Whether you are evaluating your company’s internal culture or getting ready to devise an employer branding strategy for 2018, the first place to start is with your “company values”. So many executives and even entrepreneurs treat this part of the process lightly and they couldn’t be more wrong.

Values are the 1st and core pillar of a company culture assessment and, when identified authentically, add tremendous value (pun intended) to an employer branding strategy.

The biggest mistake I see leaders make is carve out a list of values that make their company look appealing to customers. After all, it is still trendy to splash feel-good adjectives all over the walls in reception areas. How can we not brag about being honest, fair, customer-focused, and innovative? So very tempting indeed.

In fact, 55% of Fortune 100 companies claim integrity as a core value, 49% – customer satisfaction and 40% – team-work.

If half of the companies use the exact same adjectives to describe their values, these “values” become simply generic and cliche. However, the problem runs even deeper. What happens when your company is built on values that are not so sexy or socially acceptable? What if your company is deeply old school – carpets, cubicles, 2 week vacation maximums and all? What if you run a sales-oriented organization where profit is number one above all else and internal competition is promoted, even celebrated?

For the purposes of your company culture assessment exercise, I suggest that you get brutally honest and transparent with yourself. Same as self-awareness is key to massive personal success, awareness about your company’s DNA is equally crucial to building an authentic employer brand. If your company’s Founder is weary about employee use of social media, nervous about sharing their employment journeys online; your office has long-winded hallways with closed offices and little shared space, with procedures and red tape clearly prevalent, then don’t call yourself modern and progressive. There is nothing wrong with being old school (zero sarcasm, I mean it)! Traditional companies tend to be more family-oriented, more open to hiring mature employees and more focused on career stability. You have no idea how many job seekers would favor that versus a startup with millions of the proverbial “bells and whistles”. It is all about being clear on your values and looking for candidates who truly and authentically align!

If you struggle with removing rose-colored glasses from your eyes, then allow your teams to (re)define the values of your organization for you. A simple first step is to send out an anonymous survey to all of your employees (yes, I include the temps, the interns, the recent hires and the call center folks) and ask them to submit three top adjectives that come to mind when they think of your company. Tabulate, pick the most frequently mentioned, and there you have it – a perfect place to start. To start, not to finish! The output will provide you with brainstorming material for your more in-depth value exercises with a smaller team, usually comprising of your key executives, as well as top performing employees.

When your values are all in alignment, no need to paint them on walls or even share on your website; however, you absolutely must use them as the basis of your employer branding and hiring strategies. My future posts will show you how to build all of the EB pillars on the back of your internal values but in the meantime – please be brutally honest with yourself, your existing teams and your candidates. Don’t confuse values with beliefs or sugary-sounding virtuous proclamations, don’t mistake your aspirations for reality and keep in mind management expert Patrick Lencioni’s on-point insight:

If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going through the trouble of formulating a values statement.

But why should company values incur pain? After all, the descriptors we are most used to spotting on companies’ walls are pleasing both to the eye and to the ear: collaborative, customer-focused, innovative, reliable. Arguably no pain there!

Before I continue and before I elaborate on Patrick Lencioni’s argument, let’s all agree on how open to interpretation stand-alone descriptors can be. What I usually see when conducting culture audits is that values tend to come as statements in themselves, rarely with any explanation. More often than not, when we sit down with a client and ask her to list her company’s values, we inevitably ask the same question over and over again: “… But what exactly do you mean?”

For example, let’s say one of your values is “fun.” That’s great! But does it mean that work has to be fun and that, as such, you have included gamification into your workflow? Or do you mean that you offer a packed social calendar to your teams? Maybe “fun” refers to the very rare team-building activities that you host, yet implies that when you do get the team together for an off-site you go all in, all out, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” style?

See? Even such a basic company value as “fun” can have multiple interpretations – and can be interpreted and misinterpreted by current and potential future employees. And when you dig deep below the surface and explain what your company values mean at their core, this is where we can see:

(a) how authentic they are and

(b) what they cost your organization

Let me give you an example. One of Pronexia’s core values is “WOW candidate experience.” In order to live that value throughout our workflow process, we have mapped out our candidates’ journey with us and identified all of the (numerous!) touch-points. After that, we brainstormed on the various ways we could ensure that we were either meeting or exceeding our job seekers’ expectations. And it doesn’t end there. In order to ensure that our commitment to providing our candidates with a WOW experience is non-negotiable to us, we have to also ensure that we only recruit for companies that share the same commitment. How do we do that? We visit every single prospective client before taking on a mandate with them and we consistently audit our relationship to confirm that our alignment in regards to candidate experience remains. What do we do when we become misaligned? We respectfully disengage from the mandate and stop recruiting for the organization in question. In other words, the cost of this company value to Pronexia? All of the business that we leave on the table or walk away from – that’s pain for us. But the benefits? We live our values in a real, tangible way. We talk the talk, but we also walk the walk – and employees (and clients) know that.

Last week, I was conducting a culture audit of a very cool Montreal tech startup called NestReady. The Founder told me that one of his company’s values is “Transparency.” As part of his commitment to transparency, he openly shares all of the employees’ salaries internally. Wow, right? Well, the cost of having this company value is that he’s had to raise salaries across the board more than once when hiring someone at a higher rate than existing staff. You may agree or disagree based on what your own values are. Yet, one thing is undeniable: this kind of commitment certainly incurs real pain vis-à-vis, at the very least, a real cost.

And so here is this week’s homework for you. Run an authenticity check on each one of your values. How much “pain” would you be willing to incur in order to protect them? Ready to publicly share with us? Please do in the comment section below!

As passionate about Company Culture and Employer Branding as I am? Let’s chat! I am happy to grab a coffee or jump on a call to answer your questions and to exchange ideas.

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