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Actions Over Words: Living Corporate Values

Practically every organization today has a set of corporate values that it uses to help guide its decisions and behaviors. Companies have become increasingly eager to communicate these values, knowing that consumers, customers and partners are looking to do business with entities that share their values, and recognizing that being a purpose-driven organization may be a point of differentiation for many job-seekers.

Companies are putting an enormous amount of resources into their values. But are these values making an impact?

For many organizations, the answer is likely “no.” Companies today are largely missing the mark when it comes to creating values that tell a unique story or differentiate them as an organization. A recent study found that 90 percent of corporations referenced ethical behavior or use the word “integrity” when communicating about their values, 88 percent mentioned commitment to customers and 76 percent cited teamwork and trust. While these are all good traits, they end up becoming merely background noise in a sea of sameness when used to communicate about a company’s background and how it operates.

When it comes to effective values initiatives, it’s often less about the words that are used, and more about the actions that a company is willing to take to bring their values to life. Values need to be reflected in people’s day-to-day experience to truly resonate.

Too many organizations treat corporate values as marketing launches—singular events measured by the initial attention they receive, not the authenticity of their content. While consumers and customers may not always notice, this type of behavior is often keenly felt by one important audience: employees.

Research from EY Beacon Institute indicates that more than one third (35 percent) of employees feel a disconnect between their organization’s stated purpose and its day-to-day actions. The report notes that companies often have a “persuasive overconfidence bias” that leaves leaders viewing their company’s commitment to purpose more optimistically than their employees.This is problematic for many reasons. When organizations profess to be driven by values, yet appear to put profits ahead of purpose, they come across as insincere and inauthentic, which can result in disengagement, or even backlash.

Wayfair learned this the hard way earlier this month when employees walked out to protest the company’s decision to sell furniture to a contractor operating detention camps for migrant children. Instead of reinforcing its values, the company justified this decision to employees by noting the company’s role as a “profit-generating entity.”

Google experienced similar pushback recently when employees posted an open letter calling for the company to cancel Project Dragonfly, an effort to create a censored search engine in China, noting that the undertaking is not aligned with the company’s core values.

It has never been more important for leaders to filter decisions through the lens of what employees want and expect, to ensure that their actions truly align with their corporate values. This may mean turning down profitable business opportunities, terminating employees whose actions are inconsistent with their corporate values, or investing in programs that allow workers to live their corporate values, not just hear about them.

Furthermore, organizations need to ensure that their values are ones that they are willing to stand behind, even when it affects their bottom line. 

APCO Worldwide’s Approach to Corporate Values

APCO Worldwide works with companies around the world to develop corporate values. We have learned that the most successful companies keep the following criteria in mind:

  1. What will contribute to our company’s success?
  2. What is realistic to our operating environment?
  3. What are we willing to stand behind above all else?

But defining and communicating are just the first steps. Living the corporate values takes time, energy, effort and constant reevaluation. APCO Worldwide helps companies map issues that align with their corporate values, develop programs that put values at the center of business strategy and activate employees so they feel engaged in the process.

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