Five Easy Ways To Tell If An Organization Is Really Values-Driven


What do Zappos, Ben and Jerry’s, and Southwest Airlines have in common? They are all financially successful, values-driven companies.

A lot of companies claim to be values-driven. They publish their values and use them in marketing messages. However, this does not necessarily mean their values guide decision-making and behaviors company-wide on a day-by-day basis.

To know for sure, you can investigate whether leadership practices and company policies are aligned with their published vision and values. But there’s a simpler and quicker way to tell: pay attention to your own experience as a customer.

Here are five quick ways you can tell if an organization is really values-driven.

1. Employees remember what the company’s values are.

Ask three employees what the values of the company are.

  • Can they quickly recall them?
  • Do they repeat the same values?

I recommend that companies choose no more than five values because you want your values to be forefront in people’s minds, and it’s hard to remember more than five.

Interestingly, Zappos is so totally focused on their values that they have listed ten values that employees actually remember. Check out this great video of Zappos employees talking about their company’s values.

2. Employees can describe specific activities and behaviors that demonstrate what the values look like in action.

Ask the employees to give you examples of how the values they listed are lived in the company –what behaviors or actions do they see that exemplify each of the values?

It’s not enough to just have a list of values. The same words can mean different things to different people. Values like “teamwork” “innovation” or “ownership” need to be clearly defined so they are understood by all and can be implemented consistently.

I recommend including 4 or 5 descriptors to give meaning to the words. For example, one company I worked with defined “ownership” as:

  • When making decisions, ask “Is it good for the customer and is it good for the business?”
  • Empowering one another to push decision making to those closest to the customer whenever possible
  • Enabling everyone to feel ready and committed to stepping into a leadership role when opportunity presents itself
  • Being results driven through measurable success
  • Taking responsibility for success of both individual departments and the whole team
  • Providing descriptors like these enables employees and customers to have clear conversations about what should be happening. And it provides a way to determine whether the values are being lived consistently.

    3. The company’s values are visibly integrated into how they do business and are not just something extra they do on the side.

    It is common knowledge that since its inception, Ben and Jerry’s has built a reputation for caring more about people than profit, providing leadership in social and environmental responsibility. And although the company was sold to Unilever in 2000, CEO Jostein Solheim recently provided reassurance that the essence has not changed, stating

    “The world needs dramatic change to address the social and environmental challenges we are facing. Values led businesses can play a critical role in driving that positive change. We need to lead by example, and prove to the world that this is the best way to run a business. Historically, this company has been and must continue to be a pioneer to continually challenge how business can be a force for good and address inequities inherent in global business.”

    So far Solheim has kept true to his word. If that changes, we consumers will quickly know.

    4. The company’s public message matches your own experience as a customer.

    My advice to companies is Don’t make a claim and then miss the mark, consistently. We consumers resent it and you actually lose credibility.

    Recently in an attempt to resolve a problem with AT&T, I was forced to call customer service five times. Each time I heard this exact phrase at the end of the conversation: “My goal is to provide satisfying customer service. Can I help you with anything else?” Obviously they hadn’t helped me in the first place or I wouldn’t have been forced to call five times on the same issue. When the customer service representative repeats the same canned phrase at end of each conversation, regardless of whether the issue was resolved, the company loses credibility.

    McDonald’s wants to change its image by promoting a new initiative “to help children and families make nutrition-minded choices.” What are they going to do? They’re adding apples to the Happy Meal. As a consumer, I have to say that just doesn’t do it for me.

    In the early 60s, AVIS coined the famous tagline: “We’re only #2 in rental cars, so why go with us? We try harder.” In his April, 2011 article, Alan Armstrong makes the following point:

    Lately AVIS has re-adopted part of that tagline, but only part of it. They’ve dropped the important pre-cursor and kept the memorable ending, “We Try Harder”.  The trouble is, “We try harder” is only believable if your market perceives that you really do try harder. In order to believe that, they have to see you as an underdog. It is very difficult to convince the customer that AVIS, now about the same size as Hertz, will really try harder.

    5. Use your own personal experience to identify the real company values.

    Anyone who has flown on Southwest Airlines can tell you without reading their ads that having fun is one of their core values.

    And indeed, on the careers page of their Website, Southwest Airlines recruits specifically for people who “want the freedom to be creative, dress casually, and have fun on the job.”

    Recently a friend told me of an experience that clearly demonstrates their values: during takeoff the flight attendants announced they were tired and didn’t feel like serving the peanuts and pretzels that day. They had decided to roll them down the aisle during takeoff instead and passengers were welcome to help themselves. And that’s exactly what happened. Passengers grabbed items as they rolled by and had a great time tossing them to each other.

