Company values: It’s complicated, I guess

At most organizations where I’ve worked, if organizational values were not already a thing, they became a Thing while I worked there. People realized that it’s not enough to have a clear mission; you also need guiding principles on how you do the work, not just what you do.

A few words about what the process usually looks like for coming up with values: like many things in the organizational setting, it’s often done by sub-committee. A group of people is selected or nominated by leadership, with attempts at cross-representation of staff by function and by level of seniority. The sub-committee goes off into huddles and has wonderfully deep bonding conversations with each other that no one else has the time to have. There are set checkpoints to both gather input from the staff at large and also report out to staff and board on the progress and results from their work.

[The exact same process I’ve just described also occurs for branding initiatives, because developing organizational branding and organizational values are highly interrelated endeavors.]

The thing about values: what happens when all is said and approved and you’ve got your values etched in stone? (In some places I’ve worked, the values ended up being literally etched in stone.) Well, now comes the really hard part: living up to those values in ways that feel meaningful and true to your external audiences, and to your employees, too.

As I’ve mentioned several times in recent writing, I worked at a corporate job in 2019 for all of two months, and one of the things I am still chewing over is how well-known this company is for its great corporate values. There’s been a lot written about this company’s values, and the company invests a great deal of time and energy to orient new employees to the company values, and has created avenues for people to be rewarded (or called out) for their alignment (or lack thereof) with the values. Moreover, I met longtime employees with the company who absolutely, fervently believed those values still mattered, and were relevant, and who made every good-faith effort to align their behaviors and actions with those values.

But: this company was GIANT, really much more like dozens and dozens of companies smushed together under one umbrella and where I worked was just a cog in a much larger corporate machine. And what I experienced during my eye-blink time there was chaos: despite the careful training I got on the company values, despite the people I met who still believed, I was treated abominably. I was asked to skirt rules, I was given little to no onboarding support, I was hectored and insulted and retaliated against by very senior people indeed.

I chose to resign quietly, rather than fight back. I have a separate thought piece forming in my head about when it is worth fighting back and when the situation warrants dashing for the nearest emergency exit, and I have to say, in this case I think the latter option was unquestionably the best one.

However, I still am struggling to extrapolate object lessons from that experience, especially when it comes to the company’s values: how disorienting it felt to process so much evidence that yes, the company values mattered, and at the same time to understand my lived experience that no, we don’t really give a shit about you, we’ve got to meet our numbers by hook or crook.

Beyond this one work experience, I am also experiencing these same disconnects when it comes to companies I interact with in multiple ways. The most obvious example is Facebook: I use it for a lot of good things. It is the channel I use for my most personal connections: I am very much my professional self on LinkedIn, and I oscillate between snarking and professional fangirling on Twitter, but Facebook is where and how I maintain connections to people I value IRL.

And yet Facebook, as a company, has done such crappy things. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent refusal to ban political advertising, no matter how untruthful or harmful they might be, makes me want to go over there and scream at him in person (I only live two towns over). I just can’t figure out if Facebook as a company has any values or a moral compass, or, if they do, whether they’re acting with or against them. But I know this: I really want them to do better and to be better. Because I actually value Facebook for the good things they’ve brought to my life.

So as I said, I’m confused. Not about my own personal sense of values, but more about whether it’s possible to line up my own values with where I work and from where and from who I buy things and what services I choose to use. I don’t know if alignment is even possible, anymore, at least not in a pure sense—what happens when you disagree with something a company does or says but heartily favor other things it does, and that makes it okay? And when does that tip over into self-justification for not very noble reasons? (Like letting my son eat Chick-Fil-A sandwiches for a while because he loved them so, so much—thank goodness for Popeye’s.)

I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on corporate purpose and corporate values, mainly because I’m thinking about these topics pretty much every day, and here’s what I came up with:

  • I wonder if massive corporate expansion is antithetical to the clear and consistent expression of company values? It’s like how business franchises vary so much in quality of the product. I can see how this would happen: A big company will say, hand over heart: “Of course we’re against kicking puppies, who do you think we are, anyway, monsters?” And then some employee or a whole bunch of them ends up kicking puppies. The company can fire those employees, yes, and issue a public apology, and sponsor trainings on how kicking puppies is evil, but how do they  account for the fact that you somehow hired those employees who did those things? I am not sure very large companies CAN account for the bad actors. There are some very, VERY big companies, with diffuse operations and hundreds of thousands of employees all over the world. Can you really know who’s being naughty and who’s being nice in enterprises of that size?
  • If a company IS very good at expressing good values and purpose, everyone can tell—the customers, the employees, everyone. My favorite example of this is Costco, which is a place I go to, literally, every single week (Koreans love Costco). After a few years of doing this, I wondered why I always saw the same employees there, and why they were so good at customer service and so friendly to each other, why there were so many organic and eco-friendly options to choose from. I found myself intuiting the company values, from my customer experience there: I thought to myself, hmmm, Costco must care about their employees (low turnover) and they must care about sustainable food production, and subsequent queries confirmed that I had intuited the right things about what the company leadership does care about.

I feel like there are so many companies going through this struggle about what they stand for, beyond the products they make or the services they offer, and I am glad—not glad about the internal heartache the employees and customers of these companies are experiencing, but glad that at least there is dawning recognition and awareness that we live during times that often require us to choose sides, and act with moral clarity and purpose. It’s just that—speaking only for myself—it is feeling damn complicated to choose sides. I think about the agonizing seconds Darth Vader waited while the Emperor slowly killed Luke: even Darth, one of the biggest baddies of them all, experiences moral conflict.

For those who are working at companies going through this struggle, I guess here’s what I would care about, if I were in your shoes:

  • How’s your senior leadership doing on actively engaging with these questions and issues?
  • What is the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of how company values (if they exist) manifest at multiple levels and activities of the company? Sometimes people will spend a lot of time making sure leadership and staff can say the values out loud, but they don’t re-design their work environments and systems and processes to actually reflect those values. For example: Does HR function as a liability shield or as a group of people who are both human and resourceful? Do the communications functions set the tone for open, honest, information-sharing, or does it look and sound like a corporate PR machine, marching in lockstep with carefully bland, legally-approved talking points?
  • Does company leadership take the time to find concrete examples of how good values are expressed and are those behaviors rewarded and highlighted?
  • And finally: does your company admit when bad things have happened, admit that the bad things were very, very bad and talk about how the company will move forward?

I, for one, am big on forgiveness and moving on, but only when there’s been some recognition of wrongdoing or at least, some awareness that things are not what they should be, and some attempts at remediation. If there is no such recognition: well, then, that’s just hubris, IMHO.

[Author note: It was a deliberate choice not to link to articles or specific companies in this piece, even though such information is very findable, because I don’t like to pick on any one company or actor when so many are facing this set of challenges.]