Organizational Values Often Fail When Put Into Practice

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

“When your values are clear, making decisions becomes easier” Roy Disney.

In management circles, people often ask what does the organization value? Some observers say what the organization says it values and what it demonstrates as valued are two very different things.

Let’s say the organization states its values as – People, Integrity, Commitment, Excellence, and Community. There may even be awards given out several times a year for each one of these values. But, in reality, research bears out the contradiction of truth and illusion. In fact, many employees may not even know what those values are, even though everyone wears a “Values” card around their neck.       

In a series of 10 interviews conducted recently in a large organization, only one respondent out 10 actually knew what the company values were. Many stated that they didn’t feel they needed to be reminded of the values, as these values were intrinsic to them, and that they lived by their own values system, and didn’t need the organization to tell them how to behave. Interestingly, one VP  who was interviewed pointed out that the reason the company instituted the written values was to focus exactly on people’s behavior. He said that “We can’t teach values, but we can teach behavior”.

After extensively peeling back the onion on the organization’s implementation of values, the study concluded that people often believed that the stated values were shallow in actual practice. That of all the values, “excellence”, widely interpreted as “performance” or “the bottom line” was the most important value of all. And while the other values were not tied directly to compensation, overt and embarrassing violation of those stated values could lead to a heavy penalty.

It was obvious that employees had come to realize that they could “go through the motions” and not “rock the boat” and as long as bookings, sales, profit, and cash targets were met, none of the other values would have any real positive impact on their daily work.

To answer the question at the personal level “What do people in the organization value?” we need to look beyond thestated values.Based onthe interview samples as well as numerous anecdotal examples, it seemed many people trend toward placing the highest value on survival. “Peace for Pay” and “Active Exit” strategies were apparent in daily discussions as well as in the samples taken for the research. There appeared to be a high level of frustration and a perception of meaninglessness without employee connection to real values. Widespread superficiality and “going through the motions” as well as a depressing fog pervaded the “cube farms”.

Daily examples supported this theory. For instance, the values stated for the “People” value says: “You are important to us. Earn respect and treat others fairly every day. Commit to developing yourself and others. Seek Life Balance.” However, this “value” seems to fail when put in practice.

For example, a new director decided to bring his own admin with him to his new job, which would have displaced the current admin. The current admin was told she would have to reapply for her job, and she received no backing from her management. She had to bring it to HR and legal completely on her own, and to everyone’s surprise, actually won!  She felt that she had nothing to lose, since she would probably be out of a job either way. Now she has to work for a manager who tried to get rid of her and the admin, who was brought with the new director, is the one who is out of a job. If the director had left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. But he wasn’t putting people first, only his own wants. I am sure that neither of those admins feels truth in the “People” value statement “You are important to us”.

As a result of this type of behavior, many people place value on ensuring their 401Ks stay intact and they and their spouses staying healthy enough to enjoy a long retirement. In fact, some have personally learned to escape “quiet desperation” by leveraging the many benefits the company offers in its quest to fulfill its “People” value. (The company pays 100% tuition for degrees (up to $10K per year) and offers much in the way of recreation (company gym, wooded walking trails, free semi-annual parties) and multiple other company benefits.                      

The next challenge is what issues are causing fear, anger, and complacency within the organization?

Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, PCC, SHRM-SCP – Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. 401-742-1965;