We have witnessed heads rolling recently at many successful businesses –Deutsche Bank, Tesco, Petrobras and Toshiba are just some examples where the CEO and other leaders have fallen on their swords due to failures, errors of judgement and worse. It’s nothing new of course – the Royal British Bank scandal of 1856 saw 8 Directors convicted of fraud – and it is unlikely that we’ve seen the last.

At the time of writing it is unclear who at Volkswagen is implicated in the decisions that led to the company designing and using technology to cheat the system. Was it a direction from the top of the organisation or something created and implemented at a lower level with the most senior management oblivious? Time will undoubtedly tell.

But today I’ve been pondering on the value of “values” in a corporate setting. I meet with many businesses who proudly display their “company values” and mission statement in reception or in the boardroom.  But when I ask staff there what those values or the mission statement are, or what they mean (often including those who lead the organisation) I’m frequently met with a blank look – or a fumbling response. In a recent senior leadership assessment and development project I ran with a multinational, not one of 36 participants could recite the Group’s 5 core company values.

I have been to VW in Wolfsburg. People I have met and worked with there have always, in my experience, been proud of their history and values (which currently include social responsibility and sustainability) and their “Think Blue” campaign touches all that they do. Which makes their current situation all the more painful to observe.

So where has it gone wrong for these companies and what is the future for values and mission statements? Throughout my career, I’ve helped many clients craft their company values. I have designed competency and behavioural frameworks to reflect those values, recruited and assessed staff – at all levels – against them. I have also coached and developed individuals who have not lived up to some company values. There’s always great enthusiasm, energy and organisational commitment to the formulation of such initiatives.

This is all good of course. We all want people in our businesses who are ethical, have standards and integrity and are all round good eggs. And, although conflict and differing opinion in business is healthy and often productive, if we share the same values, beliefs and goals then surely we’re on the right track – as long as we stick to them.

But it goes wrong too often. Perhaps staff are hired who don’t tick all the boxes but do have in-demand skills, or the seat needs filling. Some managers forget that treating staff with dignity and respect is just one of their firm’s core values. Some leaders cut corners, directing workers to do things that contradict the company’s values (at best) or are unethical and illegal – perhaps because of the commercial imperative, or because of greed, or because they just don’t care. Or for any number of other reasons. And all too often it is impossible for the staff to stand firm against this, despite their beliefs and values, because they need the pay check.

Are company values the next performance appraisal?

So why go to the bother?  Are core values and mission statements becoming as meaningful as “your cheque is in the post?” Is it time to find something new? Is the main problem leadership derailment, lack of control or poor performance management? Are values and mission statements the next performance appraisal – something that’s looked at occasionally and then shoved in a drawer?

Corporate values have a place surely? They should set out the ethos of the business and shape the cuture, behaviour and standards of the the organisation – at every level. But given this latest example, do they have a future? If so, how do we make them relevant, right through the organisation?

What’s your experience and what are your thoughts?