advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My employer wants to update our “values”

I work in the marketing department at a large catering company. Recently, our CEO has started making noises about updating and doing more to promote our “values”, both internally and externally. I’ll inevitably be involved in this effort and I’d like it to be as meaningful as possible.

     Currently our so-called “core values” are pretty generic – quality, service, excellence, teamwork, etc. Those are all good words, but too generic to hang anything meaningful on, in my opinion. Any company would say they value such things (as would any decent human being, for that matter). But most of our employees can’t recite even one or two of them on any given day. I don’t blame them – there’s no way to see how these concepts might play out in their own daily work.

     My thought is to turn these “values” into taglines suggestive of something more concrete, or actionable. “Quality food prepared with care for you and yours” might be more appealing to clients, for example, and our cooks might better appreciate and internalize “Be excellent in the kitchen” or “Teamwork makes the food taste better.” And maybe we should involve the staff too? Their buy in is going to be key anyway, if this effort is to work. We’re probably going to devote a few days to this effort, so it’d be great if it weren’t a big waste of time. Is my idea worth developing, or will our “values” always be just a bunch of corporate [EXPLETIVE DELETED]? – Name Withheld

I appreciate your candor.

It’s refreshing to hear someone (in marketing, no less) admit their company’s values are a bunch of, well…nonsense.

Yes – your company’s current values sound pretty insipid and meaningless, and probably aren’t doing anyone any good. I’m also on board (mostly) with your inclination to make them more ‘actionable.’ But I can already hear your staff poking fun at what you propose. ‘Bechamel seemed a bit bland today, chef, so I added another tablespoon of teamwork.’ Or, ‘You know the old saying: ‘If you can’t stand the excellence, get out of the kitchen.’

You get the picture.

What you have come up with is great copy for your company’s promotional materials. Feel-good slogans like the ones you suggest will undoubtedly go over well with your clients, customers, and patrons. Obviously you’ve found a job that suits your talents.

But don’t expect the same reaction from your staff. They’d rather hear things like ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ ‘Safety first, last, and above all else,’ or ‘The opportunity to be your best at a company that appreciates your efforts.’ (I’ve got an entire list, if you’d like more.) While ‘values’ like these will be less appealing to patrons, who’ll assume your company does this already (as would any decent employer), your staff will appreciate seeing them stated so explicitly. They’re actionable too.

Which brings us to whose benefit this little exercise is really for. It’s not your employees, is it?

It’s your CEO.

For whatever the reason, they seem to feel the need to do something CEO-ish. Maybe it’s pandemic related anxiety, a desire to be more hands-on, or just plain boredom. Or—and this is important—maybe they’ve noticed that the quality, performance, and/or morale of the organization is indeed slipping, and are understandably concerned.

Getting the staff involved as you suggest is the right thing to do. This means the cooks, servers, dishwashers, part- and full-time – everyone. But don’t be surprised if what they come up with is remarkably similar to the generic values you have now. Savvy employees have a way figuring out what management wants to hear, then telling them that, as opposed to saying what’s actually on their minds. It’s called surviving, and it’s probably how they’ve gotten as far as they have.

Overcoming this inclination will take a little work. The key is getting your colleagues to genuinely open up. That means assuring them they won’t be punished in any way for their candor. So, for instance, any work-shopping you do should done out of earshot of the top boss. Suggestions could be submitted anonymously too. Don’t restrict their input to just what they think the company’s values should be, either. Let them talk—or complain—about whatever they want.

And then listen.

In my experience, managers spend way too much time and energy suppressing their employees’ opinions and complaints, when they should instead be welcoming them. That’s a mistake because feedback of any sort is absurdly valuable to your organization, if it’s to remain competitive. Some of the best suggestions for improving your business will come from your frontline employees, if you only listen. You ignore their input at your peril. Furthermore, the very act of soliciting employees’ opinions is almost guaranteed to improve staff morale. This is true even if their attitude is pretty great already.

One last bit of advice: You imply that someone in your organization (maybe you?) is quizzing the staff on your company’s current values on demand? If so, for [EXPLETIVE DELETED]-sake, stop.

It’s condescending, anxiety provoking, grossly unproductive, and more than a little bit offensive.

Best of luck – and let me know how things turn out.


  1. fred

    Love this!

  2. Tim Eiler

    Values start from the top and flow down. That said, they don’t flow down with platitudes written on something stuck to a wall – the flow down by *behavioral demonstration* from the CEO and executive leadership team.

    Rewriting the values seems a ridiculous exercise unless the CEO and executive team write down what they already do and have demonstrated what they expect from everyone else.

    • the subordinate

      Ahh – but the CEO and other executives aren’t at the top of my organization chart. The customer is.

  3. Jim H

    Very interesting – and amusing. If that CEO or manager had any common sense & wasn’t thin-skinned, the most useful exercise would be paying employees double for a few hours of their time, set out the CEO’s views on ‘values’ and why she / he thinks THEY should care & then open up the floor for any and all feedback.

    No matter what the finished product / action plan (if any), everyone will have a clearer idea of what makes everyone else tick, what their personal values are and how they perceive their job, their role in the company, their ability to influence company values etc.

    It would be a worthwhile exercise for a manager who cared about his employees & wanted to maximize employees’ job satisfaction & buy-in


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