2006 – Placing a value on values
Everyone, you, me, the company that employs you, the community
in which we live, society at large, we all have values:
what the late Milton Rokeach, a professor of social psychology
at Michigan State University described as “fundamental
beliefs and unwritten standards and principles that guide
behaviour and judgements.”
Sometimes an individual’s beliefs can conflict with
corporate policy as Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in
desk worker, discovered when she was told that a crucifix
pendant worn around her neck contravened a dress code that
forbade the wearing of visible jewellery with her staff
In the face of mounting criticism from Church leaders and
MPs, BA agreed last week to review its policy which, it
said, had been designed to present a “professional
and consistent image” throughout the 90 countries
in which the company operates.
Not for the first time, BA’s attempts to present
itself neutrally as “the world’s favourite airline”
had encountered unexpected resistance. On the last occasion,
10 years ago at the Conservative Party conference, Baroness
Thatcher signalled her disapproval of new tailfin paintwork
on a model aircraft by draping her handkerchief over the
multi-coloured design. “We fly the British flag, not
these awful things you are putting on tails,” she
Shortly afterwards BA returned to red, white and blue designs
on its tailfins. How the latest review is resolved remains
to be seen. With staff and customers of all races and creeds
the company seems to have forced itself in to a corner.
How can it amend its rules to allow the wearing of a crucifix,
without permitting other religious symbols?
In a Christian society the crucifix is unlikely to offend.
But can that be said of all religious symbols wherever in
the world they are displayed? What about the Star of David?
What about that traditional symbol of Hinduism, Buddhism
and Jainism - the swastika?
Given the heightened sensitivity surrounding religious
dress in the workplace after recent disputes over the wearing
of the veil by orthodox Moslem women, those who administer
employee dress codes must feel as if they are tiptoeing
through a minefield.
Yet employers can no longer duck such issues. Beliefs,
principles, values - call them what you will – do
matter in the workplace. In fact there is evidence to suggest
that when an approach to business reflects the underlying
values of employees, it can feed through to the bottom line
in better performance and profits.
A little while back BDO Stoy Hayward, the accountants,
set about defining a core set of organisational values by
questioning staff about what they held to be important as
individuals. The result was some consensus over a common
set of human and organisational values that have been adopted
as guiding principles governing the way employees and managers
approach their work.
The firm was so convinced of the difference that strong
organisational values can make to a business, that it decided
to test the theory among eight professional services firms
in a pilot study administered by ISR, the employee research
Nearly 2,000 employees completed questionnaires that collected
their perceptions covering a list of 29 selected values
compiled from academic studies and existing value sets identified
in various organisations. Descriptions such as respectful,
trusting, innovative and customer orientated were regarded
Feedback was also sought on a list of 12 other characteristics
perceived by the researchers to have a negative impact on
performance within a workforce. These included blame orientation,
long hours, secretiveness and aggressive behaviour.
The study found that people working in the most profitable
firms were significantly more likely to describe their businesses
as innovative, brand orientated, efficient, quality focused,
even fun, and less likely than those who worked for less
profitable employers to highlight secrecy, blame and exploitative
behaviour in their businesses.
The values most strongly associated with profit, it found,
were customer focus, professionalism, a sense of achievement,
quality concerns, a forward looking approach and a strong
focus on the business.
None of these should be a cause for surprise. All could
be said to reflect the corporate ideal. In the same way,
BDO Stoy Hayward’s own value matrix stressing honesty,
integrity, personal responsibility, mutual support and strong
personal and client relationships would appear ideal for
a professional services business.
A problem arises, however, when corporate values such as
those espousing a desire to be the “world’s
favourite airline” attempt to blend the diverse beliefs
of employees and customers into a homologous ideological
or interdenominational soup.
How can such organisational principles accommodate the
deeply-felt individual beliefs, such as those expressed
by Ms Eweida or those of Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant,
dismissed for wearing a veil at school in Dewsbury, West
Another problem arises when values can be perceived as
double-edged. How fine, for example, is the line between
profit motive and greed? The point was acknowledged in the
Oliver Stone-directed film, Wall Street, when Gordon Gekko,
a corporate raider, played by Michael Douglas, declares
that “greed is good.”
In the same way aggression, deemed by the researchers to
be a negative characteristic when displayed within a workplace,
can be, at times, a competitive strength in the marketplace.
Even patriotism and nationalism, issues raised by Baroness
Thatcher, can be perceived negatively in some circumstances.
Long hours of working were listed in the research as an
“inhibitor to performance,” but try telling
that to an investment bank or legal practice. Equally cynicism,
dismissed here as bad for business, would not be discouraged
among journalists. For this reason, perhaps, I find it difficult
to accept the research unconditionally.
Putting such caveats to one side I believe that BDO Stoy
Hayward is on to something here. In basing its value proposition
on research among its own staff it has avoided the pitfalls
associated with a top-down approach to values.
British Airways might take a leaf out of the same book
and consult its staff about dress codes. Rather than lurching
from one well-meaning, but flawed, policy to another, it
should use the hiatus provided by the review of its dress
code, to consult employees and trade unions.
Tough employment issues such as that arising from Ms Eweida’s
predicament should be discussed collectively. British Airways
has tried to divorce the debate from that of wearing the
veil. But both practices would seem to be linked in the
minds of the public.
Ultimately we need to decide for ourselves as a society
to what extent concerns for religious freedom and tolerance
should be balanced against our duty as individual citizens
to respect the sensitivities of those among whom we live
and work. Each of us has principles. But why should zealotry
prevail? In any society or organisation values are layered
hierarchically. Some have deeper roots than others.
*What is the Real Value of Values, a pilot study, is
available from BDO Stoy Hayward, www.bdo.co.uk.
see also my article: The
value of values in teamwork