The Core Values Sham

By Jane Adamson

Millions of dollars and an unimaginable number of employee hours have been wasted on the hypocrisy of “core value statements.” Consultants and company leaders form committees and convene off-site meetings to carefully craft the exact words that will be posted on the lobby wall or the company website. After all, we’ve been taught to tell the world who we are and what’s important to us.

It isn’t hard to guess what words will show up in a typical company values statement … something about “integrity,” no doubt, as well as “respecting each other,” “being responsible,” and “honest communication.”

Guess what? It’s all a sham.

Enron published its four values in its annual report: “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” Tyco’s governance credo on its website states that “good governance ultimately depends on the quality of its leadership, and it is committed to recruiting and retaining directors and officers of proven leadership and personal integrity.”

We all know the reality in those two situations.

It’s not that those aspirations aren’t admirable. The real problem is twofold:

  1. Too often, companies fail to translate those lofty words into what an individual actually does on a day-to-day basis. Without that link to specific actions and behaviors, it’s impossible to actually hold people accountable to the values being required of them.
  2. Companies do not measure behavior and give it the same weight and level of importance as more objective performance criteria.

One example of a company with real values is Zappos, the highly successful online retailer. A core value at Zappos is to “Deliver WOW through service.” The company goes on to specifically define that phrase: “To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver.”

They get even more specific: “Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don’t offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers).”

It’s not hard to envision how Zappos tracks and holds employees accountable for the WOW service they’ve delivered and the number of customers they’ve surprised and delighted.

With this lesson in mind, then, here are seven steps you can take to make your value statement real and measurable.

  1. Review your corporate values and ask this question: “How would I know if an employee were living this value or not? What would I observe or hear or notice?”
  2. What would a low score on each of your values look like? How would you describe it?
  3. Ask 10 people in the organization the same two questions above for each value and see how similar (or dissimilar) their answers are.
  4. Do the company leaders demonstrate the values through their actions every day? If not, don’t expect employees to do so.
  5. Hold a brainstorming session and ask the attendees to make a list of actions that depict the values in your organization (i.e., “respect each other” could mean “come to meetings on time,” “answer internal emails within 24 hours,” “listen without interrupting,” etc.)
  6. What is a realistic way that your values can be measured and incorporated into your performance-appraisal process? It isn’t effective to measure job performance without also measuring behavior. Unfortunately, this famous maxim often holds true: “People get hired for what they can do and fired for who they are.”
  7. Ask some people outside your organization if they’re able to identify your company through its value statements. For example, could you recognize that the value of using only “Vermont dairy products” is Ben & Jerry’s? Or that an experience that “enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests” is the Ritz-Carlton? )

Don’t let your company fall prey to the sham and hypocrisy of most corporate value statements. Make your values real. Make them an important lighthouse to guide actual behavior. Then, you’ll be positioned to reap the actual benefits of real, definable, measurable values.

Jane Adamson is the CEO and founder of Phoenix-based Sherpa Advisory, which guides companies through the growth stages that require mid-size companies to “do” all the things that large companies do, but with limited resources. She has been the president of two manufacturing/service organizations, sat on industry and professional boards, orchestrated the successful turnaround of a financially distressed organization, and implemented numerous performance management processes. Jane can be reached at
Originally published: Sep 27, 2011

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