Corporate values have no value.

It isn’t the values themselves. It’s the printed statements that purport to represent the corporation’s values that are worthless.

An HR Magazine piece titled “Evaluating Values,” (Kathryn Tyler, 4/1/2011), disagrees. It endorses formal values statements, while contending they aren’t sufficient. Companies should also require managers to explain them and, even more important, should “hold employees accountable” for them as part of the performance appraisal process.

It provides an example — Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (EIRMC) whose values are: Accountability, “EIRMC and I CARE” (don’t worry about it), Integrity, Respect, Quality, Loyalty, and Enjoyment.

It’s an information-free list. Nothing on it could be anything else, unless you think a company might list values like Keeping your head down, Deviousness, Disrespect, Sloppy work, Apathy, and Surliness instead.

It’s information free because it provides no guidance for making difficult choices.

Take quality. Here’s EIRMC’s definition:

Anticipates the needs of those served; craves new knowledge and new experience; delivers very best every day such that work makes a difference; when identifies a problem, also identifies potential solutions; constantly looks for ways to turn “good enough” into “even better.”

EIRMC is a hospital, so let’s look at a real-world challenge hospitals are facing right now: Anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists diverting anesthetics from their patients for their own use. For example, here in Minnesota, Sarah May Casareto, a nurse anesthetist, allegedly stole a patient’s Fentanyl to feed her dependency, leaving him under-anesthetized for his kidney-stone surgery. (I say allegedly because she entered an “Alford plea,” which means she claims innocence, agrees the evidence is sufficient to convict, and after three years of probation has her criminal record wiped clean.)

The surgeon removed the kidney stones anyway, while a technician held the screaming, writhing patient down. After the surgery, the technician, who spotted two syringes in Casareto’s pocket and, along with the surgeon, noticed erratic behavior on Casareto’s part, reported her, leading to her eventual termination.

All hospitals are vulnerable to impaired care-givers, EIRMC included. And yet, its definition of “quality” doesn’t even hint that surgery patients shouldn’t writhe and scream. Like most Values Statements I’ve seen, it covers feel-good topics while ignoring what matters most — in this case, that any employee spotting a serious lapse in care should escalate the matter immediately, to whatever extent necessary, with full protection from consequences and without regard to whose name is on the problem. (The plaintext version: If an employee notices that a surgeon is drunk, that employee should do something about it, without fear of repercussion.)

We in IT rarely face situations this potentially grave. If a systems administrator arrives for work with a crippling hangover, no patient will have the wrong kidney removed because of it. That doesn’t let you off the hook. Even in IT, staff can find themselves in ethically questionable situations.

There was, for example, the company that instructed programmers to write one-time patch programs that posted $1 billion a month in unaudited transactions.

No, not illegitimate. Unaudited. This was a relatively high-integrity firm as these things go. A series of decisions, made over a ten year span, each of which seemed to make sense at the time, are what made this improvisation necessary.

The assignment wasn’t illegal. It was the response to a difficult situation in which fraud played no part. Refusing it would have been career-limiting at best. But several years later, the company restated its balance sheet to the tune of several billion dollars.

To be fair, I don’t know whether this monthly practice contributed to the problem. Probably, no one does. What I do know is that the company did have a formal values statement, for all the good it did, which was none. It didn’t help the developers make the right decision, because it provided no guidance as to how the company defined “right” in circumstances like this.

Want to run an organization with strong values? My old employer, Perot Systems, showed me how it’s done. Its leaders created a “gray zone” training program, and every employee was expected to participate. It consisted of realistic, ethically confounding situations. Employees role-played them (yes, role-play — it has its place), and followed with serious, in-depth discussions about what had just happened and what should have happened.

It was a significant investment in establishing values. It did more than make the values clear. More important, it established that to the company’s leaders, values mattered, and they recognized that the right ethical choice isn’t always simple and obvious. We all got the message, for a simple reason: The program was expensive.

When a company puts its money where its mouth is, that tells employees it takes the subject seriously.