Why corporate values should help avoid scandals.

By Shawna Samuelson / Oct 22, 2015

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We talk a whole heck of a lot about corporate values here at Oliver Russell. All our employees are expected to know our values—and be able to recite them at any given moment (which was a little nerve-wracking as a new hire). Now that I have more insight into our business and understand the integral part these values play in every aspect of our decision-making process, I see why it’s important to have them at the tip of each employee’s tongue. We (employees) are constantly making decisions that impact the company directly and need to understand the basis on which our employer believes those decisions should be considered. That’s where your company values should come into play.

Vw Logo

A turbocharged case in point

Last month Volkswagen got into a whole steaming heap of trouble when the "Dieselgate" story broke. By now we are all familiar with the embarrassing tale of senior-level employees insisting (for more than a year) that discrepancies in emissions reports were the result of technical issues rather than admitting the heart of the problem was intentional deceit. Stocks tanked, customers were betrayed, and the media had a heyday covering it all.

How could something like this happen at the company whose name literally translates to the "people’s car?" The company whose Values page on their website (still) reads, “Sustainable, collaborative, and responsible thinking underlies everything that we do.”

In light of the recent headlines, it’s hard not to LOL all over that statement.

Volkswagen’s stated core brand messages are innovative, offering enduring value, and responsible. With responsibility at your businesses core, how could something like this happen? Why did any employee (or presumably a group of employees at many different levels within the company) believe that incorporating faulty programming to strengthen environmental claims was the right decision in the first place? Why the drawn-out lie during the investigation? Why isn’t VW actively communicating to their customers now to own up to their mistake? And most importantly, how will we (the consumer) ever believe they are "responsible" again? 

With nearly 600,000 employees, there must have been knowledge of the “defeat device” beyond those directly involved. Why no whistle-blowers at a company who says they value "sustainability" and "collaboration?" What was it about VW's culture that kept employees silenced—was it because no one would listen, or because no one had the courage to speak? 

The rub with values

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  • Values are put in place to provide guidance for actions and decisions made on behalf of the company. They can’t just be trite words on your website—they need to be integrated into your company’s culture at a fundamental level. How do you do that? I thought you would never ask:

    1. Employees need to see owners and managers making hard decisions based on these values, and living up to them—even in the most inconvenient times.
    2. Everyone needs to be well-versed in your values—you have a much better chance of those guiding principles making their way into all company decisions when this is the case.
    3. You need to do more than talk about your values; you need to act upon them. We have found our B Corp statusis an effective way of demonstrating our commitment to Oliver Russell’s stated values. The accreditation aligns with our values, and a third-party adds legitimacy and accountability.
    4. Managers need to encourage open conversations with employees—and need to provide an environment conducive for this dialogue. Openness will help in all aspects of a thriving business, including helping to maintain a company’s integrity.
    5. Possibly the hardest thing to achieve—you need to make sure that the culture built inside your company doesn’t actually value anything more than your actual stated values. Mixed signals leave room for gray areas, which can fuel self-serving decisions…and then you got yourself a Dieselgate.

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    Thumbnails People Shawna Samuelson

    Shawna Samuelson

    As senior producer, Shawna's job is to work with the client, orchestrate a network of resources, and deliver the project on time and on budget. She guides Fortune 50 clients such as Hewlett-Packard at the same time she’s helping a scrappy startup like MealTicket. Positive, professional, and a bona-fide people person, Shawna knows how to earn clients’ trust—not just because of who she is, but also because she flat-out gets it done.

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