Hiring for values isn’t helpful if you don’t have any values

Google ‘hiring for values’ and you’ll come across thousands of articles that stress the importance of making sure that the people you hire will fit in with the culture of your company. The vision is that your company’s culture has grown around some fundamental principles that set you apart from other companies. Nice simple idea that no doubt sells a lot of books. But there is a problem.

Most companies don’t really have any values. They have taglines.

Let’s ignore the (rather dubious) idea that culture flows mostly from values for a second and just focus on what a value is really is.

A value is a sacrifice.

It’s knowing that when you have to pit one idea against its opposite, you already know which side you will come down on. You cannot stand for one without saying that you are willing to let its opposite slide. For example:

Collaboration comes at the cost of Individual Vision
Curiosity comes at the cost of Productivity
Craftsmanship comes at the cost of Pragmatism
Honesty comes at the cost of Harmony
An Entrepreneurial Spirit comes at the cost of A Reliable Process

Obviously these things are not black and white — all of them can be balanced. In fact, every one of these trade offs is a decision that all companies make, consciously or unconsciously. But a value is something that you’ve called out. Something that you think is worth standing behind. If you haven’t thought about the cost behind a value, then all you’ve done is decide on the nicest sounding ideas.

Your values should cost you.

Be it in dollars, productivity, opportunity, speed or something else any company would want in a perfect world. It doesn’t mean you have to be worse off overall. Following through on your values should eventually more than cover the cost.

The best example of this is the Agile Manifesto. If you’re not familiar with Agile, its a philosophy for making things. Originally intended for software development, it has found its way into many other fields.

These are their values:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

Now this is excellent copywriting. “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation” could very easily read “Customer collaboration over predefined deliverables” but that wouldn’t sound anywhere near as sexy. Good writing matters. That doesn’t make their X over Y structure any less realistic. They know what they’re giving up.

There are companies that really do live up to their values. Facebook’s value of “move quickly” has clearly cost them in the past as they did things like roll out new redesigns and modifications to their privacy policy without much transition time. But it has led them invest in the development of frameworks like React that help them balance out the downsides of moving quickly in terms of software quality. That took time they could have been putting into something that could have made them money directly. It cost them, at least in the short term. Eventually, this investment in one of their values will more than cover the cost that came with it.

Too much time is spent trying to turn values into recruitment tools. This is really shining the torch the wrong way. In fact, maybe you should be intentionally embracing one intentionally boring value, so it’s clear that the rest are well considered. “We embrace a strict dress code at the expense of individual expression. We believe that it makes everyone treat each other with more respect.” It’s the absolute right thing for some companies. It’s just not sexy to see written down. Even if you don’t go that far, at least make sure that you’re mostly writing your values for you, not as a propaganda tool. Make them the way you’d like to be judged.

A classic behavioural interview technique is to ask questions in the form of: “Tell us of an example when you did X”. They’re designed to force people to demonstrate their history a little more than a cv can. Next time you’re asked that in an interview, answer well. And then follow up with a question like: “If you value collaboration, what individuals in your company do you think aren’t getting their personal visions through as a result?” See if they have an answer for you.

So are writing values a waste of time? No, in fact I think we should spend more time on them. Sweat them. Craft them. Consider the consequences. Decided if they’re really worth their cost.

Matthew Delprado