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Values help maintain company culture through troubled times

It’s easy to preach values when times are good, but the real test comes when you hit tough times. Do they stand up?

6 min read


Values help maintain company culture through troubled times


Values equals culture equals values. 

Sounds like a reinforcing circle, doesn’t it? We announce to the world that our people make the difference, and then those people don’t come through. Think of any company that is known for poor service. Then go look to their website and see what the company values are. Are they in sync or not? I used to get a cup of coffee at a diner in NYC, and the person filling up my cup and taking my money was always a very gruff, surly type. No smile. No have a nice day. However, hanging right behind him was a banner that read, in beautiful cursive handwriting, “we love our customers!” Really? 

When we hire people, we look for a few things that are non-negotiable. Do they have the ability to do the job at the level we expect, and do they exhibit the values our organization cherishes? What happens when we are convinced that the person can do the job very well, but doesn’t have the values we deem essential? We see this all the time in sports. A team signs a terrific player, but that player has off-the-field problems, to put it charitably. That team has decided that winning is more important than values. Or, perhaps, winning is the only value. I would argue that that same mentality destroys businesses that are supposed to be winning. 

Can we not agree that a salesperson, for example, who has a deep track record of hitting goals in a different set of industries would be a good bet to succeed at a new company? And let’s assume that person has the personal attributes (as far as we can tell) that mirrors the company’s values? I’d say this is a person we need to talk to. But what happens when the boss/CEO/hiring manager wants to hire someone who clearly does not meet the values criteria set forth — a core value that the company has advertised as a non-negotiable ingredient for joining the team?

Surely this doesn’t happen, does it? Every day. We don’t like to talk about it, but every once in a while the boss tells HR to make room for a friend, an internship for a son or daughter of said friend, or some other exception for a special person. Only that person isn’t so special. He or she is taking the spot of a much more qualified person, based on values alone, and the ramifications can be very damaging indeed. 

I once had a client who faced this kind of situation. The candidate — let’s call him Ralph — seemed good on paper for an entry level sales support position. He had one year of experience with a firm that provided solid training in sales fundamentals, he had a degree in business administration from a university known for churning out solid business school students and he was a referral by a respected employee at the firm. HR met with Ralph, asked the usual questions, moved him along to the hiring team, which announced they were satisfied with the candidate. Time for an offer, right? Just about.

HR did its background check and found that Ralph had misstated his GPA on his resume. Not a whopper, but enough that it seemed an unlikely mistake. To be sure, HR asked Ralph about it. Ralph compounded the small lie with a bigger lie. 

Now HR had a bigger problem on its hands. It couldn’t recommend the hire. In fact, HR wanted to nix the candidate right there. After all, this company said that one of the key values — perhaps its number one value — was honesty. Unfortunately, an internal struggle ensued, with both HR and the hiring manager making their case to the CEO. 

HR leaders can certainly appreciate this role — bad cop. Sales is simply trying to help the company by filling out its roster with a qualified candidate, and HR is getting in the way of progress. There could be mitigating circumstances. Perhaps HR didn’t provide enough qualified candidates and the sales team was desperate. Regardless, this is where HR leaders need to bear down on the company’s values. Is the company well-served with an apparently dishonest person representing the company? Do the company’s values stand for anything other than a poster on Glassdoor? It’s easy to preach the values when times are good, but the real test of those values is when they are applied in difficult and uncertain times. Honesty. If we can’t model this value when it really counts, why bother? 

HR leaders know that the world they work in is not clean like the ones in textbooks or described in SHRM seminars. Our worlds are messy places where logic and reason don’t always win out, where we have to learn to live with compromises and adapt to changing winds. HR leaders must do their very best to defend company values that are rooted in the company’s best interest. And if thwarted, HR leaders need to gnaw on what they could have done differently and what they will do in the future.

As for Ralph, he was hired over HR’s objections. And several years later he was fired for performance reasons after it became clear he wasn’t selling, but was living off scraps tossed to him by the hiring manager, who had a vested interest in proving that the hire was not a mistake. Here was a case where the company basically carried an employee for many years — imagine the opportunity cost — because it wouldn’t apply its values when it really mattered. Now imagine this writ large across a large organization. It’s the thing of failed enterprises. Wells Fargo, anyone? 

In this new era of remote work, your company’s values are more important than ever. Ensure they are practiced by all employees, not just when times are good but, especially, in times like these, fraught with uncertainty. Your company’s future depends on it.

Bryan Otte is founder and CEO of HRPlus Group, a human resource consultancy based in Washington DC. 


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