Values Determine Corporate Culture

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 3.03.25 PMEvery company has a culture — whether leaders shape it or not. Rather than simply letting culture happen on its own, wise leaders proactively plan for and manage their company cultures, by first carefully determining and setting an example of the roots of every corporate culture: company values.

In a recent survey, we asked employees and job seekers the most important thing they look for in a company. While 79 percent said salary, 77 percent said company culture. If culture is not top of mind at your company, it should be. In order to get you thinking about how to develop your corporate culture, consider both your company values, and how to put them into action.

The Importance of Values

Your company values form a roadmap for how you hire, brand yourself, and base performance discussions. Because your culture is a reflection of those values in action, spend time consciously cultivating your company values, instead of letting your culture simply develop.

If your company doesn’t have a set of stated company values, sit down with your top executives and spend time talking about what’s important to your company. Ask employees what they value about your workplace to make sure you are covering all the bases. Determining your company values should be about making your culture intentional so it works for you as opposed to against you.

Because culture trickles down, top executives must truly believe in and passionately practice the company values. Without their buy in, the culture can never be authentic because it will not be fully embraced.

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Translating Values Into Culture

If your stated company values truly address the things that your executives and employees value, your culture will be a natural outgrowth from them. Potential employees and others will be able to get a clear idea from those values what it’s like to work at your company.

One of our company values is “people matter.” To translate this value into company culture, we wanted to get creative about what we could do to make everyone’s life better when they came to work. One way we did that was to start allowing dogs to come to work. People matter, and if they can bring their dogs to work they’re supported, less stressed, and not worried about leaving at 5:15 on the dot to grab Fido from the day care before it closes. Bringing their dogs to work makes people more relaxed and focused at work, so they do better and the company does better. Plus, it’s fun to have furry faces around the office.

Taking Action

To begin building a culture that will attract and retain the right workers — and help build a better, stronger company — there are several steps you can take:

  1. Define your values. Your culture begins with your values. If you don’t have them, gather the leadership team and begin to create them. If you already have them in place, revisit them. Remind yourself what they are.
  2. Don’t go for cookie-cutter values.Your values are your roadmap to your unique culture that will hopefully lead to company success. They can’t help you if they are too generic or basic. Think about the words that reflect your company and turn them into values that embody your workforce specifically.
  3. Don’t do it alone.Values and the culture that results from them have to start from the top down. You need your executives to be involved and supportive in order for culture to work.
  4. Involve stakeholders.Ask your employees and others to help you identify what’s compelling and different about your company.
  5. Don’t push for something that isn’t there.Don’t try to simply invent culture. If your company is full of 40-somethings with kids, you probably shouldn’t push for a late-night party culture. You can’t just come up with what makes your company unique; look at what’s there and determine what you can foster and shape from that.
  6. Enable your team to adopt the values. Once your values are published, get creative and offer ways to help employees easily act on them. If you value camaraderie, put some picnic tables outside and encourage workers to have lunch together. Plant the seeds to foster growth that will reflect your values.
  7. Make sure executives walk the talk. The people won’t eat at the picnic tables if they feel like managers aren’t into it, so encourage leaders to partake.

Allyson Willoughby is senior vice president of people and general counsel, leading both Glassdoor’s human resources and legal departments.


17 Comments on “Values Determine Corporate Culture

  1. Some support for the statement that culture trickles down from top executives? A case could be made that it trickles up or sideways from the workforce, the local area, and the wider local culture.

    Also, changing culture is like trying to have fun on New Year’s Eve…it’s artificial and probably not all that effective. Culture is a meta-result of a complex assemblage of persons into a purpose driven group. Very hard (even counter effective) to channel. The explicit messages of “values” are just the tip of a culture iceberg…..

  2. “Some support for the statement that culture trickles down from top executives? A case could be made that it trickles up or sideways from the workforce, the local area, and the wider local culture.”

    I’ve seen people try to define and develop a corporate culture without buy in from the top execs/owners. The end result is you get contradictory expectations. You can’t say, “We value people,” if your executive team treats people like crap. It leads to cognitive dissonance and then no one buys in. Likewise you can’t claim to, “Support a healthy Work-Life Balance,” if people are constantly working until 8 or 9 PM and your vacation/out-time policy is below market standard. The culture of a company is the direct result of how it is managed, because it’s the execs who have the most power to reinforce or undercut the culture by driving or stifling initiatives.

