Today’s business world is experiencing a real awakening when it comes to the importance of identifying and living out corporate values. If you were to ask many U.S. companies about their corporate values, chances are they’d hand you a nice glossy page on what they stand for and why. But how many of these companies are living and truly embracing their values—and what does that look like in the modern business world?

Living and demonstrating values is similar to the concept of having quality products and services. Every company talks about the importance of offering high-quality products and services, but not everyone can pull it off. The reality is, corporate values represent your brand and your “culture heartbeat,” which means they represent your employee journey. Simply put, buyers will ultimately choose to consume from a company that aligns with their values, and employees will choose to work for a company they believe in.

The reality is, corporate values represent your brand and your “culture heartbeat,” which means they represent your employee journey. via John Taylor @RiseSmart #SmartTalkHR

Most organizations today state their corporate values and weave them into the recruiting and hiring processes, but unfortunately, that’s where the values focus typically stops. To embrace core corporate values and make them part of your brand and culture, they must be a part of your entire employee experience, from hiring to outplacement.

Here are four big strategies for creatively intertwining your employee experience with corporate values:

#1: Relentlessly recruit and hire for shared values

Southwest Airlines has become the poster child for hiring employees that fully and energetically embrace the airline’s company culture. The secret, according to Southwest Airlines, isn’t to sit back and watch for signs of value-alignment in the hiring process. Southwest actively recruits people who are already living and breathing their core values. Julie Weber, the VP of People at Southwest Airlines, told Harvard Business Review that the company specifically defined its values and then actively hires for specific attributes to support these values—including a “warrior spirit,” a “servant’s heart,” and a fun-loving attitude.

By inserting its values at the first point of contact with new employees—the hiring process—Southwest Airlines continues to stack its team with value-aligned employees while growing its employer and corporate brand. Southwest is so selective with this process that they claim to only hire less than 2% of people who apply. There’s a reason for their rigorous selection process.  Southwest discovered some time ago that the more value-aligned the people were that they added to their team, the easier it was for the employee base to authentically demonstrate the Southwest values to their customers.

One caveat - it’s important to avoid only hiring people that are very much like you. Research shows that we are prone to the “similarity attraction effect,” the tendency we have to seek out people similar to us. By recognizing that we naturally possess this bias, it becomes possible to notice when it’s happening and to correct for it. Remember that employees can showcase company values in unique, diverse ways, so focus on hiring for company values instead of like-mindedness or similar predispositions.

#2: Live your values from the top of the company down

When it comes to embracing corporate values, company leaders should do more than talk the talk. They are the role models for company values, so walking should accompany talking. Employees shouldn’t feel unsure about how a corporate value looks when lived out, because the leadership team members serve as active, ongoing examples…or not.

According to Dr. David Rock, Director of the Neuroleadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development, we change human behavior by facilitating valuable insight in social situations over time. Dr. Rock told Inc. Magazine that “Research points to the importance of a three-step process: seeing something different in a social setting, having an insight about that behavior, and making these types of connections over time…. Insight to action causes change.”

When leaders actively embrace corporate values, those values become a part of social situations at your company. And when employees see their managers and company executives acting in accordance with these values over and over again, it causes ripple effects of positive change across the organization. In other words, your values become part of who you are as a company, part of the fabric of your organization.

#3: Have a corporate values feedback loop in place

So, what happens if one of your corporate values is “work-life balance,” but a few of the executive team members or team leaders seem to be working all the time? Or perhaps one of your values is “energetic enthusiasm,” but one manager likes to work on his own without much enthusiastic participation, except during team meetings.

To ensure that your corporate values are being lived out in every department and team, it’s vital to have a system for values “checks and balances.” In today’s business world, this reinforcement system is the feedback loop. Establishing an effective feedback loop requires having mechanisms in place to listen for, and address, gaps between behavior and stated values as needed…or to celebrate when the values are truly lived.

To ensure that your corporate values are being lived out in every department and team, it’s vital to have a system for values “checks and balances.” via John Taylor @RiseSmart #SmartTalkHR

One way to keep your values alive is to put managers in continuous discussions with team members about expectations, and where they’re exceeding them or falling short with regard to the values. Similarly, executive team members and managers need to ask each other questions that require reflection and link behavior to the corporate values. If executives, managers, and team members are answering questions such as, “How does the path you took align with our values?”, the answers will help everyone in the organization understand if how the work is getting done truly reflects the values of the organization. This feedback loop should ideally close the gap between values and the outliers who might not yet have buy-in or may not see how their actions are contrary to the goals of the organization, especially if their work style is contributing to corporate financial success.  Where the feedback loop indicates there is no gap --- that the values are truly being lived --- it’s time to recognize and celebrate!

#4: Bring values to life through storytelling

Communicating and displaying your values should happen throughout every step of the employee journey, from hiring (think: your LinkedIn and careers page) to outplacement and job transition.

Zappos creatively inserts its cornerstone corporate value, “Deliver WOW through service,” into its employee onboarding process. In the first three to four weeks of each new employee’s journey at Zappos, regardless of position or level, the individual must spend most of their time in the call center learning how to understand and then respond to customer needs.

This is a practical approach to ensuring all employees are able to embrace their company WOW value—and get really good at it, very quickly. Interestingly, Zappos employees are offered $3,000 to leave the company at the end of their onboarding session in the call center. Why? According to The Balance, this is strategic; “If you haven’t become a Zappos Insider, committed to the goals and the culture, the company really prefers that you leave.”  Wow, that’s a true commitment to building and maintaining the Zappos corporate values!  Their “payout” calculation tells us that they feel it’s less costly to offer $3,000 to an employee that doesn’t fit their culture than it is to keep them on and allow them to potentially impact their corporate values, culture, and brand in negative ways.

Beyond weeding out non-committed employees, this strategy by Zappos communicates, very clearly, what the company stands for. It also creates room for internal storytelling, as all employees have a common, shared experience of serving their first few weeks in the call center. This story is amplified as part of the Zappos external brand—the company is well-known for its commitment to providing extraordinary customer service.

The best companies in the world are looking for more than people who can name a company’s values. Those companies comb the hills for people who enthusiastically embrace core values and actively leverage them to create and sell products or services and in everyday interactions within and outside the company. In the best companies, corporate values move well beyond compliance; they energize and connect employees. Southwest and Zappos have clearly made their corporate values an integral part of their company reputation and brand. Remember, values are more than words on a glossy page. They should become your operational playbook and the very reason why customers choose your brand. And for your values to really sink in, it’s up to you and your employees to energetically embrace them.

Here’s the bottom line: corporate values are really the heart of a company. Your values behavior will determine if there’s a vibrant values heartbeat in your company or, if instead, things have flat-lined.

For more insights into living your corporate values during times of transitions, view these comments by China Gorman, former CEO of Great Place to Work.

12 April 2018

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