Over the past few years, with talent in short supply globally, it is no surprise that many organisations made values an integral part of their pitch. This has been particularly importantly in attracting younger employees. A 2023 study by Deloitte of Gen Z and millennials found that roughly 40% have turned down work assignments due to concerns around organisational values.
When money was free and organisations had little pressure to prioritise investments, demonstrating values was pretty easy. Donating to charities, shifting to renewable energy, providing mental health support, funding anti-corruption drives etc. Yet now, as companies profits’ slip, how many leaders seem to suffer from VINO: Values In Name Only?
Suddenly, many values-aligned investments can seem expensive. Why use electric vehicles when petrol is cheaper? Why coddle employees if threats make them work harder? Why not cut accessibility teams if you need to save headcount? Come to think of it, as long as we keep up the PR efforts, do we really need the follow through?
In the short term, these VINO leaders are unfortunately right. Most employees will not quit on principle. After all, they have rent or a mortgage to pay. Hiring has slowed and many prominent companies have even resorted to large-scale lay-offs. Similarly, how many consumers will switch toothpaste or boycott their internet provider over corporate hypocrisy?
And yet. Studies also show that top talent tends to be the first to leave organisations when values go south, leading to an invidious talent drain the longer the disconnect between words and actions exist. While large organisation can have a lot of momentum, one should be careful not to confuse momentum with direction. The lights are on, but nobody is home.
Additionally, in an age of hyperconnectivity, stories and gossip spread like wildfire. Where it used to be the case that senior leaders could sweep their affairs under the rug, now partners and suppliers can even hear the news before team members do. While to err might be human, everyone hates a hypocrite. Particularly one hiding behind a flimsy social media facade.
Consequently, while in the short term a VINO attitude can be perceived not to have a negative impact, over time it exposes the organisation to significant risk. Its reputation tarnished, talent leaves the company. Ironically, if organisations wanted about efficiency, they should act on their values. Employee morale, strategic focus, and brand equity are critical to profitability.
So, what are company boards to do to avoid VINO leadership? Firstly, there is nothing wrong with course changes, as long as they are transparently communicated. Employees tend to be forgiving if they feel messaging is authentic. "Hey, we have had to scale back employee wellness perks because we need to protect our core business." That is fair.
Secondly, organisations need to be vigilant for VINO leadership and root it out where they find it. While few companies are 'rotten to the core', it only takes a handful of bad apples to create the impression that the rest of the business does not take its values seriously. When so many live their lives through the lens of social media, perception becomes reality.
Generally all of us, including executives, want to do the right thing. But doing the right thing can be hard. Acknowledging that is perfectly fine, even as a corporation. The true affliction is talking the talk but refusing to walk the walk. Any leaders that champion this approach whether out of laziness or moral lassitude has no place in a healthy organisation. Boards should take note.
Cover photo by Lidya Nada.
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