Defining Your Company’s Core Values: The Complete Guide (with Templates)
How to uncover, articulate, and spread your company’s core values. Rally your team, boost performance, and recruit people who share your guiding principles.
To manage your company culture, you must first define your core values. (Credit: Adobe Stock)
Your values help you face ambiguity, find clarity, make tough decisions, and take actions that serve your purpose. This is true for individuals. It’s also true for organizations.
Values-driven companies achieve better brand and business performance. This is validated by a growing body of research. You can also see it by noting which employers are most admired by the public. From Apple to Zappos, these firms are guided by clear values.
This is why many startup firms identify a list of core values at an early stage of organizational development. As the company grows and matures, however, that list of early aspirational values doesn’t always bear out into reality – doesn’t always reflect the actual values that shape how the organization operates. Values can’t be willed into practice.
Identifying a true, authentic list of core values – the ones your team already lives and works by – takes considerable time and effort. But it can be done, and it’s worth doing. This guide will introduce what values are and how they support business, share the story of how our company, Recruiting Social, uncovered our core values, and provide instructions and templates for your own values-defining project.
About core values
Defining “core values.”
What are values?
A value is a belief that guides your choices and actions; a principle that conveys what is right and what is wrong.
In a business context, core values are the highest values that guide a firm’s actions, unite its employees, and define its brand.
These guiding principles are typically communicated in writing as a core values statement.
Example core values
What does a core values statement look like? Here are examples from six top-recognized employers:
- Champion the mission (by living the mission)
- Be a host
- Every frame matters
- Be a “cereal” entrepreneur
- Embrace the adventure
Bain & Company
- “One-team” Attitude
- Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
(Source: Bain & Company)
The Container Store
- 1 Great Person = 3 Good People
- Communication IS Leadership
- Fill the other guy’s basket to the brim. Making money then becomes an easy proposition.
- The Best Selection, Service & Price
- Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind. You need to train before it happens.
(Source: The Container Store)
- Performance Driven: Demonstrating initiative in supporting the goals and overall strategy of the company.
- Always Improving: Commitment to LEAN, creative problem solving and continual improvement.
- Team Focused: Developing a culture of high-functioning and supportive teams.
- Honorable and Respectful: Contributing to a work environment that honors and respects the needs of each stakeholder.
- Sustainably and Socially Conscious: Involvement in practices that decrease our negative environmental impact and increase our positive community impact.
(Source: Nature’s Path)
Commune Hotels + Resorts
- Celebrate Individuality
- Be Humble
- Be Thoughtful
- Continuously Improve
- Seek Balance
- Laugh Often
- Cherish Our Resources
- Live With The <3 Of An Innkeeper
- Follow Your Angel, Ignore Your Devil (Most Of The Time)
(Source: Hote Del Sol/Facebook)
How values shape culture
Clear core values can help an organization hire the right people, dismiss the right people, secure high-value customers, navigate through crises, remain accountable to commitments, and serve stakeholders better.
“If we think of business as a decision-making machine, culture is the relationship between decisions and what happens as a result of them,” says Josh Levine, co-founder of CULTURE LABx, a group committed to redefining workplace culture. “Values,” notes Josh, “are at your culture’s core.”
This is why values deserve a central place in how your organization functions. “Your company’s core values should be incorporated into all your processes, including the hiring process, and recruiters and hiring managers should be able to articulate how those qualities individually apply to candidates,” says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of ReadySet, a workforce and diversity consulting firm.
But before you can build values-based processes, you need to determine what, exactly, your core values are.
Core values case study
Recruiting Social’s core values shape the employee experience.
Recruiting Social is a recruiting services company with offices in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Toronto. Talent teams across North America work with us through our on-demand and contingency search services to source candidates, build pipelines, manage job requisitions, and recruit people. We donate ten percent of our profits to education support for marginalized youth.
Our core values
- People first: Not talent, personnel, human resources, human capital, applicants, resumes, candidates, sends, placements, hires, managers, clients, or customers. We work with people. We recruit people.
