These days, corporate values statements are
all over the place. Most large companies now post them online—and everywhere
else from wall signage to wallet cards. Many include them as components of
corporate training, and sometimes even in performance reviews.
Sure, a carefully crafted value statement is a
way for owners and managers to say what their companies care about most. It is
also communicates those aspirations to employees and others who might actually
help live out those values.
But what are we really saying here? Ed Conlon, faculty director of the Notre Dame
Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership within the Mendoza College of Business
at the University of Notre Dame, wanted to find out more.
Ed and his team started by surveying at random
the stated values of 150 multinational corporations. Here are the top
Concern for customers
Respect for all (58)
Respect for employees
Ownership of actions
All of these are admirable aspirations. And as
corporate values, they have the prospect of being useful, especially in shaping
the judgments and actions of employees.
According to pioneering values expert Shalom
Schwartz of Hebrew University, values can play an important role in regulating
behaviors. Specifically, they can serve someone’s interests, motivate behavior,
and be standards for guiding, judging, and justifying courses of action. Values
can also help remedy ethical breakdowns by communicating the “oughts” and
“ought nots” of potential strategies, tactics, and employee actions. So in
theory, values can be useful for governing behavior in a company.
But in reality, how effective are they?
In an exploratory survey of alumni from ND’s
MBA program, 70 percent of respondents reported that their employer had a
formal values statement (although 27 percent couldn’t recall any of the values
it actually contained). Still, all of the respondents to the survey believed
that the company had clear values. And for those reporting a value statement,
most felt there was a strong correspondence between the statement and what was
truly important to the firm’s managers and owners.
Values were communicated in various ways.
Corporate websites were most common, followed by employee orientation
presentations, employee handbook content, and posters. Just fewer than half
reported that values were part of formal employee performance evaluations.
The survey also included an experiment on the
impact of values statements on employee judgments, assessing the extent to
which a stated company value affected judgment when that value could be served
by favoring some options over others.
Overall, the simple inclusion of a value in a
value statement didn’t affect decisions respondents made in the experiment.
But when a value was frequently discussed with one’s
boss, or when it was included in formal performance evaluations, it tended to
have a greater effect. Discussions with peers and subordinates, or more casual
discussions of values, didn’t have the same impact.
While these findings are preliminary, they
suggest that the simple presence of values statements—and even their presence
in an organization’s general “culture”—may not be enough for them to have an
If you want them to matter in decision-making
and be lived out by employees, make sure that stated corporate values are 1) discussed
between supervisors and employees, and 2) incorporated into the formal
performance evaluation process.
Note: This article was published as part of
Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership series, To the point: Dispatches from the Ethical Frontier.
For more essays, videos and other resources on Ethical Leadership, visit
Freelance writer Lynn Freehill Maye contributed to this story.