90 per cent of American companies say that they have clearly defined core values. However, according to one poll, only one out of every 10 HR managers believe that 80 per cent or more of their employees know these core values.
Defining your company’s core values tells both internal and external stakeholders what is important to the organization. But you can’t just slap down any old buzzwords. A core values exercise helps you figure out your top priorities for day-to-day operations.
Watch this webinar with ethics expert, psychologist, author and speaker Chris Bauer to learn how to write a values statement that encourages ethical behavior.
Defining your company’s core values can be more difficult than it sounds. The first step is to understand what core values are.
According to ethics expert, psychologist, author and speaker Chris Bauer, core values are your company’s “most persistent, most important priorities.” They are the “rules we follow when no one is looking” and “who we really are as opposed to who we . . . say we are.”
Core values show employees how to behave and make decisions. They also express what it means to be a part of your organization. Your core values help form your organization’s identity and are the heart of its culture. This means they won’t change if someone new takes over top management positions.
Once you’ve determined your core values, compile them into a values statement. This sentence or paragraph, says Bauer, “articulates the beliefs behind the company’s goals and mission” to “remind employees and the general public what the company stands for, its ethical philosophy and its culture.”
You may be thinking: “What’s the point of having core values?”
Core values are an essential aspect of your company’s image, both externally and internally. Without them, it’s harder to know what choices to make. Bauer notes that your core values do the following:
- show both internal and external stakeholders your most important and persistent priorities
- let employees immediately and effectively evaluate their own behavior and that of their colleagues
- help employees make decisions when there are no other guidelines or protocol to follow
- get everyone on the same page in regards to management, leadership and customer service decisions
- build and maintain customers’ trust
While core values are the basis for what your company is now, they should also reflect what you aspire to be. They need to apply to everyone equally while also inspiring even the most skilled employee to be better. When employees know what it means to excel in your organization, they’ll work more efficiently and ethically and feel more satisfied in the workplace.
A core values exercise can help you create the unique set of values that defines your organization. Complete one or a few of the core values exercises below to illustrate the culture you want for your company.
6 Core Values Exercises
Before you can determine your core values, you need to understand your company’s image. This includes your internal image for employees and external image for customers. Knowing how you appear (or want to appear) makes it easier to figure out what is important to your organization.
For this exercise, ask:
- What makes your company unique? Compare it with competitors in the same industry and companies in other industries.
- What problems are you working to solve? What do you want to achieve for your employees and for your customers?
- What do people think of when they hear your company’s name? What feelings or thoughts do you want them to have? Are these the same?
- What does good work look like in your company? Define what work ethic, progress and success mean in your workplace.
Discuss questions like these in a working group made up of managers and executives. Come up with a list of values based on the image you’ve defined, then run it by employees at all levels for feedback to finalize the values statement.
For this core values exercise, choose a group of employees to brainstorm what is important to your company. Determining what is important and not important to your organization ensures your core values are relevant, focused and unique to you. Ask each member to answer the following questions, then compare answers.
What are the top five:
- most important qualities in a [company name] employee?
- least important, or five qualities that are detrimental to performance at [company name]?
- stand-out things that your organization does to shape employees’ career paths?
The answers to these questions will reveal the core values that you will never compromise on. Not only will you discover where you company is right now, but also where you are going and where you do not want to go.
After you’ve identified your company’s core values, revise your policies and procedures to reflect them. Our free policies and procedures template can help you get started.
When defining your company’s core values, you may find it hard to focus. There are many attributes that you want your employees and organization to have, so how do you choose which ones to prioritize?
For this core values exercise, work with a group of employees to focus your organization’s values. First, come up with the top 10 words or phrases that resonate with your company. Then, separate those into pairs based on common theme (e.g. kindness with compassion or balance with well-being). Choose the one value from each pair that your organization would never compromise on.
From the smaller list, select the three to five values that are the most important to your company. These are values that you would fight for, hire and fire people for and take or decline business deals for. Make sure your core values are specific, easy to understand for employees at every level and specific to your work.
Many executives have a personal set of core values, even if their company doesn’t. For this core values exercise, gather owners, founders, executives and managers and ask them about their core values. Take note of the words or phrases that are repeated and consider turning those into the organization’s core values.
To make this exercise more inclusive, send out surveys to random employees at all levels. While you may not choose to use lower-level employees’ values for the whole organization (they may not have a strong grasp of the company’s vision and goals), they may offer new perspectives or ideas for your values statement.
When defining your company’s core values, you’ll probably come up with a simple list of nouns or adjectives. However, employees may struggle to apply these values to their work.
In this core values exercise, write a short description for each value with a specific example linking it back to employee behavior. You could also demonstrate a core value by describing what not to do.
For example, if you are an organic grocery store one of your core values might be quality. You could link this value to behavior by saying either “We will sell only the highest-quality organic products to our customers” or “We will never settle for stocking our shelves with low-quality products.”
Having these concrete examples also makes it easier to create training programs, a code of conduct and a code of ethics that work hand-in-hand with your values statement.
Doing a core values exercise once isn’t enough to keep your company on track. Assessing your values ensures employees stay on the path you envisioned when you wrote your values statement. Each year, review your values statement to honestly see if it’s still working for your organization.
Which values are you falling short on? Are there any values that no longer feel relevant? Would you be willing to uphold each value even if it put your company at a disadvantage? Will these values still apply decades from now?
Before you remove a core value, though, try changing employees’ behavior to fit it. Revise your code of conduct or code of ethics, or create or edit training programs. Equipped with the right tools, employees may uphold core values better. If you’re still falling short after another year or two, consider revising your values statement.