Make Your Core Values Actually Mean Something

Lo Kidd

October 29, 2021

Core values like integrity, respect, and boldness sound nice on paper – but what do they really mean? For most companies, they’re just words. Something companies say, but not what they do.

But similar to your mission statement, your core values should be an integral part of everything your company does. And a list of buzzwords hanging in their breakroom just doesn’t do this. 

So, if you want your core values to actually mean something, you’ll need to get specific. Here’s why it matters and how to set core values that go the extra mile:

🔥 Tip: Document your core values in Trainual, so there’s no excuse for anyone not knowing what your company stands for. Try for free.

What are core values?

Core values are the fundamental beliefs that your business operates from. Meaning, they are the ideals that guide your day-to-day decisions, including how you interact with coworkers, serve difficult customers, and get tasks done. As a result, those values are your company’s culture cornerstone. 

Business leaders set core company values, expecting them to become second nature to employees. And that they’ll keep the team aligned from top to bottom. But that’s only true if your team actually believes in and upholds them. 

Today, only 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s core values. Roughly 33% of employees don’t believe their company’s core values align with their personal values. And 19% don’t understand their company’s core values or don’t know them. 

They're just words...

Meaning, company core values are just words to most employees. And this disconnect makes it difficult for employees to uphold those values. If left undiagnosed, it can impact your business outcomes. 

Why do company core values matter?

Renowned CEOs Larry Fink of BlackRock and Cyrus Taraporevala of State Street Global Advisors assert that profit and purpose are inseparable. Cyrus even noted that “intangible assets such as culture average 52% of an organization’s market value.”

That’s because your core values directly impact who you hire, employee engagement, and customer experience. Let’s break down how. 

Roughly half of all job seekers consider core values before applying to a company or accepting an offer. Meaning, nearly one in two applicants will apply because they believe in your values (or choose not to apply because of them). 

From those applicants, it’s on the company to hire the people who actually align with your company values (AKA “value fits”). Meaning, one interview in your hiring process should be solely dedicated to screening for value alignment. 

Hire the wrong person, and you risk your core company values not being upheld. And, often, that leads to a domino effect that negatively impacts your company culture. 

Hire the right person, and they naturally align with your core values and uphold them. Plus, they’ll be more engaged with your company and the work at hand. Meaning, these are the folks who will be more productive, produce better work, and serve your customers best. 

How to create your core value statements

There are dozens of right ways to develop your core value statements, but I’ll break down our favorite way here at Trainual. It utilizes the diverge-and-converge technique

Sit down with key stakeholders (whether that’s just you or your leadership team). Give everyone a pad of Post Its. And ask them to take 10 minutes or so to write down what your company stands for and what makes your company unique. One idea per Post It. 

When time’s up, hang the Post Its on a wall so you can see them together. Then, group together likes with likes. This should make the wall a bit less overwhelming. 

Once narrowed down, ask which of these groupings:

  • Are true to each individual in the room
  • Are true to the employees not in the room
  • You want to be true of new hires moving forward

You’ll want to take away Post Its that don’t feel genuine or don’t need to be true for everyone. For example, maybe everyone needs to collect experiences, but not everyone needs to avoid bureaucracy. So, take the second one down. When you have roughly five left, those are your core values. 

Then, make sure your team not only upholds them but knows them. For example, we make it impossible for our employees (new or old) not to know our company values. We talk about them in our hiring process, have them hanging in our office, posted on our website, and inside our team’s Trainual content. Plus, we talk about them constantly and even hand out monthly awards to people who exemplify these values.  

How to make those values mean something

Admittedly, coming up with core company values is the easy part. The hard part is choosing ones that actually mean something. So, whatever you come up with, here are 3 ways to check that those core values have substance:

1. Be authentic

This should go without saying, but your core values should be unique to your company as it is. Meaning, do your best to avoid the “values” you’ve seen a million times over. 

Believe it or not, 55% of all Fortune 100 companies claim integrity as a core value, and 49% say customer satisfaction. 

Any business can rattle off its values, but it takes work to actually stand behind them. For instance, Volkswagen said its company values are responsibility, honesty, bravery – the usual.

However, the company recently found itself caught in a scandal because they failed to accurately document the results of emissions tests on one of their new cars. AKA by not upholding that particular value of honesty, they landed themselves in hot water.

That segues us to the flipside of authenticity: true. Your core values should be true to your company as it is today and that you want to continue to be true. Not aspirational to what you want your company to value (that’ll only set your company up for failure). 

So, look at your list of values. Which of them makes you stand out, and are you willing to stand up for day after day?

For example, the razor company Billie does an amazing job at this. One of their values is a zero-tolerance policy against racism and systemic oppression. To combat this, they donate 1% of their revenue to various causes worldwide, focusing on empowering female-identifying BIPOC. And as the company has grown, so has its commitment to this value. 

2. Embrace the process

Like many aspects of your business, your core values are not a one-and-done project. And they certainly aren’t something you can simply hand off to HR. 

Your core values are something you must continually work on – and like most things in your business, it’s a group project. And once set, it takes monthly milestones to ensure you hold your company accountable for upholding those values.

For example, Parade underwear is known for its sustainability core value. But the Parade team didn’t just claim this value then do nothing. They publically outlined in great detail how Parade will become a carbon-positive business by 2025.

That’s because they know you can’t rush your core values. If you’re actually putting in the work, it will take time to get just right. During this time, you can look to your employees for help and inspiration.

Talk to your team if you want your business to give back to the community but aren’t sure where to start. Someone might volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend, which could inspire you to create a company-wide volunteer program. 

Nothing needs to be set in stone either! If you and your team find a better way to give back, by all means, go in that direction. Your core values should adapt to your business.

With that being said, don’t change things on a whim. Save it for extremes (here at Trainual, for instance, we constantly ask if our core values still resonate now that we’ve doubled our team size in one year).

3. Infuse those values into everything

From your executive team down to your intern, everyone needs to uphold your company’s core values. No exceptions. And if anyone acts in a way that falls short of those values, you need to immediately hold them accountable. 

As I said earlier, it’s a slippery slope once one person fails to exemplify your core company values. That’s because it sends the message to everyone else that those values are optional and it’s okay to go against them. 

So, say one of your core values is “show up ready” (like here Trainual). Then, make sure you’re not just equipping your team to uphold those values but holding those who fail to do so accountable. 

For example, your CMO might ask the marketing team to report on their individual goals before the next meeting. It’s then expected that the team will show up with the reports and data ready to share. 

If anyone doesn’t, leadership needs to immediately follow up with feedback after the meeting. Suppose the next team-wide meeting comes around, and there’s no course correction. In that case, you’re unfortunately going to need to implement consequences. 

Upholding and integrating your company values into everything you do doesn’t have to be complicated. Just consistent. That way, your values are more than just idealized words. They’ll actually mean something, and your company will be better off because of it!

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