Get your company values off the wall and into employee decisions

A widely reported survey of 2,000 UK employees conducted by Rungway found that 49% could not name their organisation’s values. More than a quarter (27 per cent) feel their organisation’s vision or values have too much corporate jargon and almost one in five (18 per cent) say they don’t reflect what the company is actually like.

This does not come as a surprise. In the course of my work in values-based ethics and compliance I have found it is a rare employee who can name some or all of their company’s values – let alone tell me what they mean. Even fewer feel that they are of any use in their day-to-day work.

Not invented here – and why

The reasons for this may be found in elsewhere in these research results: two in five (39 per cent) say they wish they had more involvement in contributing to their company’s vision and values.

One of the biggest mistakes that companies make is identifying their values and vision in the Board room, which I call, “plucking them out of the air”.

Even assuming that senior management can honestly identify what is important to their employees and to the success of the company based solely on their own experience, this method guarantees the application of the “not invented here” syndrome.

Properly identified and developed, shared values and vision create internal cohesion; they draw people together. An important factor in the success of values in guiding behaviour and decision making is employee’s participation in identifying and defining them. This is partly because the conversations that take place in doing so help develop a common  and familiar vocabulary.

Perhaps it is also a reflection of the IKEA effect, identified by Professor Dan Ariely and his colleagues in a series of experiments discussed here.

The IKEA effect

The IKEA effect refers to a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. Ariely and his colleagues used IKEA furniture assembly as a proxy and found that “labor leads to love” as they put it, but that it depended on an additional crucial factor: the extent to which one’s labor is successful. They showed that successful assembly of products leads to value over and above the value that arises from merely being given a product, or merely handling that product.

Why would this be the case? It is easy to see that contributing to making something would give it more meaning and value. Ariely and his colleagues suggested that  successful completion gives people a sense of confidence; whereas failure does the opposite.  They also pointed out a danger stemming from the IKEA effect –  that “not-invented here” syndrome would cause people to overvalue their own possibly inferior ideas over superior ideas invented elsewhere.

All very logical, but what does it all have to do with identifying company values?

To the extent that your employees participate in identifying and developing core values, they are more likely to reflect what is important to them, so they will value them more highly. However, that might only be the case if they feel that their contributions were considered; so don’t ask if you have no intention of listening!

Next time I’ll talk about how to get all of your employees (and other stakeholders) input when identifying and developing (or reviewing) core values.

Collective Action Towards Integrity and Transparency, London, 17 April 2018

ICC - International Chamber of Commerce - United Kingdom logoCorruption has a crippling effect on countries’ economic and social development and undermines public trust in businesses and governments alike. As an advocate for ethical business, ICC joins global partners to provide a unified voice in support of collective action and encourage greater private-public sector collaboration.

Opening remarks

Chris Southworth, Secretary General, ICC United Kingdom

Keynote speech

Mathilde Mesnard, Deputy Director of the OECD Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs

Panel Discussion


  • Anny Tubbs, Chief Integrity Officer, Unilever
  • Sam Eastwood, Partner, Head of Business Ethics and Anti-Corruption, Norton Rose Fulbright


How to create an effective ethical culture? Women in Compliance breakfast briefing


Join guest speakers Imogen Haddon, Chief Compliance Officer, News Corp UK, and Ruth Steinholtz, Business Ethics Advisory, AretéWork LLP, to learn how you can create an effective ethical culture.

Risk Advisory logo

Whether you have a corporate scandal to use as a burning platform – or you are seeking ways to create and sustain culture change once the crisis fades from memory – Imogen and Ruth can help you think it through.

Due to limited availability and high demand, please register your interest early.


Three things I learned at the 6th Annual #SCCEecei

Reflections from the 6th Annual European Compliance & Ethics Institute – aka #SCCEecei – where I also delivered a session on  and Culture Change.

