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Corporate Core Values and the Companies That Do Them Well

A crucial task of companies big and small is to define their core values. In his contrarian management book The Art of Demotivation, E.L. Kersten defines these as “the values that are most important to the direction of the organization and the decision-making within it.” Management consultants Francis Goullart and James Kelley describe core values as “the essence of the corporate culture” and an “expression of its personality.”

Corporate Core Values: What Are They?

Fancy definitions aside- core values are basically what you believe as a company. Companies that are good at this (the ones we’re featuring here) understand that these values need to be worked in to day-to-day workflow.

Which core values a company adopts (and how consistently they are adhered to) influence the future of that company and how customers, employees and stakeholders come to perceive it. Unfortunately, it is all too common for companies to profess allegiance to their core values while behaving in utter disregard of them. Consequently, many entrepreneurs now regard “core values” as synonymous with TPS reports, synergy and other Dilbert-esque platitudes.

With core values being such an important aspect of Grasshopper, today we examine nine other companies who not only have core values, but also embody them through their business.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is the textbook example of a company that takes its core values dead seriously. From day one of operations, co-founder Herb Kelleher let it be known that Southwest was committed first and foremost to the customer experience. To that end, the company took great pains to hire only enthusiastic, outgoing and friendly employees who took pride in theirs job and bought into the corporate culture Kelleher & Co. had established.

Applicants deemed to be lacking in these traits are reflexively turned away, regardless of how impressive their résumés might otherwise be. Of the 100,000 applications that Southwest receive each year, only 2,000-3,000 individuals are hired.

As BusinessWeek explains, Southwest’s corporate culture has been a major driving force behind its continued success. Southwest was the only airline to remain profitable after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, due in large part to its workforce (and its fuel buying strategies.)

Starbucks

Starbucks’ core values include community service, eco-friendliness and Third World aid. As ABC News reported in March 2010, Starbucks has fulfilled its promises in those areas by becoming one of the world’s most ethical companies (according to a Ethisphere Institute ranking.)

For years, Starbucks has committed to only buying coffee beans in countries that practice “fair trade and even became the world’s foremost purchaser of fair-trade coffee in 2009, according to the UK’s Times Online. Starbucks has also been an outspoken advocate for clean water in Third World countries, having poured millions of dollars into the cause.

The company’s Ethos water product, for example, helps fund such initiatives by donating $0.05 of each $1.80 bottle to clean water projects in under-developed areas. Starbucks is also reported to have played a substantial role in the reconstruction of New Orleans following 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.

Google

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin expressed Google’s core values early on in the phrase “Don’t Be Evil.” And despite criticism of what some believe to be intrusive advertising in Gmail and other services, Google has largely kept its word. In addition to challenging government requests for user data, Google recently made headlines by refusing to continue censoring its Chinese search results.

Google has also prized raw intelligence throughout its history, preferring to hire PhDs and academic superstars for positions throughout the organization. Innovation, too, is a long-standing priority at Google. All programmers, for example, are permitted to use up to 20% of their work time on projects they believe the company would benefit form. Instead of merely encouraging innovation, Google took the rare step of making it a mandated part of every workday.

Men’s Wearhouse

The Men’s Wearhouse defines its corporate values in its signature slogan “You’re gonna like the way you look. – I guarantee” To that end, Men’s Wearhouse stores do not simply hang out their merchandise and advertise sale prices on the radio. Rather, customers are immediately greeted and helped by “suit consultants” who assess what occasion(s) you need a suit for. Then, customers are asked a series of questions about which colors and styles they like.

After gathering information, the suit consultant proceeds to lay out three or more options for each item (tie, shirt, sportcoat, belt, etc.), each in a different price range and all of which will look good in combination with one another. Only after customers try on their suits and admit to liking the way they look will the consultant close the sale. In this way, buying a suit at the Men’s Wearhouse is an actively guided experience in which customers are steered toward the best suit for them.

PayPal

Security has been core value number one at PayPal since its early days, when rampant fraud threatened to bankrupt the company even as it was turning substantial profits. Today, PayPal continues to place supreme importance on providing a safe service for its users and their transactions. Credit card holders, for instance, receive prompt phone calls from PayPal if their cards are charged an abnormally high number of times (or used at a high number of places) within a single day.

Those wishing to transfer more than $500 per month from PayPal to outside bank accounts are subjected to rigorous screening, including mailing photocopies of their driver’s license, Social Security card and pay stubs to PayPal’s fraud division in Nebraska. These and other security measures have their origins in PayPal’s beginnings, which remain an ever-present reminder to prioritize security above all else.

Craigslist

In 2006, ZDNet described how Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, a self-proclaimed “socialist anarchist and communist” runs his company in the image of his personal values. In many ways, Craigslist is as anti-corporate as any startup that comes to mind. Speaking about eBay’s 25% stake in the company, Buckmaster revealed that he only agreed to it on the condition that eBay had no interest in running the business end of things. He also defended Craigslist’s long-standing policy of not running text ads on the grounds that “users haven’t asked for them yet.”

Indeed, Buckmaster went so far as to explicitly declare that Craigslist “is not trying to maximize revenue.” While many would scoff at the notion of a business not committed to growth, there is no denying that Craigslist (at Buckmaster’s behest) has in word and deed embodied the core values set forth at the time of its creation to up to the present day.

Johnson & Johnson

A staple of management and business ethics curriculums, Johnson & Johnson has a long and proud tradition of adhering to its core values. As the brands website states: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.

It was an unprecedented act of loyalty to core values when Johnson & Johnson ordered a massive, $100 million recall of Tylenol following reports of cyanide poisonings in 1982. While it would arguably have been easier (and cheaper) to deal with lawsuits from the poisoning deaths on a case-by-case basis, Johnson & Johnson wasted no time pulling its top-selling product off of store shelves across the country – even though the contaminations were later found to have occurred only in Chicago.

Volvo

Most car companies are known for something specific – luxury (Mercedes), speed (Ferrari), or reliability (Honda), to name just a few. But throughout its history, Volvo has subjugated each of these things to its primary core value of safety. While Volvo has admittedly not always produced the flashiest vehicles, they have consistently come out on top in safety tests and rankings for decades – which is reflected in the notoriously low cost of insuring a Volvo.

The company’s engineers obsess endlessly about how to reduce the impact of collisions, make brakes more responsive and in innumerable other ways ensure that drivers are protected from threats on the road. And despite Volvo’s recent emphasis on producing better-looking vehicles, safety is and has always been their first priority.

Walmart

Since Sam Walton founded the company in 1962, Walmart has been driven by one core value: everyday low prices. As the eye-opening book The Wal-Mart Effect explains, Walmart has managed to offer a breathtaking variety of products and services for sale at historically low prices through a number of methods, including innovative inventory technology and outsourced labor. And despite frequent criticism from journalists, academics and politicians, Walmart’s low prices appear to be a net benefit to the overall economy.

A 2005 Washington Post article, for instance, cites New York University’s Jason Furman, who calls Walmart a “progressive success story” due to the fact that its low prices “on food alone boosts the welfare of American shoppers by at least $50 billion a year.” While other retailers have strayed from the low-price path, Walmart has remained true to its core values and continues to turn substantial profits, even during the current recession.