The direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away recently faced harsh criticism after an investigation by The Verge revealed the company’s toxic work culture. The startup, founded by two women, enticed employees with its apparent culture of inclusion and mission for everyone to live a more travel-minded lifestyle. But workers quickly discovered a controlling culture marked by extreme surveillance, overwork, and public bullying—all in the name of Away’s core values.
Time will tell if Away can successfully turn its culture around, but the exposé serves as an important reminder for all organizations: Core values set the tone for how your business thrives. To be effective, they must be fully embodied from the ground up, and they’re important now more than ever.
With most of us under shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, many businesses have been forced to implement new remote work policies. While core values might seem like the least of your organization’s concerns right now, they’re absolutely essential to keeping employees unified and motivated as you navigate these uncertain times. Because when core values fall by the wayside, teamwork, collaboration, and alignment can crumble. In a worst-case scenario, misaligned core values can even become tools to mistreat employees, resulting in a domino effect on the rest of the organization.
What your core values say about your organization
Core values are much more than a few nice words posted on your career page or a motivational poster slapped on an office wall. Core values inform and reinforce your company’s culture, strategic direction, new hiring, and customer interactions.
For example, a core value of “support,” signifies a culture of shared responsibility and communicates that employees have each other’s backs. “Innovation” might suggest business goals relating to growth, technology, or new products. “Inclusion” tells potential new hires your company is a welcoming and safe space, and “reliable” indicates a responsive and consistent relationship with your customers or clients.
But your core values can also be misinterpreted or even misused. In Away’s case, the company’s core values sounded great on paper, but in reality, they, unfortunately, were used as a way for senior leaders to mistreat employees. The company’s CEO Steph Korey used the values of “transparency” and “inclusion” to forbid employees from having private conversations via email or messaging apps, as well as to publicly call out employees in company-wide Slack channels, according to news reports.
Likewise, Away’s “customer-obsessed” value meant employees were regularly asked to work 16-hour days, cancel planned vacations, and give up their weekends. While Away represents an extreme example of core values gone haywire, organizations with misaligned beliefs are more common than you’d think.
The importance of continuously reevaluating core values
A recent Gallup survey found that only 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. Even though many organizations have identified their beliefs, they’ve fallen short in their implementation—a crucial step in gaining employee buy-in and ensuring your core values are embraced across the company. Strong core beliefs contribute to a positive company culture, which is linked to new talent acquisition and higher employee engagement.
Take Patagonia, for example. The outdoor clothing and gear retailer supports its values of nature and adventure by encouraging employees to set their own hours and set aside work to go outside. The company also donates a portion of all profits to protecting the environment. And its values-driven culture pays off. The company has grown consistently in size and profits, driven in part by loyal consumers attracted to the brand’s environmentally conscious efforts.
As you can imagine, the drawbacks of misaligned or nonexistent core values often result in the inverse. All 14 Away employees interviewed in The Verge’s investigation have since left the company. Customers took to social media to voice their disappointment with the startup, adding more fuel to the fire already torching the company’s image. Korey stepped down as CEO amid the backlash, then changed her mind and returned to the company after hiring defamation lawyers.
Core values have the power to elevate your organization or tear it down. But how do you know if your core values are actually resonating with your employees? It starts with continuous feedback. Survey tools and employee engagement platforms can help HR leaders gather and evaluate employee sentiment. If you find your values aren’t lining up, you likely need an update.
How to create core values that stick
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt business as usual, updating your core values likely hasn’t crossed your mind. And while you might not be able to tackle the change till you’re all back in the office, now’s a critical time to observe how well your values hold up remotely.
Even though your core values were developed with the best intentions, your business could very well change fundamentally as a result of the pandemic. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ll probably become more nimble, figure out which meetings are actually essential, or discover the true value in collaboration tools. But when your business changes, your core values should evolve with you. And many of the steps toward that evolution can be done remotely:
Start by gathering feedback. Ask leaders at your organization to name the behaviors they recognize and reward in employees. Include team members across every department in the conversation to determine the management styles that help them thrive and how they want to be recognized in the workplace.
Look for consistencies across the feedback you’ve gathered. Areas of overlap can help identify values that already reflect your employees and are therefore more likely to resonate with them.
Your core values should be concise, understandable, and easy to remember. Single words are fine, but phrases are catchier and more memorable. At Kazoo, our core value “in good company” reflects our culture of camaraderie and support, while “own it” refers to the importance we place on taking responsibility for your role, actions, and impact in our organization.
Core values should be visible, felt, and actionable. Encourage leaders to recognize employees who embrace specific values across their work, both in real-time and at team meetings. Host “Core Value Awards” and reward workers who embody your values with cash, charitable donations, or experiences outside the office.
Core values are your company’s guiding light. They inform the way you conduct business, treat employees, and engage with customers: essentially, everything that you do. And as companies across industries adjust to a more dispersed workforce necessitated by COVID-19, the need to establish and maintain clear values is particularly critical.
Paul Pellman is the CEO of Kazoo.