My employer wants to update our “values”

I work in the marketing department of a large catering company. Recently, our CEO has started making noises about doing more to promote our “values,” both internally and externally, and making them a bigger part of our corporate identity. 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. etc. Those are all good words, sure, but too generic to hang anything meaningful on. Any company would say they value such things (as would any decent human being, for that matter), and yet 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 actually play out in their own daily work.

My thought is to turn these “values” into taglines suggesting something more concrete, or actionable. For example, “Quality food prepared with care for you and yours” might be more appealing to clients, and our cooks might better appreciate and internalize “Be excellent in the kitchen” or “Teamwork makes the food taste better.” To me, this sounds like a better place to start.

And maybe we should involve the staff? I think their input might be key if this effort is to be effective. We could have them tell us how they feel about our current values, and then work back from that information, rather than always handing everything down to them. 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) willing to admit their company’s values are a bunch of, well…nonsense.

Yes – your current values sound insipid and meaningless, as you say, and probably not doing anyone any good. I’m also on board (mostly) with your instinct to make them more ‘actionable.’ But I can already hear your kitchen staff mocking what you propose. ‘Bechamel seemed a bit bland, chef, so I added another teaspoon of teamwork.’ Or, ‘You know what they say: ‘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 website and promotional materials. You’ve obviously found a job that suits your talents. Feel-good slogans like the ones you suggest will undoubtedly go over well with your clients, customers, and patrons. But don’t expect the same reaction from your staff.

What they’d rather hear are things like ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ ‘The opportunity to be your best at a company that appreciates your efforts’ or ‘Safety first, last, and above all else.’ (I’ve got a whole list, if you’d like more.) 

Obviously ‘values’ like these will be far less appealing to patrons, who’ll assume your company does this already (as would any decent employer). Your staff, on the other hand, will almost certainly appreciate seeing them stated so clearly, and 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, he/she/they apparently feels the need to do something CEO-ish. Updating your company’s values certainly fits the bill. Maybe it’s pandemic related anxiety, a desire to feel more hands-on, or just plain boredom. Or—and this is really important—maybe they’ve noticed that the quality, performance, and/or morale of the organization is indeed slipping, and are understandably concerned.

Whatever the reason, getting the staff involved as you suggest is the right thing to do. Cooks, servers, dishwashers – all of them. But don’t be surprised if the values they come up with are shockingly similar to the ones you have now (and just as generic). Take it from someone who knows: Savvy employees have a way figuring out what management wants to hear, and telling them that, as opposed to saying what’s actually on their mind. It’s called surviving.

Overcoming this inclination will take a little work. The key is to get your colleagues to genuinely open up – and that means in some way reassuring them they won’t be punished for their candor. So, for instance, any work-shopping you do to develop new values should be done out of earshot of the top boss. Or suggestions could be submitted anonymously. And 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 in fact they should be welcoming them. That’s a mistake for two reasons: (1) Feedback of any sort is absurdly valuable to your organization if it’s to stay competitive. Some of the best suggestions for improving your business will come from your frontline employees, given the chance. You ignore their input at your peril. And (2) the very act of soliciting employees opinions and then taking them seriously is guaranteed to improve staff morale, even if it’s pretty great already.

One last bit of advice: You imply that someone has been quizzing your staff on the company’s current values (maybe you?), even asking that they be recited on demand?

If so, for [expletive deleted]-sake, stop. It’s anxiety provoking, grossly unproductive, and more than a little bit offensive.

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

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