- Being social: We seek connections, start conversations, build relationships, and take part in our community.
- Learning and growing: There is no end to knowledge. We want more, and we chase it.
- Persevering: We don’t stop pushing. Nothing worth doing is easy.
- Innovation: We look in different places, ask other questions, try new things. Nothing is ever “good enough.” We lead the way forward.
- Transparency: Information and experiences, successes and failures, good news and bad news – we share openly. It makes us all stronger.
- Giving back: We share our successes by giving back. To our teammates, to our industry, to the community around us – to people who can use the help.
How we apply our values
Decisionmaking. When considering business decisions, our values provide a useful tool – a filter – for sizing up the options. For example, event sponsorship takes an important place in our marketing strategy partly because it reflects our “being social” and “learning and growing,” values. And of course, our commitment to donating ten percent of our profit is all about “giving back.”
Hiring. Our employer branding emphasizes our values, and we follow a values-based recruitment process. When we interview candidates, we ask behavioral questions focused on values-alignment and score answers using a values interview scorecard.
Onboarding. New team members get oriented to our values on their first day and learn how those values drive how we operate, from our emphasis on candidate experience (“people first”) to our volunteer time off policy (“giving back”).
Employee engagement. During team meetings and Slack conversations, we regularly reflect on our actions and how they connect to our values.
Learning and development. The internal training we provide, and the external training employees enroll in, supports our values. For example, several team members have taken design-thinking courses in support of our “innovation” and “people first” values.
Feedback. Our 360-degree feedback process is built around our values, and we use a values-based review tool called Threads.
Recruiting Social uses a values-based interview question scorecard as part of its hiring process.
How we defined our values
It was the fall of 2015. The Recruiting Social team was poised to grow. We recognized that, for the sake of our existing team members, sustainability of our service business, and delivery on our brand promise, we needed to understand the traits and beliefs that defined a successful RSer. It would have been easy enough to sit down for thirty minutes and scribble out a list of aspirational, good-sounding “values,” but from our work with many different employers, we knew that approach seldom resulted in more than platitudes and slogans disconnected from the actual workplace experience.
We wanted to articulate the values we already lived by – so we could recruit new team members who shared those beliefs, too. This is how we did it:
1. Project brief and plan. In consultation with senior team members, we outlined our objective, or why we were doing this: “Why? To clarify and update what Recruiting Social stands for and what we want to accomplish, so we can hold ourselves accountable internally (as a company, as teams, and as individual team members) and externally (to our clients, candidates, vendors, partner companies, stakeholders, followers, and the broader public.” Then, we listed out the steps we’d take to accomplish the objective, and scoped out how much time it would take and who would need to be involved.
2. Discovery. The first and largest step involved research. We performed 15-minute interviews with every member of our small team, plus two clients. Interviewees were asked to identify attributes of our team and workplace and share examples of how they experienced them. Once interviews were completed, we held a 45-minute team workshop to collaboratively explore the insights uncovered in the one-on-one conversations.
3. Distillation. The completed research amounted to, essentially, a big list of words. These were grouped into themes and validated against the feedback collected from clients. Then the themes were ranked based on how often they came up in the research process.
4. Drafts. A clunky, unpolished draft of the values statement was quickly shared with select team members for feedback. That feedback was incorporated into revisions, and the process repeated three more times as we wordsmithed and refined what would become Recruiting Social’s seven core values.
5. Unveiling. The big reveal was anticlimactic. Because they’d been involved in the research and drafting process, and because the final values statement reflected the actual day-to-day experience of working at our company, there was nothing to be surprised about.
How to define your values
Step 1: Plan the project
Complete a project brief. A brief describes the purpose and requirements of a project. Use these questions to help guide your project brief:
- What is the project? (Very probably, “Defining our organization’s core values.”)
- Why is the project worth doing?
- What is the end goal?
- Who is the project for?
- Who needs to be involved?
- What requirements do you need to meet?
- What constraints do you need to work within?
- When does the project need to be completed?
- What questions need to be answered?
- Where will the work appear, and in what format?
