Embedding brand values through policies

All brands have values. Many brands don’t bother to declare these publicly, because the brand owners know that customers and suppliers will make their own observations about what an organisation’s, product’s or service’s values really are.

Brand values come down to do things: organisational culture and ‘what we will die in a ditch over’. They reflect 95% behaviour—the things we do almost all of the time, and work hard to rectify the one time in twenty that we don’t do them. For strong brands, they are 99% behaviour.

In a one-person start-up, as long as the individual is fairly strong-willed, it’s relatively easy to stick with the same values. Most often, these are the values the person lives by on a daily basis. It’s worth noting that these may not be values that are necessarily right for the business they are in. Someone who lives by the motto ‘never let an opportunity go by’ (the value being ‘opportunism’) may not be in the right business if they aim to offer long-term strategic advice. Sooner or later, customers will observe that they are an opportunist, not a strategist.

Many corporations have a set of declared values that bear absolutely no relationship to the way the business functions. I joined one organisation (I will not say which) that had recently undergone a strategic ‘refresh’ (in the jargon) and had come up with a set of official values. Being new and relatively naive, I tested these on staff. Not only could none of them recognise them, suggesting they had never permeated beyond senior management, but most of my sample group could point out occasions when the organisation’s behaviour went clean counter to them. Some could also point out situations in which it would be counter-productive or even dangerous to follow them.

The values list, not surprisingly, did not last long before it was buried in a draw and forgotten.

When organisations do get their values right, they create a set of internal commitments which add value to the product or service they provide, and make it easier for suppliers to work with them. Their values are actually valuable to the customer.

However, the inevitable tendency over time is for those values to settle back into whatever is ordinary for the business the organisation is in. Staff leave and new staff arrive, bringing their expectations from elsewhere. In crises (which all organisations go through), rules or practices are sometimes relaxed in order to address the needs of the moment. There are even moments when senior staff lose their way, and act contrary to the values. Even if customers don’t spot this, staff almost always do.

Soft and hard tools for embedding values

Embedding brand values in an organisation, and keeping them at the heart of what it does, requires ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ tools.

The ‘soft’ tool is how management behaves. Ambitious staff quickly learn what kind of behaviour managers favour, while steady-state staff are often expert in observing the ‘real’ rules by which an organisation runs, as opposed to the formally published rules. A consistent senior team can inculcate a new set of values in a matter of months, even in an organisation with thousands of professional staff.

The ‘hard’ tools are the things which are defined and spelled out. Over the years, when I’ve discussed these tools with communications staff, Human Resources and senior management, they tend to think of value statements, newsletters, presentations, special events, staff recognition programmes and intranets. These are all good things. However, for most organisations, their formal policies and procedures play a much more direct role, and do so much more quickly.

Formal policies do three things, if they are written well. First, they spell out what staff colleagues have the authority to do. Second, they spell out the limits of this authority. Third, they set the tone for how people view their jobs.

Well-conceived and well-written policies are enormously liberating. What most troubles staff is when there are things they know they need to do, but don’t know they are allowed to do. In an ideal world, authority to act is spelled out in job descriptions. In the real world, job descriptions change all the time, and the fastest way to be seen as a troublesome employee is to plead ‘it wasn’t in my job description’. Organisations favour staff who take initiative—just up to the point that they take the ‘wrong’ initiative, which is when they end up in front of disciplinary panels.

What is a good policy?

A policy is a short, directive statement that sets out clearly what the organisation expects of itself and its staff in a particular area of work. Let’s unpack that for a moment

