Beyond Buzzwords: How to Make Values Matter

Over three fifths (63%) of managers have been expected to behave unethically at some point in their career, according to research published today (Monday 10 June) by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and Business in the Community (BITC).

The report, Added values: The importance of ethical leadership, found that 9% of managers have been asked to break the law at work at some point in their career, while one in 10 have left their jobs as a result of being asked to do something that made them feel uncomfortable.

These figures make difficult reading for businesses, although the research includes people who work in both the public and private sectors and the results are similar for both. Essentially, this is a general professional management issue for the UK.

Values statements

Most companies have organisational values and ethics statements, but they are clearly not providing the support managers need to navigate frequent ethical dilemmas – only 38% of managers feel behaviour and values in their organisation are “very closely aligned” and 43% have been instructed to behave in direct violation of organisational values.

Junior managers are particularly sceptical about how much organisational values reflect the reality of the workplace, while directors are relatively confident they are well embedded. There is a clear disconnection from the top to the bottom of the organisation; middle managers require targeted support through training and workshops to help make key decisions in an ethical way and set an example to others to do the same.

Values developed in consultation with staff are more effective, according to the research. 78% of staff who had been consulted were likely to refer to the values when making decisions, compared to 60% if they had not been consulted. However, under half of the organisations surveyed consulted widely when agreeing their values statements. 54% said their values were developed by senior management or the board.

Improved relevance

At their worst, values can be woolly, meaningless buzzwords written on a wall somewhere. To demonstrate their relevance to employees’ every-day working lives, organisations should talk more about how they inform their actions, from strategic choices to day-to-day decisions. Values should be made relevant to managers in their objectives and targets. If organisations find it difficult to do this, they may have the wrong set of values.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of leaders to drive ethical behaviour and strong values within their organisation. This doesn’t just mean CEOs and directors; leaders must be developed at all levels, and values should be embedded into four key areas of staff development: recruitment; organisational policies; leadership development; and performance management, promotion and reward.

Recommendations summary

Establish values in consultation
Tie them in with the organisation’s overall strategy
Embed values in working lives through objectives, recognition and reward
Use values as a framework to help managers use their ethical judgement, rather than a rulebook
Develop leaders at all levels of the organisation
Target middle managers for development in this area
Review values regularly and communicate them publicly
Tackle ethical breaches openly.

Read the full report