The ambiguity of company cultures and values

Friday 27 January 2023

How many times have you come across a job advert where the organisation shouts proudly about their credentials with regards to inclusive cultures and righteous values underpinning everything they do?

This is all well and good but unfortunately, for the most part, it is all much of a muchness. The same old regurgitated lines – used by most organisations – that are vague at the best of times. It all comes across as a bit of a lazy effort, suggesting that it is done merely to satisfy the requirements of some virtuous corporate box ticking exercise.

Flogging aside, the key concern with this approach is that it lacks transparency. That in itself is not always going to cause insurmountable issues but, at the same time, it can potentially lead to some significant conflicts in terms of personal values and beliefs further down the line.  

I should make it clear that the purpose of this piece is not to make any political arguments for any side – instead, it is simply about reporting some observations that have been made over the years.

The problem we have is that large organisations often create so called house views – the equivalent of political ‘party lines’ – on major societal issues. The difficulty is that these various views are not always out in the open until such time that they rear their heads due to circumstance. Think about Brexit. What if the house view was the polar opposite to your personal beliefs? During client interactions you are representing your employer, but how can you realistically speak fervently in favour of something that you are in fact fundamentally opposed to? How would you go about trying to convince your clients about the positive impact of Brexit in your industry if you personally did not believe in it, but rather the opposite?

Another example is the London based senior HSBC banker who delivered a controversial conference speech last year downplaying the risks of climate change on the investment market. He was roundly suspended from duty pending investigation before he voluntarily stepped down from his role a few months later. Whilst this particular person might have been in the privileged position to leave their post, quitting a permanent role with nothing to fall back on in a highly competitive job market when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed is not a realistic option for most people. Consider the health care workers who got the sack after they refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19 (in fairness, the UK Government has since abolished the vaccination mandate). A switch to the private sector from the NHS did not provide any immunity (no pun intended) for that lot. They simply weren’t allowed to practice their chosen profession – irrespective of their employer.  

And it is not just Covid-19 and climate change that divide opinions. Immigration; LGBTQ+ rights; the BLM movement; abortion and gun control in the U.S.; Harry and…hmm, perhaps let’s stop there. But you get the point that there are clearly any number of topics that can be hugely divisive.  

Granted, not every single contentious issue has a bearing on the type of work your organisation does in which case the views of individuals do not really matter. But you can see where possible personal conflicts may arise, given the sector and industry the person works in. 

So, what can be done about it?

Could one option be that companies aimed to become a bit more like political parties with clear manifestos so that the different stakeholder groups would know exactly what they are signing up to? On paper it does sound like a dystopian suggestion that could potentially lead to increased tribalism between different factions of society. However, if you think about it, it could work broadly in the same way it does with newspapers and broadcast media where the left-right division of the industry is obvious within most Western capitalist societies. That’s not to say that people within these structures agree on every single issue but at least at some basic level they tend to see eye to eye whatever the topic. 

Arguably, the reason why it works with newspapers is the lack of ambiguity. Whilst most large organisations in the Western world churn out the same unclear information about their cultures and values, news outlets tend to take much stronger positions on the issues they stand for and are against. People working with and for or buying the Guardian – or, conversely, the Telegraph – know exactly the organisation’s stance on key societal issues. Nothing comes a big surprise, and they are happy to subscribe to those underlying values, as workers, suppliers, and customers. The same goes for the shareholders. They are unlikely to invest in a given business if they are fundamentally against the company’s mission and values, however lucrative the potential returns. Would a pro-life advocate help fund a new private medical practice specialising in abortions or a diehard anti-drug campaigner help set up a legal cannabis farm?  With the majority of the shareholders on their side, the CEO will have an easier time, much like in politics, implementing his/her strategy that in turn allows them to realise their vision for the organisation.