Don’t be afraid to change your company values

Clear company values help create an identity and a focus for your company. How do you work together? And more importantly, does your way of working get you where you want to go?

Do you treat your company values as if they’ve been chiseled in stone, and are therefore untouchable? Or do you view them as fluid (yet still defining) aspects of your company’s culture?

According to Katelin Holloway, VP of People at Reddit, company values should be “your guiding light of expected behaviors”. But organizations often aren’t able to apply values to daily work. On top of that, outdated values often stick around too long and become irrelevant and confusing.  

That’s why the Reddit People and Culture team periodically undergoes a rigorous account of their values in order to address the company’s current situation. Here are their five evergreen strategies for not only creating meaningful values, but how to interact with them and, if necessary, say goodbye to them.  

Don’t have competing company values

Your company values need to be able to coexist – otherwise, your employees will be confused about their priorities when the values are translated into guidelines.

“You cannot have values that say, “we produce very, very quickly” and “we produce things that are top quality” and “we do it all while being mindful of the bottom line,” Holloway says. “Those three things cannot exist in one place together.”

Values instead should be complementary, addressing different aspects of what’s crucial to your business. For example, a few of Reddit’s current values are Remember the Human, Evolve, and Act Like An Owner, which address their customer/audience, philosophical positioning, and internal behavior.

Values should live in the present

One question to ask yourself as an HR manager: do your values scale? A particular value might work fine for a company of 80 people, but will it have the same relevance when you’ve tripled in size?

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that values are going to live for the next 50 years,” Holloway said. “But the reality is that’s not what a company needs. A company may not even be around that long. So start identifying values that are for the now.”

That doesn’t mean you need to be planning to throw out your values on a yearly basis. But it’s worth thinking about if a value that was instilled in the early days of the company – say, “Treat coworkers like family” – still holds relevant for your team’s current needs.

Know when it’s time to say goodbye

Purging a value that has defined your company’s existence can be an emotional experience. But when it comes time to tell employees that a previous value has gone off to live on a big farm in the countryside, don’t be shy. It’s actually a good thing – once a value becomes so ingrained and a fixture in your company’s daily practices, it’s a good time to think about shelving it.

Holloway relayed Reddit’s experience with “Listen. Debate. Ship.”, which had been implemented because the company wanted to streamline its decision-making process. They reinforced it regularly, until they realized they no longer needed to.

“Process becomes culture. It wasn’t part of our language anymore,” Holloway said. “We evolved out of it. We established the pattern of behavior that we wanted to see so we put it on the shelf.”

But because Reddit makes a point to use their values as a tool for execution, they were able to explain the reasoning behind sunsetting the old value by showing that the team had internalized it into their culture.

Communicate new values clearly

Employees don’t want to feel as if the goalposts are constantly being moved on them. Beyond retiring a past value, it’s important to make the process of setting a new value as transparent as possible.

Holloway admitted she feels lucky that Reddit CEO Steve Huffman is so invested.

“He’s a huge champion in ensuring that they remain a tool and guiding light for us,” she said.

And when a new value is implemented, he’ll hold 1:1 meetings on the topic so that any employee with questions is free to question or challenge his reasoning. Feedback is solicited at every level of the organization – this not only helps with wide-spread adoption but also gets employees invested in the change.

“The point is that it’s a fun process,” she said. “It’s identifying the current behavioral challenge, the way in which you want to interact and the way you want to communicate with your team and what you actually think is most important.”

Changing Values Is Easier Than You Think

While changing values can seem daunting, with clear communication and buy-in from company leadership, it’s a way to make values much more timely and applicable to the entire company.

It’s also worth remembering that every company has values, whether they are written down or not. The unspoken culture and collective behavior says a lot about a workplace – which is a good thing, because it means you have clear alignment on what matters. That’s why it’s so important to establish explicitly what those values really are. Narrowing values down and defining them helps everyone focus and guide each behavior more concisely.

And if you need to change your values, give yourself permission to do that if it’s what’s best for your organization.

“Don’t be scared to do it. It’s easier than you think,” Holloway said. “And if you do it well it’s incredibly effective.”