    I once went through an exercise on this issue which, sorry to say, was never presented to higher ups. Likely my manager was trying to save my job, and I would have been fired for presenting it. It was when one exec got a bug up his butt about improving the company culture. I’ve talked about rough cultures here before, this company was one of the worst imaginable. Horrible treatment, screaming, constantly changing processes, deadlines, and goals, etc. Quite the madhouse. I simply took all the things this exec didn’t like about the company culture and showed how it was exactly how he and the owners operated.

    As an example, one big complaint from he and the owners was a lack of, “A sense of urgency.” Incidentally, that’s one of my favorite bits of meaningless corporatese. Of course, when you looked at the behavior of the execs, guess what? No urgency. Everything was left to the last minute. They operated on their own with minimal communication and waited until every project was on the verge of exploding, and only then would they deal with it.

    Another issue they had was the general CYA way things were done. No one would take responsibility for anything, blame was always being shifted. No one ‘owned’ anything that was going on. But of course, the few who did were the constant recipients of screaming, foaming at the mouth (yes, really) tirades. Taking responsibility for something there meant getting your ass handed to you several times a day regardless of how well or poorly something was going. Success or failure, both received roughly the same amount of abuse, and the only ‘reward’ for success was more responsibility, and so more abuse. Of course the logical question would be who the hell would want to own any project in such an environment? It’s a question the higher ups never saw fit to ask.

    Needless to say, every behavior they were dissatisfied with in their culture and employees was a direct reflection of their work habits, and what it took to deal with them on a daily basis. And for every other company I’ve worked for, good or bad, the culture was the same; the result of how people were managed. Once you know to look to the execs as the source of a company culture, the parallels between the culture and how they specifically behave are astounding. Also, the predictive value of knowing this connection is incredibly valuable.

  3. Thanks, Allyson, Martin, and Richard. ISTM that (quite often) the more a company emphasizes “culture” and values the greater the chance that they’ll be acting hypocritically toward that “culture” and value, as in Richard’s example. I also think that the more you can develop tele-work, the less important culture is- if you don’t have to have people physically around you 40+/hrs week, you can have a more personally-diverse work force than if you do….I recently heard how Danish companies (and by extension other Scandinavian and German companies) typically have their employees come in, get right to work, have 30 min for lunch (with a yummy smorgasbord), get back to work and get done after 8 hours and GO. You’re considered inefficient if you can’t get your work done in 8 hours, and the report talked about an American expat who was “written up” because she put in extra time.

    Happy Friday,

  4. Allyson – couldn’t agree more and so much so that I created a fun FREE iPhone APP called Discover Your Values that helps individuals and teams clarify their personal values and share them with others. Because it is FREE I don’t feel this violates the self promotion protocols.

    You can download the APP at Have fun! Tell your friends and spread the goodness of values worldwide. Let me know what you think.

  5. @Keith,

    I’ve heard similar stories from my relatives in the Netherlands. My favorite was an American talking with one of them, and it turns out my cousin was going on vacation and she was working on a project with this guy. The American asked what would seem like a common sense question to most Americans, “That’s great, enjoy.

    “Who will be covering you while you’re gone?”

    Her answer: “No one, I will start working again when I get back.”

    Europeans, my arguments with many of their politics aside, seem to have at least grasped the fact that the world does not come to an end if someone is out of work for a few days. Whereas in America, taking a vacation, or rather getting it ‘approved,’ is often like pulling teeth from a pissed off colic rhino with no anesthesia. And then of course expect to work and take calls and deal with all the crap you’d deal with if you were at work anyway even if you have someone covering you.

    Americans truly do not realize how tilted in the favor of the employer our culture is. God forbid one day they figure it out, the fall out will not be pretty.

  6. I agree with you about Europe. The labor laws there are very “pro employee” instead of what we have which is “pro employer”.

    European countries are also heavily unionized with different types and sometimes more than one in the same company: unions, work councils, unions by industry regardless of company, etc. And employers can’t just decide on a new work policy without getting buy-in from these employee organizations.

    And the taxes incurred from all the different things the labor laws require are onerous. However in spite of that Scandinavian countries are the most successful on almost any barometer you measure them on: productivity, employee engagement, etc.

    Given the economic system we have here and how strong it is (and I’m not against free market even if ours is not really that) I don’t think we have a “snowball’s chance in _ell” in changing things. This is not the government that’s to blame folks — it is industry.

    And you know there are people that SCREAM anytime you mention changing anything that looks like a European system —- SOCIALIST!!!!!

