Personal values versus company values

Employees are required to comply with the values of the company for which they work.

The ethics article in the HR Future March 2014 issue included the subject of employees’ personal values as one of the five ethical issues that leaders, managers and HR professionals need to understand to manage ethics effectively. Since values are affected by a variety of factors including upbringing and culture, personal values can differ widely. What warrants further attention is the added consequence that employees’ values can also differ from the organisation’s values.

These differences could be seen to pose a problem given that individuals are entitled to their personal values. The protection of individuals’ rights is clearly recognised in section 15 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion”.

However, what leaders and HR professionals need to recognise is that this right does not extend to permitting or condoning unethical conduct in the workplace on the grounds that such behaviour is aligned with the employee’s own values. It would not be acceptable if, for example, an employee who had grown up in circumstances where dishonesty was acceptable or where respect was not exercised relative to certain people, then conducted him/herself accordingly in the workplace. Neither the absence of the value of honesty nor the limitation on the value of respect should be tolerated.

Instead, an organisation can require that its employees abide by its values in the course of their employment. Organisations can also act against employees who contravene the company’s values, whether in terms of legislation or the company’s code of ethics, code of conduct or policies.

One solution to this potential disparity in values is that organisations recruit for the right values. While certain pre-employment integrity assessments deliver some value, mostly these tests don’t realise the intended purpose because the potential candidate would easily know the correct or most ethical answer. If a recruiter offered the following four choices of when bribery would be acceptable, what would be the correct answer?

  1. When the value of the business deal exceeds R1 million;
  2. When it has been approved by your line manager;
  3. Never; or
  4. When it has occurred previously in the company?

Clearly (c) is the correct response. Even when applicants are asked to consider more complex scenarios, they are still likely to give the answer that they think the prospective employer wants to hear and that would secure them the job, rather than necessarily revealing their personal values.

Another approach to align values is to use training programmes to clarify and reinforce the company’s values and what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable in the workplace. For this to be effective, a trap that must be avoided is the inclusion of material that focuses on employees’ personal values and ethics. Have you paid your traffic fines? Have you inflated an insurance claim after a burglary or loss? If you were given extra change would you admit it?

While these situations lend themselves to discussions on ethics (or the lack of ethics), they are not suitable topics for two reasons: Firstly, because they infringe on the employee’s right to exercise their values as they choose in their private capacity and, secondly, because that intrusion is likely to create a barrier to the employee’s further learning or engagement with the training material. The barrier would probably be expressed as, ‘What I do in my private life is my business’ or, ‘You’re not my mother/father/… to tell me what to do in my private life’. The counter argument that employees’ personal ethics are carried into the workplace is perfectly valid – but it still does not warrant this intrusion into their private behaviour.

A helpful test as to when a company is entitled to intervene is to ask whether you could formally act against the employee for such behaviour. If, for example, you found out that one of your staff had stolen his/her neighbour’s cellphone, would you be entitled to start a disciplinary process? As much as the behavior is unquestionably unethical, it does not fall within the scope of the employer-employee relationship and, hence, as the person’s boss, you would not be able to institute any disciplinary action – although you could and should report criminal activity to the appropriate authorities.

There is, however, an exception to the general position that employees are free to exercise their personal values outside the workplace. For leaders and executives this does not apply to the same extent. Their behaviour is generally so closely linked to the company and its reputation that inappropriate behaviour in their personal capacity would risk negatively impacting the company. While this exclusion could be viewed as eroding their right to privacy, in reality it is simply the cost of occupying a high profile position in an organisation and of therefore being expected to be a good role model.

The challenge of building high levels of alignment between personal values and those of the company is thus an important goal relative to all employees. There are many initiatives that would promote this, but the most effective route is to ensure that values constitute a real facet of the organisation and that leaders at all levels actively, visibly and consistently live the values.

By Cynthia Schoeman
Published in HR Future, May 2014