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How to Write Core Values for the First Time

It’s the DIY way to channel DEI

Desktop computer with inspiring message on screen
Photo courtesy of Carl Heyerdahl

Writing your core values for the first time can be overwhelming and time-consuming, so if you’re a busy startup founder or entrepreneur, it might be tempting to put the task to the wayside while you focus on your product, funding, and growth. 

However, there’s a strong business case for prioritizing core values from the start.

Over 90 percent of organizations have a set of core values to help guide company culture and the ways employees do business internally and externally. But according to Gallup, only 27 percent of employees strongly believe in their core values, and less than half of employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and what makes it different. Herein lies a white whale of a problem. 

Core values not only impact a company’s brand, but they also affect its ability to attract and retain top talent. Seventy-six percent of employees believe a well-defined business strategy (a mission, a vision, and core values) helps cultivate a positive work culture. And when the work culture isn’t positive? Twenty-four percent of employees start planning their exit strategy.

Actionable core values, the Gallup findings say, have “a positive effect on everything a company does, and such a focus on purpose unites and touches every stakeholder—customers, employees, regulators, legislators, the media, and influencers.”

“They can really help communicate to employees, to management, to customers, to whoever, what the company is about and what they want to do and help get employee buy-in,” says Melissa White, a knowledge advisor in the Society of Human Resources Management’s (SHRM) HR Knowledge Center. White adds that having core values that tie to diversity, equity, and inclusion, specifically, communicates that an organization is attuned to the needs of our current and future workforce. It says, DEI is more than a number, it’s a way of life.

Let’s walk through the ins and outs of core values: the different ways they affect your company, how to write your core values for the first time, and how to ensure they encourage a safe, welcoming environment for all employees. 

What are core values?

According to SHRM, core values are the “principles that guide and direct the organization and its culture. In a values-led organization, the values create a moral compass for the organization and its employees. [They guide] decision-making and establish a standard against which actions can be assessed. These core values are an internalized framework that is shared and acted on by leadership.” 

While directly related to mission and vision statements, which outline the short- and long-term problems a company seeks to solve, core values dictate the environment in which those goals are achieved. They’re the how we work versus the what we do.

4 ways core values impact your company

1. Your recruitment efforts

Interviews are a two-way street, and you want an employee whose values align with your own so there are no surprises on either side. “Values can say what a company is looking for as well as what the expectations are,” White says. “Being clear in what an organization values can help find the right person.”

In terms of DEI, core values can speak volumes about what it will be like for a woman or person of color to join the company. White says: “Having something tied to DEI can show that the employer isn’t closed down. They’re open to anything that is showing diversity. They’re not just looking to have so many employees to build out a number. They’re really showing that they really believe in that diversity effort, not just to fill a number but also equity—looking at that from providing compensation benefits and opportunities for all employees.”

Read more: How to Build a Great New Hire Orientation

2. Your employee retention rate

Conversely, when values don’t line up, potential for turnover rises. “Some individuals looking for a job may not feel like a company’s values align with their own personal beliefs, and they might decide to go elsewhere,” White says.

“If an employee does feel like a company’s values are aligned with their personal values, they may be more inclined to stick around or try harder or be positive,” she says. “A lot of times, if they can’t get on board with where a company is going they might struggle. Their interactions with their coworkers might suffer because it’s just not something that they take seriously.”

InHerSight knows what White says to be true from our own data. About 73 percent of women want to change careers, and one of the top three reasons they’re thinking of doing so is to find a career with a mission they believe in. Values can be a huge deciding factor in whether women stay or go.

3. The evolution of your brand

Core values are a statement of “who” your company is, so it only makes sense that they’ll be just as visible to the outside world as they are to your employees. But White says they’re not who you are forever, and that’s key. If you’re forward-thinking, they should evolve, and they can help your brand speak to its stance on of-the-moment issues, such as Black Lives Matter or, more generally, DEI. “Over the course of the employer’s lifecycle, maybe they’ve gotten feedback from their employees or customers or vendors, or the world has changed in such a way that they need to shift and grow their values,” White says. Expect to reapproach the values conversation every five or 10 years.

4. Your company culture

Through wording and implementation, core values shape your company’s culture and can impact how good it feels to come to work every day. White says the great work environment you create affects inclusivity: “Some people would say ‘family,’ but it’s more of a positive experience where people feel like they belong there, regardless of what groups they belong to, who they are. It’s the feeling that the organization is really wanting them to succeed as an employee.”

Read more: Why Employee Reviews Are Critical to Your Brand Management Efforts

How to write core values for the first time

Now that you understand the importance of core values, let’s dig into the best practices for writing them yourself. White says you’ll want to eventually have a list of five or six values, but not to get too hung up if they don’t feel “final.” Again, they should eventually change. “Employers aren’t necessarily stuck with the values they choose at that present time, but they should use them as something to strive for too,” she says. Keep them relevant and aspirational. Here’s how to make that happen:

1. Assemble a team

Bring together a group of people in your organization who you feel represent and understand what company’s values should be. Good questions to ask when assembling this team are:

  • Who demonstrates what you’d consider to be “ideal employee” behavior?

  • Who understands your culture?

  • Who connects well with other employees?

Ideally, the group will be made up of people in different levels, but if you’re a small team, that might not matter as much. That’s okay. The point is that core values shouldn’t be dictated by one or two people. 

2. Brainstorm 

There are a variety of ways to brainstorm core values. When we created ours at InHerSight, we printed a list of commonly used core values and, individually, circled those that resonated with us the most. Then we ranked them, presented our rankings to the other people in the meeting, and sorted them into groups with similar themes. You can devise your own creative way of getting team members to weigh in, but SHRM says to keep these questions in mind:

  • What values are unique to our organization?

  • What values should guide the operations of our company?

  • What conduct should our employees uphold?

We’d add a few more questions to this list, but feel free to think of your own: 

  • How do we want people to feel when they come to work every day?

  • What can we do to ensure everyone at the company has the chance to succeed?

  • Tell us about an action the organization took, or a decision it made, that you believe was right. Why do you believe it chose to do that?

  • Walk us through a meaningful moment you’ve experienced in this organization? Why does it stand out to you?

  • What do we want employees who leave our organization or customers and business partners who interact with our team to take away with them?

3. Edit and finalize

Guaranteed, you’ll have more values than you need when you leave your brainstorming session. Set up follow-up meetings with your core values team to condense your thoughts. Which values are too similar? Which ones aren’t strong enough? Remember, each value will likely have a small description or overview to accompany it, so if one value acts as an umbrella for a few others, you can easily combine them without losing any aspect of the culture you hope to achieve.

Then draft and draft and draft again. To strike the right tone, especially one that appeals to employees of all backgrounds, White says, “Choosing words should be done very carefully because sometimes there is terminology out there that may have a different meaning to certain groups or others. Avoiding unclear language may be helpful.” That’s what your advisors are for. “Your board should help you navigate language,” she adds.

4. Present the values to your entire team

New values are exciting and should be celebrated! Schedule a company retreat or gathering where you can share your news. Prepare an activity or presentation that illustrates how the core values team brought each value to life. Transparency is important in making everyone feel engaged and involved. Consider asking team members to share which values resonate most with them and why, how they see certain values fitting into the company’s current business model and future, and how they envision the values changing over time.

About our source

Melissa White is a knowledge advisor in the Society of Human Resources Management’s (SHRM) HR Knowledge Center. She has over 12 years of HR experience working in nonprofits, religious organizations, and with physicians. In the Knowledge Center, she advises SHRM members on HR questions and policy.

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