In a recent survey conducted by Omega when asked to define what is meant by values a wide range of interesting answers were received. Although not everything is covered the majority of answers can be summarised as follows:
- a moral spine
- a way to behave
- something you take from home
- a set of rules to live by
- something we take from our beliefs
Between them these answers seem to fit with the dictionary definition of ‘the principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong, and how to act in various situations’ (Cambridge Dictionary Definition).
The concept of values is not only personal, but has increasingly come to represent corporations and their outlook on the world as a whole and these same values frequently appear at the forefront of most publicly accessible materials. Here at Omega we also have a set of values that provide our guiding principles and service ethic. They have been reproduced in the image below. Omega’s principal ensures that these values are adhered to as they are fundamental to the Omega way, which is in turn based on customer service.
Larger companies also proclaim their values before the world as a statement of This is who we are and what we stand for! Tea and coffee companies declare that they are committed to fair trade and sustainability, paper producers believe in recycling or reforestation (one well-known UK toilet paper manufacturer claims to plant two trees for every tree they cut down), banks declare they are customer-focussed and clothing sellers declare that they source their stock ethically and not from sweatshops.
However having values within a company raises a number of issues.
Who are the values for?
When conducting the same research mentioned above most interviewees answered that values are for the customers / clients and not the employees of an organisation. This creates a paradoxical situation where values – that by definition are about behaviours and therefore internal – have become the opposite as they have taken on an external focus. Admittedly the answers received were also backed up with the fact that companies primarily exist to make a profit and any other concerns take second place or are lower down the priority list. If this is the case then it means that values only exist within a company as PR, marketing or a way of providing spin on its products. This surely has to be a wrong way of thinking. For values to be important they should shape the internal dynamics of an organisation, which in turn could define relationships with clients / customers.
What is the point of having values?
If values represent the ‘moral spine’ of an organisation, a sense of right and wrong and indeed an ethic they should surely be immutable. Right is right – right? A declaration of being customer focussed should mean just that – nothing more and nothing less, as with more abstract values such as transparency or respect. Is this always the case?
Imagine an international bank that operates in the UK. They offer free personal banking as is the norm in UK (it is possible to upgrade to an account with a monthly fee that offers better interest rates, overdraft terms, etc) and declare as one of their values ‘Free Banking for Personal Customers’. Now imagine that same international bank operates in Poland. As is often the case in Poland this same bank charges personal customers a number of fees, including for taking any kind of a printout from their cash machines, using a cash machine other than their own for simply checking a balance, a monthly fee for the bank card and a monthly fee for the insurance on the same bank card.
Such a bank exists! *
Therefore this value is not a value at all!
* The author cannot name this bank for legal reasons, and whilst the bank in question has a different high street brand in the UK to that in Poland it is still the same bank.
When corporate values meet individuals
Values are intrinsically personal. They define an individual’s attitude(s), beliefs and relationships. People wear their values (or lack of them). This raises two other issues, namely:
Is it possible to recruit in a values-based way and does it matter?
How should I handle staff whose values do not match those of the company?
Recruitment based on a values basis is probably next to impossible unless the candidate is already well-known to the company. Think about somebody who you know at least reasonably well. There is a fair chance that you could tell them what their values are because you see it through the way they treat others and engage with the world around them. There is no way you can do this with a fresh candidate. So, unless there are exceptional circumstances, values will not help you recruit the right people. At best your values may help you attract the right candidates for the job in that the candidate will read about them before deciding to apply for a position within your company.
Experience has shown that a person’s values generally are fixed and not subject to change with only two basic exceptions – an epiphany (particularly in the light of previous wrongdoing) or trauma (physical or mental) and although not impossible it is highly unlikely that corporate values will be taken on by employees who come with their own sets of values that may even at times contradict those very corporate values that they should be living. Indeed employees may only take on new values when working alongside a particularly inspirational person who believes wholeheartedly in the very values (s)he is sharing. Values have to be lived and not just shared.
It therefore follows that a person is unlikely to change their personal values due to influences in the workplace. So the next question that stresses the importance of values and again Omega research suggests that it does matter. Values form a moral compass and a code to live by and contribute significantly to an individual’s work ethic and approach to other people. Having said that many people can simply do as they are told even if what they are required to do is not exactly in line with their values. If there is ambivalence then the matching of corporate and personal values is less of a necessity.
So finally if the values of the corporation and individual are contrary and clash there is no room for middle ground or compromise and it becomes ultimately unworkable. In this situation it is almost certainly better for the company and individual to part company.
So do values really matter?
The tone of this article seems to be very dismissive of values, but actually it is a passionate argument for real values. At the beginning the author shared Omega’s values because they matter. They shape Omega’s ethics, products, methods and relationships both internal and external. Real values demand Character, Consistency and Commitment and any failure to do this makes them worthless.
Character means wholeness or fullness, in other words they need to have depth to them and not just be some slogan. If a company has empowerment as a value then it must empower. Employees need to feel that they can embrace the value and that there is no barrier to them living it. Glance back at Omega’s values and you will see that they are dedicated to treating the client correctly through good communication and delivery of what (s)he needs at the right time and in the right way.
Values have to be applied across the board – no exceptions. As with the above example empowerment has to be for all and not just the top executives. Take another common value – investment in employees – if that is your value then invest in your employees – whoever they are and not just your favourites. Don’t nit-pick, but be fair in your implementation of any action(s) that come from your values. Omega’s values demand that all clients – whatever their size are treated with the respect and individuality they deserve. Values demand equal application and no contradictions – if you are committed to treating people with respect as a value that means everybody – your staff, suppliers and clients!
Values can at times be costly – they may mean going the extra mile and demanding that your people do too. Here at Omega we have a commitment to excellence whilst accepting that people are flawed. People make mistakes, it is only natural and it takes commitment to get it right. Remember that values are right – right? If they are so immutable don’t abandon them when the next trend comes along. This reduces the values you hold to being nothing more than slogans – here today and gone tomorrow.
In conclusion values are an important part of an organisation’s structure – I have even heard values being described as a company’s DNA (not sure I agree with this – surely delivery of the product or service is?). Values have to be more than this, they have to be real, they have to matter and they have to make an impact on the internal dynamics (namely the people) of an organisation, before they affect the external relationships of the same organisation.
© Horton, R. (2016) Omega Support Service