How to Build a Company That (Actually) Values Integrity

For decades, leaders were expected to focus on one thing: financial results. But we are now in the midst of an ethical revolution. Leaders are increasingly held accountable for poor behavior, and companies are pushed by employees, governments, and customers to step up and adopt a multi-stakeholder approach that serves social purposes as well as investor demands.

Canned codes of ethics that ask employees to check a box to certify that they’ve read the material and third-party online ethics training courses might be all that is required to comply with the law, but they don’t move the needle. Employees see them mostly as a nuisance they have to suffer through.

Why are company values important?

Core company values give employees purpose. Purpose is undeniably critical for employee satisfaction. In fact, a McKinsey & Company survey of employees found 70% of employees said their sense of purpose was largely defined by work. However, that number drops significantly to 15% when non-executive participants were asked if they are living their purpose at work.

This is why it’s important your core values are embraced at every level, not just by the executive team. Purpose doesn’t just improve employee satisfaction — it also increases your bottom line and builds trust with customers.

Professor and author Ranjay Gulati explains in his book Deep Purpose that “To get purpose right, leaders must fundamentally change not only how they execute it but also how they conceive of and relate to it.” Gulati calls this process deep purpose, which furthers an organization’s reason for being in a more intense, thoughtful, and comprehensive way.

How to Implement Core Values

1. Check in with your team.

A quick way to get started is to consult your founders or executive team. They’ll often already have a mission statement or vision for the company values.

If not, you may want to set up a few brainstorming sessions with your team. Company values can also come up as your team solves problems together.

2. Solicit feedback.

The level of feedback you need for a project like this isn’t a one-time and done sort of effort. While the responses to a question like “Why do you love working here?” may feel good to hear, they may not be specific or honest enough to build your core values on.

You’ll want to ask tough questions and get into the details. This will help you collect constructive criticism. It will also help you understand the culture your business already has. Building on your existing values is the best way to create a lasting company culture .

3. Implement feedback.

Part of creating a set of company values is ensuring that employees buy into those ideas. So, if collecting feedback is an essential step, the next step has to be putting that feedback into action.

While not every piece of feedback will be useful, it’s important to recognize these contributions. As you review updates from your team, you’ll want to compare these insights and start to look for patterns. Once you have some clear ideas of what you want to add or update, outline your next steps to put these changes into place.

Then, share the plan with your team and thank them for their insights.

4. Make your core values unique to your brand.

Many industries have catchy phrases or jargon that are central to your business. But those phrases probably aren’t the best way to communicate the unique values of your brand.

Your company values aren’t just a blueprint for what your business does and what your employees believe in. It’s about what separates your team from everything else out there.

You learn from each other and develop tactics and strategies every day. These habits come from a foundation of shared values. So, your goal during this step is to bring those distinct values to light.

5. Continue to evolve when necessary.

Change is the only constant. Your business will change over time. Societal norms, values, and trends will change too. To keep your company culture in line with the times, you’ll want to revisit your values regularly.

First, spend some time with your core values. These will often stay the same. That said, the way your business applies or interprets these values may have shifted.

Next, add or remove values in line with changes to your culture. Take care to make thoughtful updates and bring in a group of engaged employees to offer early feedback.

Ultimately, core values are critical if you want to create a long-lasting, successful, and motivating place to work.

Whether you work for a new company in need of core-value inspiration, or an older company in need of a value revamp, you’re in luck — below, we’ve cultivated a list of some of the best company values. Additionally, we’ll examine how some companies truly honor their values.

With all the values, Integrity almost always comes first. Integrity is a foundational moral virtue, and the bedrock upon which good character is built. Acting with integrity means understanding, accepting, and choosing to live in accordance with one’s principles which would then include many other values.

How do you build a company that values integrity?

Lead by example.

Leadership must openly and directly embrace integrity. The CEO and others on the leadership team are powerful role models who set the company’s ethical tone. If they cut corners, don’t follow the rules, or ignore bad behavior by top performers, it gives everyone implicit permission to act the same way. Leaders must openly and directly talk about integrity, embrace it as part of the culture, and be ready to do the “right thing,” even if it appears to hurt business in the short run.

In a crisis, fear runs high, and everything a leader does is amplified. An “integrity moment” can happen anytime, and a leader has to be committed to the right principles or risk losing a team’s trust forever. Take CEO Kevin Kelly, of Emerald Packaging. During a meeting in the early days of the pandemic, an employee asked, “What if I’m the only one who can operate a particular machine, and it goes down?” In that moment, Kevin’s leadership was on the line, and he handled it perfectly. “Stay home,” he said, and asked the employee to repeat his words. Everyone laughed, but everyone got the message — he cared for employee health above immediate business needs.

