Contributed by Aaron Fairchild, CEO of Green Canopy Inc.
According to 2013 research published by Luigi Guiso, Paolo Sapienza and Luigi Zingales, The Value of Corporate Culture, 85% of S&P 500 companies have at least one section of their website dedicated to -- what they call -- “corporate culture” i.e. principals and values that should inform the behavior of the firm’s employees. Values are important to promote and advertise on corporate websites and reports, because it is imperative for companies to manage their image. External stakeholders expect companies to have thought about their values and publicly acknowledge them. The act of creating and promoting values can help assure external and internal stakeholders that the company has a higher degree of integrity and is guided to conduct their business in a way that is consistent with and based on their stated values.
Start with Intention
I recently spoke with the CEO of a publicly traded bank who was extremely proud of his employees for going through the process to create and document their values. They were, “developed by a group of really passionate employees that love this organization and only want the best for the bank, our employees and our customers.” Their guiding philosophy relating to their values are stated as, “Our Core Values encourage us to act in a manner that “wows” others and provide us with the opportunity to guide our actions that allow us to become who we want to be. We take pride in our Core Values and strive to live them each day.” This is an example that provides insight into great intentions and proactive leadership. However, when I asked him, “What does the bank do to ‘strive to live them each day’?” he floundered. Wasn’t it enough to go through the process to create their values and then promote them both externally and internally?
Learn from Employee Perception
This is a great place to start. But organizations that want to leverage the power of corporate culture to increase productivity and returns need to do more.
The Guiso, et al. study also uncovered some additional, interesting facts regarding advertised values. Notably, the value most commonly exploited by the S&P 500 companies was “Innovation” followed by “Integrity” and “Respect”. When the researchers attempted “…to correlate the frequency and prominence of these values to measures of short and long term performance,” they “...fail[ed] to find any significant correlation.” Basically they found that advertised values are not a great indicator of corporate and employee performance. Perhaps that is because it is easy to state your values, so everyone does.
Another point to note in the research is the concept of perceived value. The study found that if the employees of the company perceive management to have a high level of integrity, there was a positive correlation, and good outcomes in terms of higher productivity, profitability, and the ability of the company to attract talent. In other words it isn’t enough to create and promote values, they had to be perceived and held within the employee base of the organization.
So how do we know if a company’s stated values are not just something that they claim to be true, but are indeed perceived and held by the employees of the company?
A few clues to consider in your evaluation process:
If the company has its values listed internally or in an orientation packet, but they do not advertise their stated values on their website, this would suggest a note of caution. Again, according to the research paper, 15% of all S&P 500 companies do not advertise values. If you don’t talk about your values or share them with outside stakeholders then it is hard to be held accountable to them. It may also indicate that their management wants to be authentic and doesn’t feel the need to advertise values, however it certainly begs inspection.
Does the firm, large or small, value their Human Resources Department or efforts. In small, start-up firms many times HR is valued lower than marketing. The commitment of the leadership to focus on their number ONE asset, their human resources, is indicative of their values. In larger companies, is the head of HR part of the Executive Suite? In other words how high up are Human Resources valued? If the head of HR is nowhere near the top of the company, this would indicate a gap and that the leadership of the firm does not have a high attribution to corporate values.
Inquire how developed their internal recruiting processes are. If employees don’t want to recommend their friends to work at the company… something may be off.
Can an employee who has been at the company around one year tell you the values of the company? If the company is living their values, it should be easy and even exciting to share with others the shared sets of values at the firm.
Can managers and employees give examples of when others made decisions that aligned with the values of the firm? Clearly if no one can, I would question if their values are lip service.
Lastly, ask the vendors and customers of the firm what makes the company different from others in same field. If examples of what makes the firm different line up with their stated values, you can assume that their values are not just lip service and that the employee on the front lines is living the firm’s values.
I am sure you can think of many more “sniff tests”. The fact that anyone can truth-test stated values should give employees, investors, and customers alike a leg up in identifying if a company is truly anchored by its values (which correlates to performance and profitability) or if their stated values are just the lip service of corporate collateral created in the back halls of the Marketing Department.