I have always been fascinated by the forces within organisations that come together to create outcomes – especially catastrophic outcomes. I had a parallel career in crisis management, which gave me the opportunity to dream up terrible situations for my colleagues to cope with in live exercises. It helped us prepare for the unexpected. Now that I am continuing my crisis prevention work in the field of ethics, I focus on the human and cultural factors that cause ethical misconduct.

Picture of Astronaut Garrett Reisman courtesy of
Astronaut Garrett Reisman

For one of my ‘Why Good People Do Bad Things’ sessions a couple of years ago I studied the destruction of the Challenger Space Shuttle. Brought down by a seemingly tiny part – the O rings.

At #SCCEecei I was fascinated to hear from Garrett Reisman, a real space man. He singled out the factors responsible for the Challenger explosion, and other tragedies, such as Apollo 1 and Columbia.

Garrett found that these tragedies had certain things in common:

Normalisation of Deviance – the mission team had previously gotten away with things that should have been problematic for some time. In the case of Apollo 1 it was using 100% oxygen at a certain pressure without blowing up the capsule. In the case of the Challenger, it was the fact that previous flights had shown O-ring erosion without incident; and foam had been falling off the space shuttle external tank since the very first flight. Long before it punched a hole in Colombia’s wing.

Garrett concludes, “Just because you get away with something over and over again, doesn’t mean it is not a danger.” I tell my husband this regularly as he walks out our front door with earphones listening to a book on Audible. Like most humans, he feels secure, since he has never been hit by a car coming from the wrong direction or had his pocket picked (except by me once, to prove a point!).

I love the way Garrett put his second common factor, “None of us is as dumb as all of us”. This is another way of raising the spectre of groupthink, and the tendency of humans to want to belong, and therefore to conform even if they hold a different opinion.

Watch the Conformity Experiments carried out by Solomon Asch if you don’t believe that this is a powerful force. (I warn you the haircuts will take you back!)

The third learning has a couple of facets. The one closest to my heart is the importance of encouraging dissent.

In the case of Challenger, the engineers did not think it was safe to launch at such low temperatures, but they were literally filtered out of the call where the launch decision was being made. When running crisis management exercises, I regularly observed someone who had correct information that went counter to the “wisdom” of the group being drowned out or marginalised, resulting in strategies that worsened the situation being “decided” by the crisis team.

A corollary of this is the importance of free and open communication – a topic we discuss at length in Ethical Business Practice and Regulation.

As Garrett pointed out, all of these situations occurred in an atmosphere of time pressure. Unrealistic goals, whether they be related to time or sales, are a catalyst for misconduct. So, watch yourself – it is so easy to fall into these traps (and others) without realising it.

Being self-aware as a leader, and organisational culture-aware can help prevent some very nasty consequences.

Learning from our mistakes, both individually and organisationally, is critical, if we are to create effective ethical cultures. Cultures that result in an acceptable level of risk.

Ethical Business Practice and Regulation Conference @ Wolfson College, Oxford

Ethical Business Practice and Regulation are new concepts that are transforming regulatory performance and business success.

This conference, held at Wolfson College, will explain the concepts and share the findings from a series of examples and ongoing pilot studies across a range of contrasting sectors.

Speakers will include Professor Christopher HodgesRuth Steinholtz, and senior officials from Government, OECD, and regulators and businesses involved in EBP & EBR.


Making a difference

Although one’s values change over time, I think I can reasonably say that one value that has stuck with me throughout my life is my belief in the importance of making a difference. The earliest illustration of this occurred in my last year of high school when I was personally responsible for my high school not closing for a day as part of an anti-Vietnam war strike but instead dedicating the day to a group of “teach-ins” and discussions led by professors from the local university representing both pro-and anti-war positions. (Fairness always having been important to me!). I had a job in a campus book store and attended a rally designed to disrupt the local high schools as a means of protest, but I reasoned that people would just go off and play baseball or engage in some other meaningless activity and learn nothing about the war.

