Speaking of corporate values

I’ve been participating in a Linked-In discussion about the alignment of corporate and personal values, and it’s prodded me to articulate more clearly why I feel uneasy with the way “values” are routinely used around ideas of brand and corporate identity.

The starting question was really about primary ethics (are we born with a conscience?) which I won’t go into here, but the discussion moved on to how far a business need to share core values: the ambition around quite a lot of brand identity work is to articulate the values which senior management believe will shape desirable behaviours in the firm, and communicate these things relentless until people take them on board, and the corporate ship sails forward as a united body (that seems to be the theory anyway).

But I want to question how much needs to shared, or indeed whether it’s useful to use terms like “values” at all, not least because many of the things firms typically reach for in their value statements are not values at all, but attributes or characteristics.

It’s true that nobody wants to go to work for an organisation that’s doing things he or she finds morally objectionable, and equally no corporation would want to employ someone who is behaving in a way likely to cause problems for that organisation. Such decent behaviour is mostly a basic hygiene factor and doesn’t need the scaffolding of stated corporate values: in the UK certainly you can be instantly dismissed for gross misconduct, an offence which covers the contravention of these basic decent behaviours. People understand this pretty readily.

But once you get beyond the basics, the alignment questions get more interesting. If a corporation has a strong and genuine commitment to environmental responsibility, does that mean it can’t employ climate sceptics, given that in the vast majority of roles in the corporation such individual "values" would have no operational impact?

I could point out that in fact there might be no clash in values here, just a disagreement about the science, but such semantic nuances are routinely lost in the discussion of corporate values, which is all the more reason for management to avoid the psychological jackboot of corporate value statements.

The reality too is that unless we live extraordinarily sheltered lives, as individuals and corporations our values will be tested and from time to time may be compromised. This doesn’t mean we’re necessarily hypocrites, but that life often presents us with conflicting imperatives. For instance Apple recently found its desire to make great hardware at odds with its self-imposed code on recycling. It abandoned the code, though has since backtracked (Apple strangely can get away with such a debacle – just think how Microsoft would have been pilloried for it).

I think a commitment to uncompromising excellence is certainly part of Apple’s culture, and this may have a general value, but then excellence itself is susceptible to interpretation: should it not include environmental performance? And you could argue that Microsoft’s historic attempt to refine and extend its products without sacrificing backwards compatibility is an equally defensible idea of excellence, paradoxically committing its designers to compromise.

It’s clear that values are at work in all of this, and matter, but the language of values is not usually helpful. More than this I’d say that for both corporations and individuals values are  better lived than spoken. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed, but I suspect the output from those discussions should be policies, not value statements. People understand policies. They know what they’re supposed to do with them (implement them, follow them). It’s usually not clear how I’m supposed to place myself in relation to stated corporate values, which makes it all the more ironic that some version of "clarity" is a staple of bog standard brand values.

I’d argue that if we use the language of policy and priority the underlying values are likely to be better understood, and so will better inform decisions at every level (if it’s corporate policy not to buy from suppliers that are touched by exploitative employment practices then it doesn’t matter whether I agree personally that the principle matters – if I go against the policy I can expect consequences). It also necessarily and usefully will clarify management thinking: policies tend to be less abstract than values, so it will be more apparent whether they will be sustainable in the real life of the company, and so offer a readier benchmark for good practice.    

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