify real consequences for unethical or illegal behaviors, and dedicate more staff to preaching the message. To be blunt, you must learn to hire, fire, evaluate, and promote people in a manner consistent with your values. Just a few exceptions or deviations is all that it takes. One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Second, the lists or statements themselves should acknowledge a few new realities. At the individual level, we all recognize that we’re imperfect. As a result, we support ideas such as admitting your mistakes and learning from failure. In fact, these are prized values for high performing individuals and teams. The same practice must be adopted at the corporate level.

What if your value statement included learning from errors, admitting when you’re wrong, and growing past your imperfections? There is nothing magical about this practice, but it sure is a more honest approach. Perhaps it could serve as permission to begin candid conversation when trouble arises.

Let’s be clear. The goal here is not the avoidance of negative behaviors (e.g., financial fraud) and their outcomes (e.g., fines, regulations). If you believe in values, the goal is the creation of positive assets such as community goodwill, the ability to attract top talent, and crazy high retention rates that result from being a badass destination workplace.

In the end, corporate values are just a collection of words. Whether they shape positive behaviors or serve as a source of ridicule depends not on the words themselves, but how you live them.

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