Company values in a crisis: what can go wrong when the values are ignored?

In times of crisis when companies are forced to deal with especially challenging circumstances, as is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the companies with strong organisational values that triumph in the long-term. But why are organisational values so important? How can leaders ensure values are lived and breathed across their businesses and what can go wrong when they’re ignored in a crisis? Robert Ordever finds out

Company values in a nutshell

Organisational values are the fundamental beliefs and core principals upon which a business is based, acting as a guiding light for all decision making, from recruitment and performance management through to a company’s wellbeing strategy.

Company values must naturally flow from the organisation’s purpose and may encompass innovation, customer service or sustainability, for example. And they need to be authentic and resonate with everyone rather than regarded as a nice poster for the Chairman’s wall. Without an understanding of what’s guiding the business, the company is more likely to lose direction and could even lose its way completely, impacting its reputation, relationships and bottom line.

Living and breathing values

Ingraining values into the fabric of a business in more settled times will mean that in times of turbulence, values will naturally become easier to adhere to, giving organisations a moral roadmap in which to navigate.

To bed values into the company, they must be clearly communicated in a way that everyone understands, from the customer service team through to the warehouse staff. And they need to be translated into expected behaviours so that everyone knows how they should be behaving. For instance a telecommunications company’s main values may be ensuring excellent customer service and delivering innovation. Translating this into desired behaviours may mean that customer calls should be answered within 30 seconds, customer care needs to be first-rate and creative ideas are encouraged.

In addition, the desired values-based behaviours must be frequently and publicly recognised and rewarded to encourage them to be repeated and reinforced. And of course, all decision-making should be driven towards the company’s core values.

The casualties of Covid-19 – when values are forgotten

A strong culture is built on the right values and these values must be upheld vehemently, especially in times of crisis. When things go array, there are those companies that are quick to ditch their values, seeing them as a ‘nice to have’ in the good times rather than as a necessity at all times. Such companies become the victims of their own downfall.

Sadly, there are numerous examples of organisations that have ditched their values since the COVID-19 outbreak. One such business is an online fashion retailer, which is being named and shamed for forcing staff to keep working in their warehouses despite no social distancing measures or sanitiser. With such disregard for staff health, the retailer is being criticised by prominent figures and there have been calls for customers to boycott the retailer. This is despite the company stating on its website that it’s “serious about making sure every single person in its global supply chain is safe at work”. Only time will tell whether this is the start of the end for this particular retailer, however its morally questionable behaviour will not easily be forgotten by staff and customers.

And this company is far from alone. Corporate values are under the spotlight more than ever before. In fact, an engagement professional, Lewis Cotter, has produced a list of companies behaving badly during the pandemic. For those organisations listed as treating staff poorly, there will undoubtedly be repercussions.

The Covid-19 survivors

It’s also important not to forget those organisations that are sticking closely to their values. One such UK retailer, which regards principles as more valuable than profits, is donating £1.5m to foodbanks, £4.5m to local charities, providing NHS staff with thank you donations and giving staff an extra week’s pay in June.

O.C. Tanner is also sticking closely to its core values. The company believes in donating its time to organisations in need and during the current crisis, it has converted a portion of its manufacturing space to develop and produce vital medical equipment needed to fight the pandemic. Thankfully, O.C Tanner is not alone in shifting production in support of the COVID-19 efforts, with the pandemic bringing out the very best in some of the most value-centric companies.

Leading with values

Values are the very foundation on which businesses are built. And it is those companies with strong values, and which demonstrate morals and ethics during challenging times, that will be the winners in the long-term. With society quick to call-out organisations that are not leading with their values first, it will be interesting to see which of these companies come out of the crisis with their reputation, and ultimately their business in tatters.

Robert Ordever is MD of corporate culture expert, O.C Tanner Europe

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