  7. Thanks Richard. Also, many of these countries’ workers are about as productive as ours, *YET GET MUCH MORE VACATION (which they feel entitled to and use).

    “God forbid one day they figure it out, the fall out will not be pretty.”
    To misquote Lincoln:
    “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can fool enough of the people enough of the time to make a ****load of money!”



  8. I truly think our market and Europe’s markets are two sides of the same coin, fascist here and socialist there. Right and left wing versions of people trying to force others to give them what they want as opposed to asking for it and compensating them in a mutually agreeable way. And for all Europe’s positive attributes, I would not want to be a young person looking for work there as opposed to the US. Quite frankly I think people would be a hell of lot better off with a lot less government ‘help,’ but only if corporations also got less ‘help,’ or more specifically handouts, subsidies, and favorable regulation. But I see no practical way to stop the latter, so the former will go on as well and always lag behind, and likely continue the process until eventually the whole system collapses. Perhaps then people will try simply dealing with each other honestly. Until then a turn of the political arm will always be seen as preferable to just working together voluntarily. The hamster wheel rolls on.

  9. @ Richard: Indeed. I also think it’s easier to GET work if you need it here, but better when you have work THERE….
    I guess I haven’t formally articulated it yet, but:
    1) I think it’s normal for most people to seek power (of some kind) over others
    2) (Almost all types of) power needs to be accountable and checked, and
    3) Unaccountable power needs to be opposed and reduced.


  10. Formally articulating my position:
    1) I think it’s normal for most people to seek power (of some kind) over others
    2) So don’t give it to them

  11. At Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, they back their cars into their parking spots. It’s just a little cultural thing they do, nobody knows why, but they do it. Doubtful that some top exec years ago did it so everyone did, but maybe that’s how it happened…Lincoln has some other strong cultural traits too, maybe less benign, and of course they are world-famous for their unorthodox pay systems (which DO come from top management). Some of those cultural tics may be a response, but that’s a classic case of a large organization with an actually identifiable one-off kind of culture….its a complex mix.

  12. @ Richard:
    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    – Frederick Douglass, 1857

    @ Martin:
    I wonder if the LE custom is like the story of the woman who cut off the piece of the roast without knowing why. It went back a couple of generations to when her grandmother had such a small oven that a regular-sized roast wouldn’t fit, so she had to cut off a piece….I’ve found that in a workplace, behavior like this (blind obedience to inexplicable processes with unknown- or no reasons given for them) is often counter-productive for many, and extremely frustrating for me!

    Happy Friday,


  13. Cookie cutter values? A simple search will demonstrate that most M&V statements are repetitive – so why are so many companies underperforming, why are tenures shorter and why do HR folks love talking about how great they are at engagement? That’s easy: Shit rolls downhill (especially in the presence of a colicky rhino).

    Here’s culture reality:

    The Monkey Banana and Water Spray Experiment

    The experiment is real (scientific study cited below). This experiment involved 5 monkeys (10 altogether, including replacements), a cage, a banana, a ladder and, an ice cold water hose.

    The Experiment: Part 1

    5 monkeys are locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it.

    As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water.

    In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

    When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, as well as the other four watching monkeys. This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson – climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so no one climbs the ladder.

    The Experiment: Part 2

    Once the 5 monkeys knew the drill, the researcher replaced one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. The other 4 monkeys, knowing the drill, jumped on the new monkey and beat him up. They beat up new guy thus learns “no going for the ladder and no banana period” without even knowing why and also without ever being sprayed with water.

    These actions get repeated with 3 more times, with a new monkey each time and each new monkey – who had never received the cold – water spray himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would join the beating up of the new guy.

    When the researcher replaced a third monkey, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the original ones that had been sprayed by water are left in the cage.

    The Experiment: Part 3

    Again, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. The monkey turns with a curious face asking “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?” (a monkey translator was present).

    The other four monkeys stopped and looked at each other puzzled – none of them had been sprayed and so they really had no clue why the new guy can’t get the banana – but it didn’t matter, it was too late, the rules had been set.

    Although they didn’t know WHY, they beat up the monkey just because ” that’s the way we do things around here…”


  14. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with Douglas, but I can much more easily tell an employer to take a hike than a slave master. At least for now, who knows what the future will hold.

    As for monkey experiments, that pretty much sums it up. There are more than a few companies where trying to make positive changes is like going for the banana, and you just get beaten down.

  15. @ Steve: Thanks- good one!

    Q: What’s the difference between the monkeys and the people typically in charge?
    A: The monkeys are less likely to throw their **** at you…


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