I presented my idea to the high school principal and he practically fell over himself to offer me the use of his office and telephone to organise this thing, which I did. When I later graduated, I recall the deputy principal jokingly (?) saying, “don’t come back as an outside agitator”, something I had no intention of doing since I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

Continuous learning (& professional growth)

Actually, this example illustrates another of my lifelong values, continuous learning. I grew up in a house full of books with two professional parents (oral surgeon, prof of dentistry and economist, town planning expert) who instilled in me a love of learning. My father assembled high fidelity stereo equipment as a young man and was an early adopter of the computer, and my mother taught herself to use Excel in her 80’s having never used any software before in her life. The standards and expectations were high.

These two values combine in my work in a number of ways. A good example is the development of ethics ambassadors as a concept and a reality for several companies I have worked with. The use of “ethics ambassadors”, or employees who have a wide variety of day jobs and dedicate a small amount of their time in some way to improving and supporting the ethical culture and values of their organisation, is a way of making a difference to a many people in the organisation. It involves continuous learning on the part of both the ethics ambassadors themselves, and other employees for whom they act as a “train the trainer” force. To keep an ethics ambassador network alive, one must continuously supply them with new material that is interesting and inspiring. Conversely, listening to your ethics ambassadors will help you learn what is and isn’t working and supply new ideas that can be used to continuously improve your approach.

Do you share either of these values? If so, how do you see them playing out in your work?

Why values?

Richard Barrett's book Everything I Have Learned About ValuesEveryone has values, they are not only the source of our internal motivation and our decision-making but, as Richard Barrett explains in his new book, Everything I have learned about Values, they are the “energetic drivers of our aspirations and intentions”.

Perhaps that is what attracted me to working with values when I set out on my freelance journey after a long legal career. Values create energy, they stimulate connections between people and shared values in an organisation harness that energy and those connections to serve the highest purpose of that organisation.


What does that have to do with helping organisations improve their ethical cultures? That is easy! Have you ever tried to make an interesting presentation about a law? I have, more times than I would care to remember, because my “thing” as general counsel was an emphasis on preventative law. Get into too much detail about the fine points of contract law or the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. So, I learned to ground our legal messages in values. When you enter into a contract with someone do you expect them to respect the contract? What values underpin that expectation?

What values do we share that would motivate us never to offer or accept a bribe? Who do you consider a role model and what values does that person represent? What does that have to do with conflicts of interest or gifts and entertainment policies?

These are questions that will engage any audience.

Why values?

I have done anti-bribery training everywhere from the boardroom to the purser’s office on-board a ship. I have discussed bribery and facilitation payments with people in many roles, such as maintenance engineers, sales and procurement people, factory workers, ships captains, managing directors, Board chairpersons, lawyers, HR staff, etc. and from many nationalities. THEY ALL SHARE ONE THING IN COMMON. Values. Maybe not exactly the same values. Maybe not the same interpretation of a value. But, everyone can talk about values.

That’s why I work with values.

AretéWork website is now live.

It has been a long time coming!

It is fair to say that it has taken quite a long time to develop and launch this website.  First, it took almost a year to find a name for my business.  One evening, listening with one ear to a BBC TV programme on philosophy, something about the Greek word “Areté” caught my attention and when I looked it up I discovered it described exactly what I was hoping to do with my business.  It means “excellence”, living up to one’s potential and virtue (ethics).  (Greek: ἀρετή),

And then there was the matter of the logo.  After various false starts, I discovered and sent my brief (including my favourite colours and my animal totem, the owl, as well as a few words about the business.  Designers from all over the world can respond, and several did. The one who came up with the winning concept was a 24-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, and after a bit of tweaking, I was delighted with the approach, including the owl out on the limb, since sometimes you have to go out on a limb in order to do the right thing, and the general look and feel.

It is a work in progress to be sure, but now that it is out there, I can have fun working to evolve it.  One of my personal values is ease with uncertainty.  I am uncertain how you will respond, but looking forward to your comments and observations about the world of values-based ethics, leadership and related topics.  Please join the conversation.