CEOs have to be particularly careful about setting ambitious targets and using powerful language to motivate employees. Audacious goals can create fear (what happens if I don’t deliver?), and they may be interpreted as giving implicit permission for bad behavior.

Make your ethics code your own.

Too many companies treat their code as a legal box to check. They download another company’s code and put their logo at the top. Or they delegate the task to lawyers, who understandably draft a document designed to protect the company from liability. Don’t depend on something that someone else drafts — you can’t outsource integrity.

Your code of ethics should reflect input from a broad cross section of employees and be based on your company’s core values along with the norms of your particular industry, geographic location, and culture. You don’t want to get bogged down with too many rules, but there are usually a dozen or so issues that come up over and over. Clear guidance on how to handle them is important so that individuals aren’t making up their own code as they go.

Talk about it.

It’s not enough to simply go about your business and assume integrity will naturally occur. Leaders must talk openly, explicitly, and regularly about its importance. Orientation is a good place to start. Make a point of having your CEO or another top leader come into each orientation class and spend an hour personally talking with new employees about company values and ethics, using real examples from their career. This sort of authentic live discussion from a leader sets a tone and can make a lasting impression.

Make sure people know how to report violations.

Too many companies bury their reporting system in a link deep in the company intranet and don’t talk openly about how the investigation process works. That silence breeds suspicion, distrust, and an environment in which employees aren’t comfortable using the process. Companies that want a culture of integrity must make the process of reporting all problems, especially violations of the code, easy, straightforward, and clear. You need to create a culture that isn’t afraid to have people raise ethical questions, that welcomes bad news, and that celebrates employees who speak out about problems. I once had an IT security person walk up to me in the office and point out that I had left my computer on and unattended at my workstation for five minutes while I went to the restroom. Rather than getting annoyed, I gave him an award for having the courage to call out a senior leader (me) for a lax security practice. A year later, he still cites that recognition as the highlight of his career at the company.

I hear leaders of some companies proudly say that their employee ethics hotline has few or no reports. That could be a sign of a problem. Try this: Pull random employees into a room and ask them to show you how to file an ethics report. Time how long it takes them to get to the right place. Or do a quick anonymous survey and ask how comfortable employees are reporting violations and whether they feel the company walks the talk when it comes to ethics. Explore new tools. For example, Vault Platform, in the UK, designed a mobile phone app that allows employees to securely and confidentially submit incidents of misconduct that they have experienced or witnessed. It includes a unique feature whereby an employee who is reluctant to speak up alone can submit a report only if another employee independently submits a complaint against the same person.

Demonstrate the consequences.

Ethical violations must be investigated, and when they are substantiated, fair and reasonable consequences must be handed out. Leaders and top performers cannot enjoy immunity. Even in companies with a robust reporting and investigations protocol, employees may be skeptical that reports will be acted upon and may cynically assume that nothing ever happens. That sort of culture erodes trust and discourages everyone from reporting issues.

One way to fight this problem is to build transparency into the process. Companies such as Airbnb and Cisco talk to employees about what happens when a claim is filed, and they issue regular “transparency reports” that, while respecting privacy, give employees data on the number of reports, types of complaints, how many are investigated and substantiated, and the range of consequences. Providing windows of transparency into a good process can build trust.

Remember that repetition matters.

Integrity can’t be handled by a once-a-year email or a couple of pages in a forgotten employee handbook. As former NBA Commissioner David Stern told me, it’s like a television advertisement — you can’t run it once and expect to get your point across. Repetition matters.

Strong Company Values are Good for Business

Ultimately, good core values can help an audience identify with, and stay loyal to, your brand, rather than flipping between you and competitors. To ensure long-term success and long-term employee retention, it’s critical you create — and live by — certain non-negotiable company values.

Make a point of adding ethics as a dimension of your business decisions. In addition to asking “What does it cost?” and “What’s our profit margin?” ask about the impact of a product’s supply chain on the world, or how the product affects employee health or climate change. The key is to create an environment in which it’s seen as good to talk about ethics, a program designed to create an integrity environment through repetition, or what I call a “constant drumbeat.” Embrace an environment in which values are top of mind in words and deeds.

Integrity is a powerful double-edged sword for companies today. Lapses can spark employee rebellion, customer blowback, and government investigations. But handled correctly, integrity can be a superpower that inspires employees and resonates with today’s values-minded consumers. And integrity is contagious. Create an environment in which it is openly embraced by leadership and woven into the fabric of your culture, and it will be a powerful asset.


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