When you face a difficult situation at work, where do you turn for guidance about what’s right and wrong? Today, some people are doing personal values tests to see which qualities of life are most important to them. They might choose from some typical personal values like autonomy, creativity, and wealth. Then there are corporate values, which are principles a company chooses to shape work culture and to help guide employee choices. You might find that the company you work for promotes corporate values like collaboration, innovation, and excellence. But when we put those personal and corporate values together, we’re still not getting much specific direction about how we should do our work in a moral, ethical way.
Understanding your personal values is helpful for knowing what you value in life, but if we look at the personal values from the last paragraph through a lens of right and wrong, we’ll find that we could autonomously and creatively pursue wealth in a completely immoral way. Or from a corporate perspective, corporate values help us understand company culture and priorities, but we could collaborate and innovate with excellence to create a product that’s harmful to the public. Personal values and corporate values often tell us something about the characteristics of how we want to live and work, but they may not tell us what we need to know about making good and right choices.
That’s where our moral compass comes in. We make decisions about the right and wrong way to pursue personal and corporate goals by looking at four core human values on our moral compass. These values are a base expectation for how people should act, so much so, that some companies don’t even include them in their corporate values statement. Yet whether a company calls them out or not, they’re definitely expecting employees to use a moral compass to guide their decisions.
Four Core Human Values
When we’re talking about making ethical choices, we need the core human values that help us decide right from wrong. These four values don’t come from a specific religion or culture, but rather they come from the ways humans all around the world over thousands of years, figured out people are able to trust and cooperate with each other so we can create well-being together. They appear in the moral codes of all the world’s major enduring religions, in our legal system, and in our humanitarian ideals. If you’re trying to figure out how to treat people well or how to decide if something is ethical in the business world, these are essential core values that people use to determine right and wrong.
Truth is about being honest in our words and actions. It includes being sincere about why we’re doing what we’re doing (intent) and it helps people feel confident that we’re not going to cheat, steal, or otherwise trick them. Truth is important because it’s how we prove we’re trustworthy, and if we want people to cooperate and reciprocate with us, they need to know they can trust us to do our part in an honest way.
Respect is about treating people and things with care and dignity. It includes treating ourselves well and knowing our own worth, and it helps other people know we’ll treat them the way we would like to be treated. When people know we’ll treat them in a way we’d accept in return, it shows that we’ll be fair and that we’ll follow the rules and principles that keep our relationships stable—because that’s what we’d like them to do for us.
Responsibility is about doing what we need to do to maintain well-being. One aspect of responsibility is about self-control or managing our own behavior so we help well-being and don’t carelessly harm others. Responsibility is also about managing the give and take in our relationships—doing our share of the duties that keep the relationship healthy. Finally, taking responsibility is about being accountable for our actions. We accept the praise or the punishment that is fair based on the good and bad we create.
Compassion is about seeing other people’s humanity and wanting to help. Life is bound to have its hard moments and compassion inspires us to help each other when we see suffering. The empathy aspect of compassion also helps us share in each other’s joys so we can feel more positive moments than we could do alone. We can’t relieve all suffering but we can find ways to make life better with each other while also being fair and responsible.
Using the Core Values in Balance
Now that we know what the four core human values are, how do we use them to guide moral choices at work? When we’re facing a difficult choice or a moral dilemma about what’s right, we can ask ourselves, is the action truthful, is it respectful, is it responsible, and is it compassionate? Often the answer isn’t simple, or black and white. The answer is usually in a gray area that balances all four core values. Let’s consider a few examples to get some clarity:
Should a boss tell an employee about something they’re doing that’s holding them back? The employee might not like the truth, and out of compassion for their feelings, the boss might not want to upset the employee. But not telling them the truth may be irresponsible because the employee needs that information to improve and grow. The moral solution rests in sharing the facts (Truth) that the employee needs to hear (Responsibility) while doing it in a way that is respectful and kind (Compassion).
What is the right thing to do about an employee who consistently misses deadlines or does poor-quality work? We may have compassion and take into account challenges that are happening in their life, but we also have a responsibility to be sure deadlines and quality standards are met. The answer lies in getting an accurate understanding of the problem (Truth), treating them with care (Respect), while also considering the impact they are having on their coworkers and the company (Responsible Compassion).
It’s this balance between the four core human values that helps us know we are acting with decency and morality at work, and in life overall. We can each have personal values, and we can work for companies with corporate values, but through these four core human values, we know that the way we are working toward our goals are in line with the common decency that helps humans manage relationships in a positive way.
This guest post was authored by Coleen Doyle Bryant
Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of Rooted in Decency, which explores why common decency has declined and how we can move forward to a place of more trust and cooperation. She’s the author of 5 books and more than 50 teaching resources on values and character that are used in curriculums around the world
Ms. Career Girl strives to provide valuable insights you can use. To see more from our columnists and guest authors, check these out! Or subscribe to our weekly email featuring our latest articles. We’re also present on Medium!