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Helping values to grow: Embedding ethics

Helen Mayson

Plants growing

Values and ethics have become an important part of company culture, but how effective they are depends on a variety of factors. Sue Weekes asks how you can get your values embedded into an organisation

A raft of high-profile scandals has led to a growing culture of accountability. Consumers who feel let down by major brands, or indeed public sector organisations, because of their behaviour are far more likely to take a negative view towards them today and in the future. For instance, when coffee chain Starbucks was accused of tax avoidance last year, it saw a significant drop in its YouGov BrandIndex rating, a daily measure of brand perception among the public.

It is more important than ever, therefore, for organisations to exhibit high standards of behaviour and live by their professed values. Managers clearly recognise the importance of this. In a report, Added values: The importance of ethical leadership, published by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), more than three-quarters (77%) ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ that the public’s perception of ethical behaviour has risen since the start of the recession in 2008. Worryingly though, more than a third (35%) feel that despite increased scrutiny, general organisational standards have fallen over the past four years.

Management disconnect

The research also unearthed a clear disconnect between senior leaders and more junior ones in terms of engagement with and reference to their organisations’ value statements and a further gap between the values and lower levels of the organisation. Two-thirds of directors believe their employees’ behaviour follows the organisation’s stated values ‘very’ or ‘extremely closely’ but this fell to just 38% among managers. It seems that while the vast majority (83%) of organisations have explicitly stated values, in many instances they are failing to be embedded across the organisation and then translated into everyday behaviours.

Simon Foster, client solutions director of the leadership arm of Kenexa, an IBM company that focuses on end-to-end HR solutions, believes that part of the reason for this is that they are often put in place by the senior team in isolation and presented to the rest of the organisation as a fait accomplit. “It’s a case of, ‘these are our values so get with the programme’,” he says. “If they are created in this way, how is the rest of the organisation going to buy into them?” Indeed, ILM’s research found that managers who consulted staff in the creation of a values statement were significantly more likely to refer to them when making decisions (76%) than if they had not (57%).

Clearly, embedding values across the organisation entails far more than referring to them though. As Foster points out, senior managers need to role model behaviour and learning and development (L&D) and HR have a major part to play in ensuring this happens. “In the first instance, it is to instil self-awareness,” he says. “They need to make them hold a mirror to themselves and explain that this is the impact they had and this is the impact they could have had. If a person is a command-and-control manager and one of the values is teamwork they will be unlikely to drive the right behaviour.”

L&D also needs to make sure that managers at all levels have the skills to give people the necessary feedback if they aren’t delivering on the organisation’s values since otherwise they won’t be able to hold employees accountable and take steps to correct it. Coaching, for instance, can be a key skill for addressing certain issues relating to behaviour. “Coaching in the moment can be particularly helpful to get to the root of a problem,” says Foster.

He stresses that L&D and HR departments should also look inward to ensure that everything they are delivering is aligned with the values. So if they are running a session on performance management and part of the ethos of the company is to be a developmental organisation, they need to question whether this is being conveyed by the process. “Or will they feel it is just a tickbox exercise that HR makes us do once a year,” asks Foster. “They must keep the values at the forefront of everything the organisation does.”

Northumbrian Water established a set of values in 2010 to help it become the leading supplier of sustainable water and waste water provision. The values are: customer-focused; results-driven; ethical; creative and one team. Lynn Perry, HR operations manager, explains that initially the organisation involved all staff in roadshows, lead by the CEO and directors, in which the company vision and values were put forward. Examples of the different behaviours expected from people with regard to values were also circulated. To ensure inclusivity, an employee survey was carried out which found that 87% of people felt they were the right values to have. 

The next stage was all about bringing the values to life. “In how we all go about our work every day,” says Perry, explaining that a wide range of measures and activities were put in place to achieve this. These include the Vision in Values Awards (VIVAs), in which employees can nominate each other, a manager or a project who/that is a great example of putting those values into practice (the award categories comprised the five values). The company holds a presentation evening where an overall winner is awarded. “People see it as a great way to celebrate all of the hard work their colleagues put in,” adds Perry.

Other initiatives include Our Way, a company-wide programme all about putting in place a customer-focused mindset. “Whether it is in a contact centre or digging a hole outside someone’s house, we ask our people to think about what the customer would like us to do for them, going beyond putting ourselves in their shoes,” she explains. In addition to specific initiatives, Perry reports that the performance appraisal process, corporate induction, employee engagement strategy, training, leaders programme and other key areas were all revamped to ensure they reflected the values. 360 degree feedback has also been brought in.

“There is a huge amount of activity going on to embed the values across the organisation,” she continues. “Being clear about our values and our way of working is helping us enhance the service we give to customers, which has shown in the latest independent customer service survey in March, where we received our highest mark ever.”


  • rosemary rmr

    It is really a great fact that in many company such values and ethics are followed. You have explained this in understandable way and I learned many things from this single article. I think the blog is going well by sharing such great articles.

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  • John McLachlan

    The ILM research on Values makes both interesting and disappointing reading in the gap between senior management and the rest of the organisation. Embedding of values in organisations is in the easier said than done pile and I would suggest that one essential is that the senior managers and board directors lead by example which sadly all to often is not the case and is a key reason embedding values becomes a process rather than a way of being. john Mclachlan

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Added Values: the importance of ethical leadership

9% of managers have been asked to break the law at work

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