Over the last few years, many tech companies have embraced “core values” with religious fervor. Although this process is done with good intentions, the result is often a bland mixture of generic, feel-good principles that do little to distinguish the company or improve employee behavior.
In this post, I want to explain what core values are, why most are meaningless, and what can be done to make them better.
What are core values?
Core values are a set of behavioral, non-job-specific traits that companies expect or aspire their employees to uphold. They’re most commonly a mixture of rules for civilized behavior (e.g., “treat your coworkers with respect”), tips for getting things done in a productive way (e.g., “be resourceful”, “be rigorous”, etc.), and aspirations that are never fully attainable (e.g. “never settle”, “only hire the best”, and “simplify to the core”).
Although the term “core values” seems to be the most common one, some companies refer to these lists of traits by other names like “operating guidelines” or “leadership principles”. When I use the term “core values” in this post, I’m also including the latter.
The idea is to not just write down core values on a page in the employee handbook but rather to “live” them day-to-day. Companies do this by posting their values prominently on their webpages (examples from companies I’ve worked or interviewed at: Airbnb, Stripe, Facebook, Microsoft, Slack), evaluating candidates against them during the interview process, holding multi-hour-long sessions about them during new hire orientation, inserting examples of them into company all-hands meetings, and using them to grade employees during the performance evaluation process.
Why most are meaningless
The vast majority of corporate core values map to one of the following buckets:
- Be nice to your coworkers
- Be nice to your customers / consider their needs
- Be innovative / resourceful / bold
- Be productive / get things done / prioritize
- Be rigorous / thoughtful / don’t be sloppy
Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things. However, they’re behaviors that all tech companies should expect from their employees. If a company didn’t value one or more of these, then it would not be a good place to work and would have trouble attracting and retaining both employees and customers.
Because these values are so universal and because they’re so obviously associated with good employee behavior no matter which company you’re at, they’re typically non-actionable. I’ve never at any point in my career had a tough decision where, for instance, the choice was between being nice to my coworkers and being nasty to them. Even if I wanted to be mean (which I don’t), it’s unlikely that having a core value of “be nice to your coworkers” would dissuade me from doing this; the actual disincentive would be losing my job for violating the standard norms of good behavior.
Overall, values in the five buckets above are generally meaningless. They’re the same at most companies, they don’t inform decisions in people’s day-to-day work, and no matter how companies try to spin them, they’re not magical, special, or unique.
Better core values
So, given that “most” core values are meaningless, what makes meaningful ones?
I think the most important feature of good core values is that they’re actionable, i.e. they actually help people make decisions when the correct choice isn’t obvious. As an example, Airbnb (one of my former employers) had a core value of “every frame matters”, which effectively meant that how things looked was really important. Thus, if I were an engineer there and was trying to decide between making my product 30% prettier or 30% faster, the former would be the superior choice. Google, on the other hand (another of my former employers) had a value that “fast is better than slow”; there, the same engineer in the same situation would be incentivized to make the opposite choice.
A second feature of good core values is that they really help to distinguish a company from its peers. Airbnb’s value of “every frame matters” actually reflected how design-oriented the company was and how obsessed they were with their brand and how users perceived them. This was a key differentiator against the bland, poorly-designed travel portals created by competitors like Expedia and Priceline. Another example is Google’s early value of “it’s best to do one thing really, really well”. At the time, Google was competing against companies like Yahoo that did search in addition to many other things too (personals, games, finance, email, etc.). Google’s focus on search allowed it to win over users and eventually dominate the space.
Some other tips
In addition to making core values actionable and distinguishable as just described, there are a few other things that I think can help make them more meaningful.
Keep the count low
Having too many core values makes them harder to remember and may also reflect poorly on the company’s ability to prioritize (ironically, many companies that have a large number of core values include “prioritize” as one of them). I think 4-5 is a good number in most cases.
Just because something isn’t a core value doesn’t mean that it’s not important to the company. Many other things, including the more generic behavioral guidelines discussed previously, can also be valued, put on the website, used for candidate and employee evaluations, and so forth.
Avoid (or at least explain) any contradictions
One of my former employers had values of both “get things done quickly” and “be super rigorous”. Hypothetically then, one could release horribly buggy software quickly, or spend 3 months changing the color of a single button in the UI, or do anything between these two extremes, and all of these behaviors would be defensible using some subset of the core values.
Ideally, values shouldn’t contradict each other. Or, if they do, it should be very carefully explained how to achieve a balance between them.
Don’t apply core values where they aren’t appropriate
Core values, no matter how important they are, are not, by themselves, sufficient conditions for a company to be successful or for a person to be a good employee. There are many, many other, non-behavioral things required at both the company and individual level.
This principle is often violated in the context of employee or candidate evaluations. At one former employer, it was decided to remove all of the technical feedback from the engineer performance evaluation process and just have questions about how well each person embodied the company’s core values. At other places, I’ve been asked to evaluate job candidates on the company’s core values, even for non-behavioral interviews like coding questions.
A good software engineer is strong on both technical and behavioral dimensions. A good company has good values but also has solid technology and products that customers like. Values are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.
Many tech companies have adopted core values, but unfortunately only a subset of these are meaningful. Values like “be rigorous” and “be respectful” sound nice but don’t set your company apart or inspire people to behave in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.