Back to Basics: What Are Corporate Values?

April 8, 2022 Aaron Kinne

illustration of two people high fivingCorporate values are “at the core of everything we do,” observed Ashley Attaway, Rocket Central’s vice president of people experience and support during a Workhuman webinar. “ISMs” – as they refer to their 20 company core values – “are the lens for every decision we make. They are not just something that’s written on the wall. They’re evident in our actions and behaviors.”

What are corporate values?

In her seminal work, “The Cultural Fit Factor,” Liz Pellet defines company core values as a “roadmap” for the way things should be within your organization. “Values determine the definition of good and bad,” she notes. “Values state what is important to you as an individual and to your organization. In other words, values are what you stand for. They reflect who you are, which in turn affects what you do and how you do it.” 

A Workhuman blog likens core values to your culture in bullet form. They are the defining force of your company’s beliefs, and shape how you want your employees to interact with people – both within and outside your company. Core values represent an organization’s “highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and core, fundamental driving forces.” In short, company values are the organizational guideposts that define who you are, what you believe, and who you want to be going forward.

How do you determine your company core values?

In an article for SHRM, Frank Calderoni, chairman and chief executive officer of Anaplan, argues that the most impactful way to discover an organization’s common values is through a “bottom-up approach” that reflects how employees see themselves and their company. In the article, he shares the five-step workshop approach his company used to gather input and buy-in from workers throughout Anaplan. That’s the key; determining values must be a company-wide endeavor that taps into the crowd and encompasses as wide a swath of employee input as possible.

“Determining specific values can be particularly challenging in hypergrowth organizations because they are changing so rapidly,” observes Marilyn Miller, Anaplan’s chief people office. “But it is particularly important for them to do just that, so everyone has the same North Star as the company evolves.”

The process of determining corporate values should incorporate these three key elements:

  1. A compelling story about the long-term future – A roadmap for where you want to go and a vision of the company you want to be. This is often called a “vision statement” or “purpose.”
  2. A definition of how you plan to create that future – A “thumbnail sketch” of why you exist and what you do – typically referred to as a “mission” or “mission statement.”
  3. A set of actions and behaviors that will guide you to that future – The fundamental beliefs held by your most engaged employees, declaring how your company will treat customers, suppliers, community members, and employees. These are often called “organizational,” “company,” or “core values.”

Company values should be an “at-a-glance guide” to your culture. As the foundation of your culture, they represent the best and strongest things your culture has to offer.

How can you bring your company values to life?

Now that you’ve determined your company core values, how do you bring them to life? How do you infuse them into the lifeblood of your organization’s culture? How do you ensure they become the North Star that guides and informs humans throughout your company?

“An organization’s core values only have power when – and to the extent that – the humans in and around the organization feel a connection to them,” observes Scott Thompson in his Workhuman blog. Scott delineates three key ingredients that foster connections between the people in your organization and your core values”:

  1. Values need to be operationalized – By this, Scott means that organizations must design and create systems that ensure values are viewed as integral to business processes and decision-making. “Doing so thrusts core values into the day-to-day conversation.”
  2. Values need to be lived – starting at the top – Because of their visibility and position of authority, it’s vital that leaders live your organization’s core values – “even in (or especially in) the smallest of actions, or else the values have no teeth.”
  3. Values need to be communicated – One great way to do this is through storytelling by employees who embody and are living your company core values. Scott shares the story of a worker who was visited in the hospital by her manager and later by a teammate. “’Love’ is not just a word on a wall at this company, but rather a value that people live and connect with.”

Of course, one of the most effective ways to get your company values off the wall and make them part of your organizational DNA is through a values-based employee recognition program. A vibrant, comprehensive program plays an integral role in aligning the entire organization to its shared purpose and vision. Recognition reinforces company values and puts the power of gratitude to work, aligning your humans to your core values.

Because a values-based employee recognition program is designed with rewards that map to each of your company’s values, it integrates those ideals into employees’ everyday thoughts and actions.

What defines a strong corporate value?

How much do your values represent your current corporate culture? Are they aspirational, reflecting what you want your company to be? Are they unique to your organization?

Those are some of the questions you might ask as you determine whether the values you’ve formulated will be meaningful and effective in guiding your culture. Strong values are memorable, but not overly clever. Perhaps most important, they should be specific. And stay away from broad values, such as “Integrity” or “Innovation. They tend to be too vague to have any real meaning for employees.. If you do use broader values, it’s important you amplify them with explanatory content. As an example, Netflix’s use of the value “Curiosity” is expanded into four subheadings:

  1. “You learn rapidly and eagerly.”
  2. “You seek to understand our strategy, market, customers, and suppliers.”
  3. "You are broadly knowledgeable about business, technology, and entertainment.”
  4. “You contribute effectively outside of your specialty.”

Finally, it should be clear to everyone in your organization how to put company values into action. If they are too abstract, your employees will struggle to “connect the dots” as they try to translate them to real-life behaviors.

Because strong, meaningful company values are deeply rooted in your culture, they are not something to be changed on a whim, but rather should endure and stand the test of time. Stay the course with them, even during difficult times. In this way, they become a reference point within your organization.

The connection between employees and company values

In the end, corporate values are the foundational cornerstone of your company’s brand. They reflect who you are, and what you believe in. In this way, they become a portrait of your organization’s community, showcasing the employee connections that make your company what it is.

“Core values are a common ground between a person and an organization,” notes Scott Thompson. “The organization that fosters connections between humans and values will break through with the most force.”

About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.

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