  • Short. Two pages of short paragraphs which are easy to navigate is about as much as most people will read. If staff don’t read them, then your organisation does not actually have a policy, even though your policy manual has one. Any policy area which is so difficult that it needs to go beyond two pages is better off being broken down into separate policies. Most often, when policies do get out of hand, it is because they are being confused with procedures. A procedure document—steps 1 to 27 for accomplishing a particular task—can be as long as it needs to be. This because a procedure is worked through sequentially. A policy document needs to be easy to check in an unexpected situation, which means potentially jumping to the middle of the second page. Again, if someone can’t find what they are looking for, they will either do what they did elsewhere, or assume that the organisation isn’t really bothered what they do.
  • Directive. Policies don’t need footnotes, discursive introductions, extended examples or anything else which clogs them up. The policy needs to set out the ‘must dos’ and the ‘must nots’, and then stop. If, for training or audit purposes, more materials are needed, they can go in an appendix, or an annex, or a policy training manual, or as part of the presentation during induction. A rather harsh test which I often pitch to managers is ‘could you run a disciplinary on this policy?’ Clearly, the aim of policy is to enable staff to never get involved in a disciplinary, because they always know what to do. However, if someone did deliberately circumvent the organisation’s policy, would the disciplinary panel have enough to go on? Any sentence in the policy which could not be used in this way is redundant at best. At worst, it may confuse or mislead staff.
  • Clear. Policies tend to be written by specialists in their field, and then applied to non-specialists. Is the policy actually clear? Many organisations provide training in their policies as part of induction, mandatory annual training, or staff development. It may be that there are specialist terms, for example in a finance policy, that need explaining. However, by whatever means it is achieved, a policy which does not give the person trying to apply it a clear picture of what they are authorised to do and what they must not do is a failed policy. Clarity needs to be considered alongside length. Things are usually best clarified by distilling them, not by extending them.
  • Expectation. Good policies bind the organisation, not just the individual. A Press and Media policy, for example, should always include a commitment to never knowingly mislead journalists. An Information Technology policy should bind the organisation to treating confidential data confidentially. Policies should give customers, junior members of staff, managers from other departments, journalists and ombudsmen the power to challenge bad practice. This is why policies should be published, and why anyone asking for one should be sent it immediately.
  • Area of work. As alluded to under ‘short’, no single policy should attempt to describe all of the rules and regulations for the entire organisation. Twenty years ago, an IT policy could be two pages long and cover pretty much everything. Today, separate policies will generally be needed for Information Governance, Social Media, Email and Web use, and care of equipment. This is fine—provided that someone who needs to know the answer fast can logically find the right place in the right policy.

Seven policies that every organisation must have

What policies do you need to have? It depends a lot on what business you are in, and how your declared values differ from what is considered normal in that area of business. However, as a bare minimum, virtually every organisation needs to have the following:

  1. Finance policy
    Who decides what is spent, how that is documented, how it is communicated and audited, how the books are kept, what happens when things go wrong.
  2. Information governance
    How you keep confidential data safe, what kinds of data you handle, what the safeguards are, what happens when things go wrong.
  3. Information technology
    What people have to do when using IT equipment and systems, what happens when things go wrong
  4. Health and safety policy
    In relation to your specific business, how risks are managed, how the Health and Safety at Work act is complied with, what happens when things go wrong.
  5. Equality policy
    How your organisation satisfies the Equalities Act (2010), what happens when things go wrong.
  6. Human Resources policy
    How people join the organisation, leave it, progress through it, are assessed, and what happens when things go wrong.
  7. Communications (including social media)
    How the organisation speaks to the wider world and to itself, who gets to say what to whom and when, including through Twitter and Facebook, what happens when things go wrong.

If you are working in or with the public sector, or bidding for public money, you will almost certainly also need:

  1. Environmental policy
    How the organisation cares for the environment
  2. Freedom of Information policy
    The method (possibly including a Schedule of Publications) by which you comply with Freedom of Information requests that cover your organisation’s work
  3. Consultation policy
    The situations in which decisions trigger a public consultation, and its parameters

Finally, for the business you are in, you need a policy which sets out how you assure the quality of your end products.

Where shall all these policies come from?

It’s tempting to trawl the internet, download policies in these areas, do a quick search and replace, and then issue them. Starting with policies from organisations you admire is no bad thing, but there are two fundamental issues here. First, anybody else’s policy is their copyright. I have actually seen in the document properties of an organisation’s policy which covered copyright the copyright statement of an entirely different organisation. If probity is in any sense part of your values, then this must be observed at all times. Second, anybody else’s policy reflects their values, not yours. Every policy which fails to inculcate what makes your organisation special is a wasted opportunity. Clearly there are sections in each one of the policies named above which will have to be more or less standard, simply because they reflect the requirements of the law. Equally, no organisation has time for extended introspection on every policy document. However, if you take the best examples you can find, and then write out your own distinctive policies with your set of values clearly in your mind, the result will vastly repay the time it took to generate them.


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