Back in the 1980s there was a craze in corporate America that saw many companies publishing "values statements" -- short summaries of what a company is, and what it stands for.
Soon after the trend took hold, there was a backlash, a rebellion against the saccharine, reductionist corporatespeak of these little screeds, which were often printed on the back of employees' business cards or carried around their necks, printed to their security passes. The little cards became, for some, a symbol of corporate propaganda at its worst. By publishing an organization's values (usually spelled with a capital V), its leaders could tick another box on their to-do list and get on with the task of laying off half the employee population.
For employees, the values, which often cited a commitment to customer service, a promise of honesty and integrity, and some words about how people are our most important asset, quickly became not much more than an ironic reminder of their employer's failure to live up to them. And their flowery language and written-by-committee, bureaucratic tone made professional communciators cringe.
Today, it's unusual for big companies not to have a written mission/vision/values statement and, in general, it's a practice that still invites some cynicism, but it's also seen as a way to quickly and easily explain an organization's basic qualities to its employees and other stakeholders.
I talked to a colleague yesterday whose organization does not have a set of written values and she asked me if it was worth doing. Her employer has a great culture, and she's worried that going through the exercise of capturing its qualities in a values statement might somehow damage or sulley them -- taking away their subtlety and charm.
"Don't employees just discover the values of their company simply by working there?" she said. "After I was hired, I had a lot of fun learning about our culture. I feel as if writing it down would take that experience away from people."
Readers, what do you think? Is defining a culture by publishing its values akin to killing a butterfly and sticking it to a board with a pin? Do published values instill pride and commitment or cynicism and distrust?
And what's the role of internal communicators in all this?