“Words on the Wall” are worse than no values statements at all

Misaligned Values

The current state of employee engagement isn’t pretty. According to Gallup, only 33% of employees are engaged with their jobs (that is, poised to deliver discretionary effort to help the company succeed).

Engagement isn’t everything, of course; other employee-related factors drive business results, from job satisfaction to a sense of purpose. But there’s a problem there, too. Gallup’s research indicates that “just four in 10 employees worldwide strongly agree that the mission or purpose of their company makes them feel their job is important. And less than half of workers in any industry feel strongly connected to their company’s mission.”

The mission (or purpose) statement expresses the reason a company exists. (It’s not, by the way, to make a profit or deliver a return on shareholder investment, which is a byproduct of achieving the mission.) For employees, it’s a reason to get excited about doing the job and contributing to the fulfillment of that purpose. Some great mission/purposeT statements include eBay (“Provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything”), Facebook (“Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”), and Starbucks (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time”).

Closely aligned to companies’ missions are its values, which articulate what the company stands for. According to the UK’s Engage for Success initiative, organizational integrity is one of the four enablers of engagement. “The values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviors,” Engage for Success proclaims. “There is no ‘say–do’ gap. Promises made are promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not.”

There’s trouble here, too, despite the framing of values for conference room walls and printing them on the backs of employee security badges. Another Gallup study found that only 27% of U.S. employees believe in their organizations’ values. An even lower 23% said they can apply their organizations’ values to their daily work.

In its report, Gallup said:

In many companies, gaps exist between the desired culture—the one leaders envision and strive to realize—and the culture that employees experience. These gaps create inconsistency and confusion for employees and customers. The most successful companies identify these gaps and implement strategies, systems and processes that reduce them, taking actions that incrementally move the company closer to its aspired culture. Culture can be a formidable driver of performance. But when a company struggles with gaps between the desired culture and the actual culture, this hinders it from achieving performance goals and meeting customers’ needs.

A case study

Let’s take a look at one company’s values:

  • People as a competitive advantage
  • Ethics
  • What’s right for customers
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Leadership

The details behind each values statement are found on the web page on which these values are enshrined. In the introduction to the section on Ethics, for example, the company says it “strives to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. This is more than just doing the right thing. We also have to do it in the right way.”

As for What’s right for customers, the company declares, “We value what’s right for our customers in everything we do.”

One more: Leadership. “We all have the responsibility to be the link between the vision of Wells Fargo and our customers.”

You read that right. These are the proclaimed values of Wells Fargo, where employees functioned under such intense pressure to meet sales quotas that they twisted customers’ arms to get them to open new accounts, begged family members to open accounts they didn’t need so they could keep their jobs, and even opened accounts without the customer’s approval or knowledge. According to reports by employees and former employees, this behavior was sanctioned by bosses, their bosses, and their bosses.

When caught, the CEO, John Stumpf, had this to say:

“The 1% that did it wrong, who we fired, terminated, in no way reflects our culture nor reflects the great work the other vast majority of the people do. That’s a false narrative.”

It is beyond comprehension that 5,300 employees somehow collectively adopted these behaviors on their own without leadership’s tacit (if not explicit) approval. (It is equally beyond comprehension that those who were terminated were the only employees who struggled under the pressure that one bank researcher called “a religion” at Wells Fargo.) As for the 264,800 employees who remain, you can be sure they are aware that Carrie Tolstedt, the executive who was responsible for the business unit where the 2 million unauthorized accounts were opened, was due to leave the bank with a $126.4 million package. (The board has since “clawed back that package by $19 million.) Stumpf recently called Tolstedt “a standard-bearer of our culture” and “a champion for our customers.”

That is the same culture in which employees were encouraged to call a whistle-blower hotline to report inappropriate behavior but those who called were fired.

Those remaining 264,800 employees surely perceive a say-do gap between the values on Wells Fargo’s website and the kind of behavior that actually gets rewarded. Can you imagine any front-line employee who is fired up to give discretionary effort to Wells Fargo?

An all-too-common problem

It is not my intent to single out Wells Fargo for criticism. (I did that in a recent Shrink-Wrap video. If you want to hear me vent exclusively about Wells Fargo, watch it.)

The fact is, too many companies proclaim their values while rewarding contradictory behaviors. Communication departments lose credibility when they deliver content about the importance of the values while employees live the reality of the contradictory behaviors the company actually embraces. I remember conducting a focus group for a client and asking employees about the values printed on the backs of their security badges. They laughed. When I asked why, they regaled me with the tale of an executive who had just received a huge promotion with a commensurately high salary bump and other perqs. He got the bonus, I was told, by blowing away his numbers, which he was able to do by violating every one of those values statements. “We can pay attention to what’s printed on our badges,” one focus group participant said, “or we can do what actually gets you ahead in this company.”

Millennials dominate today’s workforce. One study reveals that half of them have moved into management and leadership positions. Deloitte’s Millennial Survey found that a company’s focus on a purpose is at least as important as its ability to generate a profit. Yet 64% of survey respondents believe business is focused on its own agenda at the expense of society at large. Forty-two percent don’t believe businesses behave ethically, 43% don’t believe leaders are committed to helping improve society, and 54% don’t believe business has any ambition whatsoever beyond the bottom line.

These are the people most businesses need to recruit and retain in order to compete and succeed.

Your employer brand and your talent brand need to stress the company’s purpose and its values if the best people are going to commit their energy and skills to your cause. Ensuring those values are more than just words has to start at the top. As for employee communicators, your credibility is toast if you promote a mission and values that don’t stack up against employees’ day-to-day reality unless you position them as aspirational values, ones you want to bake into your culture, an effort that will take a lot of hard work. If that’s the case, outline what’s required and document the steps taken to demonstrate that the effort is sincere and progress is tangible.

If, on the other hand, leadership is as cynical about your company values as John Strumpf and his team were about Wells Fargo’s, your best move may be to dust off your resume.