The above headline could just as easily have been Constantly Communicate and Clarify Your Company Values or Are You Giving Your Employees Criteria for Making Decisions  or Are You Sure Your Employees Know What You Would Do? or….you get the idea. It came to me because I was flabbergasted when one of my salespeople-and his wife-confronted me. He ranted, “Why didn’t you support me in that argument with the customer?” She chimed in, “Why didn’t you cover his back?  Don’t good employers support their people?”

Of course, they were right-in a sense. Good supervisors generally do back up their employees. But not this time. In this instance, I had good reason not to support him: He was not being honest with the customer. That’s why I was flabbergasted.   

Later, I realized that part of the blame did fall on my shoulders. I had never expressed to him the values that should govern all behavior in my company. I share the blame, not because I did not back him, but because I had failed to tell him what I expected.

This salesperson was smooth and personable. Everybody liked his engaging smile and great personality. However, he had two character flaws. First, he was disorganized and paid little attention to detail. That had caused me many problems, including countless promises he did not keep. Customers’ uproar about his over-promising uncovered the second flaw: He was prone to lie when he could not deliver on a promise. “The truck got caught in a snowstorm in Wyoming,” or “Your fabric came in, but it was flawed. We sent it back.” His fabrications were varied enough that most customers believed him. However, I became frustrated with his embellished stories and his willingness to routinely deceive our valued customers.

This one particular time, I had had enough. When the customer called me to complain, I told the truth. In doing so I revealed the deception and destroyed the salesperson’s credibility. He was furious and so was his wife. 

You probably see where the fault lies. I did not make clear our company values when I hired him. I then let his first transgressions slide. For me, honesty is a core value; I thought it was a given. I erred in assuming that every person shares this. I should have communicated to him, in a way he understood, that lying to the customer was unacceptable, a “no-no,” and forbidden - with no exceptions. 

When an employee fails to do what you want him to do, before you criticize, consider your instructions to him. Is the failure an employee issue or a leadership issue? Too often, leaders’ failures cause employee problems. As Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Perseus Books Group, 2000) often says, “Every time you think the problem is out there, that very thought is the problem.”

So if you think your staff does not completely understand your company values that is in and of itself a problem. Remember company values are vital.  

They represent the rules, principles, and operating procedures that guide every employee every step of the way. Values are the structure that encourages them to think, behave and solve problems in ways that assure the company’s structure, security and growth. 

The former IBM marketing executive and author, Buck Rodgers may have said it best:  “Once you’ve clarified your company’s values and communicated them clearly, you have given yourself and your employees criteria for making decisions. Most successful customer service companies have a written, well-communicated set of values which humanize the work environment by setting the tone for the way people in the organization do business. The values become as much a part of the company’s operation as its product, service or policies.”

Great companies would struggle without a set of governing values. When they hire, they look for people who believe in those values. When you clearly explain your values, employees know exactly what you would do even when you’re absent. That’s why you hire for character and train for skills, not vice versa. Good example: the managers at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel trust a housekeeper to spend up to $2,000 to please a customer without even consulting a supervisor. 

The absence of written and explained values contributes to the No. 1 cause of workplace failure: unclear expectations. If my salesperson was made aware of my core values, there would be no question about what I expected. He may not have followed them, but he wouldn’t have expected me to support his transgressions. 

Values that are crystal clear and non-negotiable yield many benefits, including higher productivity. When they understand your values, employees can make sense of your rules and appreciate the reasons for them. With values in place, employees enjoy their work more. They enjoy the increased confidence and the authority to take action they feel is right for both customer and company. Beyond that, values allow managers to empower employees who are in contact with the public and perform the tactical work. When the employees know what to do without having to ask, owners and managers are no longer burdened with countless questions.

A final benefit: when you have core values firmly in place (and in writing), it’s easier to screen and hire people who share those values.  Southwest Airlines’ hiring system famously finds people that fit their culture. It’s called affirming shared values.

Today I ask you to take a good look at your written values statement. (And if you still don’t have one? Sit down and write one this week.) If I were to ask your employees, “What is important to the organization where you work?” how might they answer? How would you like them to answer? Listen carefully. Where their answers match yours, affirm them heartily. Where they deviate, cause conflict, or overlook your values, point it out. You owe it to your employees to teach them. To help them remember each value and adopt it as their own, share an anecdote that bolsters each value. Before the meeting, reflect on your past. Recall the incidents in your life that prompted you to embrace that value and make a personal commitment that you would never violate it. Tell these stories to your employees to bring the values to life. Then ask them to tell you about experiences in their lives that shaped their values. 

For its part, Walt Disney World operates by four core values. In order of priority, they are: safety, courtesy, “show” (creating fun and its entertaining guests) and efficiency (profitability). Everyone working there knows that no matter the place, time or activity at Disney, the safety of the guests and cast members is always the No. 1 consideration. Next, as you may know from personal experience, come the values of courtesy, show, and efficiency. All decisions made at Disney must pass the four values test: Managers and employees alike ask, “If we decide to do this, will the result be consistent with our values and what is important to the company?” If the answer is “no,” they drop the proposal.

In some situations, values can conflict. That’s why Disney prioritized its four values. I’ve heard a story about an employee (or “cast member” as they prefer to call them) who was dancing around dressed as a Disney character. He shoved a small child out of the way while trying to entertain and thus put “show” before safety and courtesy.  Disney fired him because, at Disney, that can never happen.

Exactly which principles and behaviors do you believe should define your  company’s values? Integrity? Honesty? Courtesy? Respect? Teamwork? How about all of the above? To prevent any misunderstanding, write a clarifying paragraph about each value. Do not be timid or ambiguous about your values. Boldly declare that these are non-negotiable in your company. Then prioritize them in order of importance. Print and laminate them on a card and distribute them to all the members in your organization. 

Make certain these values are the focus of your employee meetings, newsletters, and performance interviews. Hold everyone, including you, accountable to the values. You will find that establishing core values can be liberating! You become freer when everyone disciplines themselves to follow your values and core principles.

That “smooth and personable” salesperson who had a tendency to stretch the truth eventually left my organization. Though he was a great salesperson, I sighed with relief because his values ran counter to mine. If I had, early on, articulated them to him and held him accountable, maybe I would have avoided some frustration.  Maybe he would have declined my offer to work for me.