    If you complain about the flight attendants’ creative antics, they will not be reprimanded (as long as safety has not been compromised). Instead, you will be told you’ll be missed if you decide to fly on another airline in the future.

    It’s not very difficult to tell if an organization is really values-driven. What has your experience been recently? Have you observed any values-driven companies in action?


    29 comments to Five Easy Ways To Tell If An Organization Is Really Values-Driven

    • Great post, Jesse! Actions speak so much louder than words, and it is the consistency over time of actionable values, both internally and externally, that truly measures the integrity of an organization’s values.

      • I agree, Sharon, a real measure is consistency over time. Remember how much credibility Johnson and Johnson got as a result of their response to the Tylenol tampering incident? But recently consumer confidence has been eroded by their slow response to FDA citations in one of their plants.

    • Steve Romero

      Outstanding post Jesse. As you state, almost every company claims to be ‘values-driven’ but I have found most ‘company values’ amount to little more than posters on the walls. I don’t suspect many organizations could pass your values-driven quick-test.

      I recently published a book about eliminating the divide between IT organizations and the businesses they support. I describe how business governance of IT and process management are key to eliminating the “us and them” relationship, but I devote the last part of the book to values-driven-behavior. I contend the best frameworks, methodologies, and approaches in any industry have little chance of success if they are not enabled by the enterprise values required to successfully drive desired behaviors.

      Every enterprise would be well served to reflect on the points you raise in your post.

      • Thank you, Steve. I appreciate your comments and further illuminating this important subject. Your book sounds interesting. I would be happy to share it if you would like to post the name and a link to more information about it.

    • Steve Romero

      Hi Jesse, I did not want to be presumptuous, so I didn’t include the actual title or the link. The book is titled, “Eliminating ‘Us and Them’ – Making IT and the Business One.”

      Thank you for your cyber-hospitality.

    • Dan Bobke

      Steve Romero led me to this blog post through Twitter…you have to love social media!

      It is all about behavior – talk is talk and slick posters on the wall mean nothing if your employees and customers cannot feel those values in the things you do. Amazon strikes me as a values-driven business – customer service is certainly a value that is clearly present in all of my interactions with them. Ease of ordering, great pricing, ease of returns and problem resolution.

      You pointed out a great proxy for measuring values permeation in an organization – the employees articulate them clearly and can tell you what they look like in daily action. Great post!

      • Well said, Dan! As for whether Amazon passes the test, that would be for others to say as although my own customer experience with Amazon has been consistently positive, I have yet to have a conversation with an employee. I would guess that they have a value around operational excellence from my personal experience. As consumers, our two main points of contact with an organization are through sales and service. Many online companies like Amazon do not require human interaction, so the only point of contact occurs when there is a problem. Fortunately for me, I have not had any problems with Amazon that could not be resolved through automation. That speaks to well constructed systems. I would still want to talk with 2 or 3 employees and ask the first two questions before deciding on whether it was really values-driven. I’m curious what your own customer experience has been with them. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    • great synopsis, Jesse. I find that getting a ‘customer focus’ is the key to aligning values and getting results in our organization. Not an easy task, but we are working to show every single employee how they contribute to a positive customer experience. Common goal, we can measure the outcome.

      thanks for your update, much enjoyed!


      • I always appreciate your comments, Meryle. It’s great to hear from someone in the trenches who is working to put this into action. It’s not easy. I agree that focusing on the customer experience is helpful. Maintaining that perspective also ultimately redefines the role of management to support and enable those closest to the customer to have the freedom, flexibility and resources to do their job. That was the problem with my AT&T experience: the customer representatives did not have the authority to access the systems or power to make decisions or correct information on who to connect me with.

    • Blake Anthes

      Terrific post, especially point #4. Rarely do the companies’ canned phrases match the experience we just went through. If they would only say like they MEANT it, instead of saying it from memory; at least TRY to make me feel important. Great job, Ms. Stoner.

      • I agree and thank YOU, Mr. Anthes, for a praise that feels real and not “canned.” What is the difference? You took the time to provide something specific to the situation. Here’s an example of the opposite: “Have a good one.” I grit my teeth when I hear it because it means absolutely nothing. You can say it anywhere, anytime, and under any condition – it doesn’t require you to recognize one single thing about the person you are speaking to.

    • Great stuff Jesse! We are a small fire department in the midst of a culture change, from rules-based to values-based and your article will be used as a training outline to facilitate the change. Keep the great stuff coming!