- How will you measure success?
Hold a kickoff and planning meeting. Invite people you believe should be involved in the project and use the meeting to finalize requirements, participants, roles, and timeline.
Step 2: Discovery
Conduct research interviews. You’ll want to speak with a representative sample of employees and leaders. At the beginning of the interview, tell the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers, it’s okay to not have an answer to a question, and all responses will remain confidential. Then, ask questions to understand the attributes, behaviors, and experiences that shape the organizational culture.
Sample interview questions:
- What are our strengths as an organization? Why are they strengths?
- What are our weaknesses as an organization? Why are they weaknesses?
- Tell me 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?
- Tell me about a crisis or challenge the organization faced. How did our team respond to the situation? Why did they respond that way?
- Walk me through a meaningful moment you experienced while working here. What happened? Why was that moment meaningful?
- If you could choose 3 words to describe the team at our organization, what would they be?
- At the end of the day, what one thing will the team at our organization be remembered for?
- Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to add?
Facilitate a team workshop. Invite employees and leaders to participate in a 45-minute workshop to further explore the ideas that emerged during the interviews.
Sample workshop outline:
- What are values? How we do what we do – the beliefs that guide how we act.
- Why are we doing this? Help us focus, help us make the right decisions, help hire the right people, and help us fulfill our purpose as an organization. So we can know who we are, who we want to be, and help us hold ourselves accountable to the things we commit to.
- What we’ve already done: Individual interviews. You answered questions about the company.
- What we’re doing today: Group discussion. 5 similar questions, but this time we get to respond to each other, share ideas, and find agreement as a group.
- Questions before we dive in?
- Discussion questions:
- What does our team do? As a team, we …
- What unique twist do we bring to doing that? We are the only team that …
- Our team’s super powers are …
- The traits that help someone excel on our team include …
- The world we leave behind will be …
- Next steps: We’ll write draft core values, and share with you to validate.
The affinity process helps organize research findings into named themes.
Step 3: Definition
Identify themes. You’ve collected research in the form of comments from employees and other stakeholders. Now it’s time to synthesize that information so it can guide the drafting of your organization’s core values. Use the “affinity process” to organize research findings into named themes.
The affinity process:
- Gather the comments. Transcribe them to individual Post-It notes on a whiteboard, or paste them into individual cells in a spreadsheet column.
- Group the comments. Read the comments and look for connections and patterns. Group together comments based on affinities they seem to share. You may also choose to group together groups, creating a hierarchy of categories.
- Label the groups. Write a name or phrase that describes each group’s affinity.
Write the first draft. Use the labels to start your values statement. Produce a rough draft. Don’t worry about wordsmithing and refining just yet, as you will go through several rounds of feedback and revision. Your aim with the first draft is to develop an original and memorable statement.
Core values writing tips:
- Focus on strengths: Don’t assign importance to something you’re not good at as an organization!
- Speak to your audience: Who are your values for? Use words that mean something to them.
- Evoke emotion: As humans, we give importance and ascribe meaning to how we feel.
- Limit the number: A long list of values will be difficult to recall. Keep it in the three-to-nine range.
Collect feedback and perform revisions. Share your rough draft with internal stakeholders and ask for feedback. Encourage them to structure their input using the “I like, I wish, I wonder” technique, which helps prompt constructive feedback.
“I like, I wish, I wonder” feedback example:
- “I like that we elaborate on each value with a description.”
- “I wish that we didn’t rely on such overused terms like ‘transparency’ and ‘innovation.’”
- “I wonder if we could find synonyms that reflect the same idea, but don’t carry the same jargony baggage?”
Perform revisions. Make revisions based on the feedback you receive, and share the new draft with stakeholders for new feedback. Repeat the process until a final draft of the values statement takes shape.
Step 4: Delivery
Communicate the core values. Share the final values statement with employees and explain its intended use. The reveal should be anticlimactic; though the statement might be original in its wording, the essence of each value should be obvious.
Circulate the values statement. Reproduce the core values statement in different formats and circulate far and wide among internal stakeholders.