When corporate and personal values collide

Corporate values and personal values are not the same. When they are different, one will give way to the other. Organisations which have corporate values embraced by their employees must work incredibly hard at making it so.

An example of how hard it is to have corporate values embraced is a personal one. In the late 90’s I lead a business in the South Pacific headquartered in Suva, Fiji. The business was a fully owned subsidiary of a multinational oil company.

The safety of our employees and customers was both a written and an unwritten value. In all my years working for the oil company in Australia and overseas, safety was not far away as a topic. It was a mandatory topic of all operational meetings. It was a mandatory topic of all product development meetings. Measures used to track our safety performance were always one of the three most important KPIs.

You could not work in Australian operations or marketing, as I did, without the generality and detail of safe working being ingrained into how you thought and what you did.

This was not the case in the South Pacific.

Many of our employees lived in a village or had very strong ties to life in the village. The sense of community was exceptionally strong. Those ties brought to the company strong values related to teamwork, humility and respect for authority. What they also brought, unfortunately, was values associated with unsafe work practices.

Necessity was the mother of invention. If there was room for three people in the front of a pick-up/utility and room for ten in the back and twelve people had to go somewhere, nine rode in the back. If there was no money to replace a bald tyre and the vehicle drove OK, then the vehicle was driven. If the right tools were not available and something could be substituted, even if it was risky, then it was done.

If any of these actions resulted in an injury, it was considered bad luck. If it resulted in a death, it was very bad luck. For some of our employees, it was “An act of God”.

The difference in values we faced with safety was between “An act of God” and “Every injury and incident is preventable”. When the difference was that stark, one set of values was going to win.

It is not my intent here to describe in detail what was done to move the values of our employees closer to the company values other than to say it was a lot of hard work, being persistent and consistent and bringing the concept of “village” to include the workplace and the concept of safe working to include home life.

The concepts and their attendant actions were partially successful. We actually had an increase in reported incidents and accidents, which on the face of it may seem like a poor result. Previously, in a workforce of about 120 and a reseller network employing about the same number spread over six islands, we rarely had any accidents and incidents reported. Until, that is, a manager would visit a location to find a storeman with a broken thumb or an office worker with sore eyes from a petrol splash.

In some individual cases, the improvement was spectacular with the approach to safety of an entire village taking a turn for the better.

The point is that despite creative concepts, persistent and hard work by many people, the corporate values were not dominant to the extent that we could relax at any time.

Most organisations have a values statement. A study of 365 companies in 30 countries by Booz Allen and the Aspen Institute in 2005 authored by Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, revealed the following about corporate values statements:

  • 89% of respondents have value statements.

Of those respondents which had value statements the values espoused were:

  • 88% had commitment to customers
  • 78% had commitment to employees
  • 69% had commitment to shareholders
  • 41% had commitment to diversity.

All of these are corporate values which although may be impacted upon by personal values, are values which can be “taught” upon entering a corporate environment.

Other values of interest were:

  • 90% of the respondents cited ethics and integrity as a value
  • 76% had teamwork and trust
  • 69% had honesty/openness
  • 68% had accountability.

All of these are personal values.

Let us think about the most often included value of ethics and integrity. Ethics in itself is a system of beliefs or values. Beliefs tend to be formed by our early teens and change slowly after that unless we experience some strong event such as a death of someone close to us.

In my personal example, it was the whole system of ethics and values of most of our employees, which on the issue of safety, ran counter to the corporate value of not hurting anyone and the supporting belief that all accidents and incidents are preventable.

What can cause us, in a corporate environment, to align our beliefs or our ethics with the espoused corporate ethics? How do we ensure that the corporate version of values is dominant? We may even have trouble aligning personal ethics with the rest of the corporate values.

This is not trivial.

I may have a personal ethic that says life is about the individual and what you can achieve. I may, therefore, value people who are assertive, even aggressive, over those who are passive. In an organisation which is promoting teamwork and diversity as values, my ethics may not be a good fit.

Conversely, if my ethics are demonstrated by my willingness to put myself out for the less fortunate, and the corporate values are very strong around personal accountability and drive to succeed, my ethics may run counter to the corporate values.

In each example, it is not my ethics which are questionable it is the fit of my ethics with corporate values.

It is, therefore, insufficient to say that ethics and integrity are part of the values of an organisation. The ethics which are valued must be spelt out in such a way that they can be easily understood. They must be demonstrated by the words and deeds of the leaders of the organisation.

However, even that is usually not enough. Recruitment, especially executive recruitment, social engagement, public relations, training, appraisals, sponsorship, advertising, marketing and customer selection must all reinforce the ethics of the organisation to have a chance of influencing the alignment of personal ethics (values) with corporate values.

A set of values statements is not enough as a part of people’s ethics at a micro level, and will always be at odds in some way with corporate values at the macro level.

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