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Donkin on Work - Employee Engagement

November 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 uniform.

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 said.

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 company.*

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 as positive.

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 Yorkshire?

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

   
©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved