How (not) to write your company’s core values

Lists of corporate values are a rich source of bad business writing. So today I announce a new series looking at some real-life examples of embarrassing “core values”. By the end of this exercise, I’m hoping we’ll have a definitive list of core values for any compiler of core values.

First up is some excruciating copy from a well-known financial firm:

At the essence of the company stands its core values: Colleagues, Customers, Company, and Community. We invite and encourage every colleague to live these values – what we call “standing in the circle.” In doing so, we can fulfill our mission of becoming the most admired card and lending business in the world.

Lessons from the above
1. Don’t let a poor grasp of syntax prevent you from writing about your core values. Appropriate use of prepositions and noun-verb agreement have never made it into anyone’s list of core values (except, perhaps, the core values of that grumpy old cow who writes for Good Copy, Bad Copy).

2. Know that your core values need not be values at all. If you’re really stuck for inspiration, simply list various groups of people.

3. Choose your core values on the basis of alliteration alone. Call attention to said alliteration through inappropriate capitalisation of non-proper nouns.

4. Underscore the touchy-feelyness of your values with woowoo-sounding language such as “standing in the circle”. Even better if said language inspires a circular graphic illustrating how your values are all interlinked. Clever.

5. Emphasise the ethical nature of your core values by stating their role in helping you achieve a soft-sounding goal that can’t be measured, such as becoming the “most admired” of your kind. Don’t commit yourself to something hard-nosed and businesslike, such as profitability – that’s asking for trouble at the next shareholder meeting.

Cartoon: embedding your core values

23 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. tim says:

    Clare, this is hilarious.
    Nonsense values statements are so very common in large corporates.
    It’s a tough job to create values (I’ve done it) but that’s no excuse for the disingenuous, folksy twoddle that many corporates produce.
    Here’s what I consider to be the finest exposé of the essential problem at the heart of corporate values – their lack of relationship to the difficult, practical, nitty-gritty of real life.
    Stewart Lee on the values of the Carphone Warehouse

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Thank you, Tim, for reminding me of that fantastic rant. I’m now even more excited about seeing Stewart Lee perform on Friday night!

  3. David says:

    The “standing in the circle” bit conjures to mind an activity allegedly undertaken by schoolboys involving a biscuit and a somewhat unpalatable loser’s forfeit.

    An unusually apt mental image to employ under the circumstances.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    I’m not sure how to reply to that, David!

  5. Another fantastic post. Can I suggest core values for GCBC?

    Clare, Colleagues, Companies, Copy. You can ‘stand outside of the circle’ and, in so doing, become the most appreciated blog on the internet.

    Here is an explanation:

    ‘Clare’ is obviously you, GCBC’s biggest asset.
    ‘Colleagues’ is taken from a list of various groups of people – great suggestion!
    ‘Companies’ that’s what you write about.
    ‘Copy’ is the most core value of GCBC. You even use it in the blog’s name! Twice!

    (I would have included “appropriate use of prepositions and noun-verb agreement”, but it scanned really badly. And didn’t alliterate.)

    ‘Stand outside the circle’ refers to your refusal to be constrained by geometric objects or ideas. It’s the new ‘think outside the box’. If you think far enough outside the box, you can think of the box as a circle. That you aren’t thinking in.

    Finally, it’s nice to be appreciated, so here’s to more people appreciating your writing until you are the most appreciated blog on the internet!

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Will. Can you also design me a graphic that communicates the essence of my values in an inspiring and engaging way? The outside of a circular box made up of four interlinked Cs, perhaps?

  7. Brad Shorr says:

    Values standing at an essence: that is a very compelling image. It’s too bad the employees and their colleagues are standing in a circle somewhere else. Looks like a logistical nightmare.

  8. Richard Gray says:

    And of course you will find the identity of the financial institution by googling the first line. Though they come second after GCBC. Can we name them here? Are we into super-injunction territory?

  9. Love it. Most company value statements at least include a value or two, like being nice to each other, not knowingly wrecking the planet, that sort of thing, whereas this example has none at all. Unless it’s standing in the circle. But is this in order to pee in or out? It really needs to be more specific.

  10. Clare Lynch says:

    Brad – it’s a bit brain-frazzling isn’t it? Confusing your audience is an interesting brand strategy…

    Richard – I wonder if all those SEO experts out there realise that dodgy syntax is such a powerful way of getting to the top of the search engine rankings? It would explain a lot.

  11. Clare Lynch says:

    Shooting Parrots – perhaps the circle they’re peeing into/out of is the circularity that is encouraging colleagues to live the core value that is “Colleagues”?

  12. A friend of mine who has been on the board of a number of very well-known companies says that if the company’s mission statement / core values / other pieties is interchangeable with any other company in the world then it fails. So generic waffle about people, communities, industry-leading etc. is just an epic writing fail. Well done for picking this one up. Do you have a mission statement that you think is particularly good?

  13. Richard Owsley says:

    Not a mission statement, but a ‘core purpose’.
    I know a company who, in their strategy, state, wait for it…..

    “Our core purpose is to deliver innovative value-creating solutions.”

    Anyone care to guess what they do?

    I realise it could be absolutely anything in the world, so I’ll give you a clue – they work closely with the company whose values we’ve been discussing.

    To be fair to them, I don’t think this is published externally, only to staff.

  14. Clare Lynch says:

    Interesting, Matthew. I once had a client who wanted to edit the copy I’d written for them because it made them sound too different from their competitors – they wanted to include more words like “world-class” and “unprecedented”.

    I’m particularly proud of Doris and Bertie’s mission statement (though I probably wouldn’t call it that): “We help companies ditch the jargon and talk like human beings”. It has certainly made us stand out at networking events!

  15. […] latest trends in hemlines and the non-exploitation of foreign labour.It was timely then that the latest post from Good Copy, Bad Copy should be the first in a series on how not to write your company core values. I’m looking […]

  16. Clare Lynch says:

    Richard, I have no idea. Google returns 6,170 uses of the phrase “innovative value-creating solutions” and the firms/people offering them seem to specialise in anything from plastics to management consulting.

    I think a more innovative core purpose might deliver more value, don’t you?

  17. Richard Owsley says:

    Rhymes with geezer

  18. Clare,
    Just last week I thought of you when I was at a conference and took a photo of the following sponsor sign:

    XXX company is the go-to partner for the world’s most ambitious companies. We transform customer experiences and enterprise operations to deliver unmatched total value.

    I had to struggle mightily not to laugh out loud as I snapped it. (I had planned to email it to you, but this post is the perfect opportunity to share it.)


  19. Clare Lynch says:

    Brilliant, Carol! It has the advantage of sounding terribly impressive while giving absolutely no indication of what they actually do.

  20. penge nu says:

    penge nu…

    Good Copy, Bad Copy » Blog Archive » How (not) to write your company’s core values…

  21. […] do. (For more, real-life examples of embarrassing “core values” follow Clare Lynch’s “How (not) to write your company’s core values” […]

  22. Carl Thompson says:

    Lesson Number One: Sarcasm doesn’t work in print.

    This from someone who writes about “good business writing”?


  23. Clare Lynch says:

    Hi, Carl.

    I think scholars of Juvenal, Swift and Austen might disagree with your claim that sarcasm doesn’t work in print. And as it is, a statement like “Lesson Number One: Sarcasm doesn’t work in print” is what those of us who’ve been taught to argue call a “conclusory statement” – look it up if, as I suspect, you need to. (Lesson Number Two: conclusory statements incite derision in those of us who’ve been taught to argue.)

    Your response was the 22nd to this post and I regularly get business enquiries from people who love my blog. I’d call that fairly successful.

    Oh, and I might have to make my next blog post about the overuse of the word “seriously” as a rhetorical question (from the American sitcom school of rhetoric, I believe).


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