      • Russ, I’m delighted my post can be helpful. As you move forward, I have some advice. 1) Consider what business you’re really in as a fire department. You might find my post Help Your Team Get Unstuck: Ask What Business Are You Really In? helpful in determining your real purpose. 2) Choose the values needed to help make your purpose real. 3) The process you use to make the culture change needs to be consistent with the change you want to create. In other words, if you want your fire department to become more collaborative, instead of top-down rules-based, use a collaborative process to identify your values. The Change Checklist, which you can download as a free gift from my website might also be helpful. Best wishes to you and your fire department on your worthwhile journey!

    • Steven Potter

      Great post Jesse.
      I’d like to reply to reply to Micah’s question re mission/vision statements, by expanding on your point #3.
      Vision statements (like values statements) seem to sink into the bog of irrelevancy when they are so general that the people who are supposed to be guided by them, can’t really apply them to their daily work.
      For an alternative approach see Eric Hellweg’s post on the HBR. He suggests using 8 words or less to express your vision, and in the specific order of: “Verb – Target – Outcome”.
      I work as a Maintenance Planner for a large retailer and my abbreviated statement helps me to keep my focus:
      “Ensure Canadian Tire’s assets are safe and reliable.”

      • Hi Steven, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and also for responding to Micah’s question. I am delighted when my blog can be used as a forum for discussion. These are important questions and don’t have simple answers. The dialogue is what creates meaning.

    • Micah Yost

      Good stuff. I like the suggestion of five values in your first point. It seems a great launching place for this whole exercise, considering much of the rest is based on both your employee’s and customer’s ability to internalize. Obviously a long list would hinder this effort. I also liked the idea of adding descriptors. It seems better to boil the value down to a concise big idea with added descriptors than having a value statement alone that is way to long to internalize. I believe the same would go for mission and vision statements as well, personally. Do you also think that some similar principals apply to creating mission and/or vision statements?

      Micah Yost

      • Hi Micah, Glad you are thinking about applications of the ideas in this post. Your conclusions are right on target from my perspective. I have focused this post on how to identify whether an organization is values-driven, and so have not provided principles or guidelines on how to create one. Your excellent question deserves a more thorough response than I could provide in a short reply. I request your patience as I would like to make my response to your question the topic of my next blog post.

    • Great post, Jesse! Huge thanks to Baron for sending it my way. In a past life I worked for a company called PeopleSoft. Much like Zappos, I think PSFT knew how to not just document their “values” on a poster board, but really LIVE them. Our core values were embedded in our quarterly performance reviews, and permeated everything we did. Needless to say, it was a wonderful company to work for and one of the highlights of my career.

      It seems so easy when you’re involved in a company who gets it right, but I’ve seen so many companies struggle with this – even to define their values, let alone live them. I think one thing I would say is a must — it has to start at the top and to your point #3 and #4 it must be “lived.”

      Again, great post!

      • Hi Brenda, Thanks so much for taking the time to show how your own personal experience supports these points. It is more clear and believable when people talk about real experiences with real companies. I remember PeopleSoft before they were acquired by Oracle in 2005. Interestingly, I just returned to the US from working with SAP in Russia. It seems like many management solutions software companies have a somewhat similar culture. (although I believe PeopleSoft was an exception). Many years ago I read a fascinating book, Close to the Machine, which described the world of computer programming. I am curious if it it is somehow connected with origins of this culture.

    • Micah Yost

      Thanks for sharing and responding. I like that 8 word approach. I believe it is Jack Welch who wrote, “mission should be so concrete it slaps you in the face”.

    • As some one who writes a lot about values in business (a big part of my latest book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, in fact), I really liked this article. I’ll put the link out on social media. In fact, I’d love to get permission to reprint on the Ethics Articles page on Please contact me via e-mail on that.

    • Now why didn’t I check that*before* my most recent note. Having kind of a DUH! day. Just spent an hour+ looking for a pair of glasses that are probably in plain site, and I can’t find the trackback field in the edit window on my site. So I put the direct link into your bio as a new link.

    • Dave Howe

      Three years later…our organization (a fire department)claims to be a values-driven agency. However, some of the e=less experienced members will use our stated values as a weapon: “Management doesn’t follow x value, why should we?” And, some people think that being values-driven means we don’t need policies. I think being truly values-driven requires that all employees truly understand what that term means and implies. I look forward to checking out the references folks have put up, above. We are just now starting a comprehensive review of our Values and Expectations, and this site is enormously helpful. Thanks, Jesse

      • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

        I agree that all employees must understand what the values imply in terms of behavior. Small breaches might seem insignificant, but erode trust over time. Good luck with your important work!

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