UK firms are increasingly cognisant of the need to make sure that their corporate culture, values and purpose align with wider societal views. Stakeholders, whether that’s customers, investors or the media, expect organisations to live their company values, clearly demonstrating that their policies, practices and employee benefits are fitting with the face that is presented to the outside world.


REBA’s exclusive ‘Aligning corporate culture with human values’ breakfast event, in association with Mercer Marsh Benefits, brought senior reward professionals from an array of sectors together to discuss how rising values – such as having a purpose, being sustainable, aiming for environmental targets, and promoting diversity, equality & inclusion (DEI) and wellbeing – link with organisational culture, and responsible reward and benefits in today’s corporations.


Here are the key themes to emerge from the discussions.

The issues challenging corporate culture


As more organisations position themselves with purpose-driven values – from an environmental stance through to inclusivity – the issues that were once thought of as ‘societal problems’ are now, without doubt, issues to be tackled within the workplace to ensure the organisation ‘walks the talk’.


Employers cannot afford to ignore the expectations put on them by their customers, shareholders and employees. As the attendees of our breakfast event noted, organisations have to take action to protect their business’s reputation, support employees’ wellbeing – be it their mental health, physical health – and to become inclusive.


Challenges around change are not only external. For many organisations, there are historical and legacy cultures that can be hard to align to a new purpose.


And these issues all have an impact on recruitment and retention. With some sectors currently facing a skills crisis, if organisations are not focusing on ESG and diversity then attracting top talent will become even harder.


New tensions are also emerging in the workplace as a result of hybrid working – with increased flexibility allowed for office-based workers, how will this relate to frontline, site-based employees? At a time when many employers are trying to make their organisation more inclusive, how can businesses ensure that hybrid working doesn’t inadvertently create a more divided workforce?


Ensuring that reward and benefits strategies align to these human values will be critical in developing a corporate culture that supports and champions these issues.

Aligning reward strategy


Challenging and changing reward strategy to better align with purpose and values, particularly for executives, is a “fundamental challenge”, as one of our breakfast attendees noted.


It is well documented that pay ratios in FTSE companies between the chief executive and the average worker can be staggering. And, as such, this can be a point of contention when trying to better align corporate culture and human values. There is no quick answer to the issue of high pay. However, with greater pressure from shareholders, the dial is moving on this issue, particularly in relation to bonuses and long term incentives.


The majority of the attendees agreed that bonuses are becoming more aligned with ESG targets, which is helping to connect leadership to the front line. There were also examples of bonuses changing further down organisations, with ESG targets filtering into middle management and even wider pools of employees.


Other areas of reward to consider include pay gaps – be it gender, ethnicity or even class. There is a lot of data available in these areas and so employers need to undertake careful analysis to understand their position and what can make a difference.

Aligning benefits strategy


Although there is an obvious need to do more within the reward space, many organisations have made good progress with their benefits offering. Nearly everything from pensions through to healthcare can be related back to human values, whether it’s offering ESG or climate-friendly pension investment funds, through to taking a fairer approach with healthcare benefits.


The question of whether to level up or down benefits was something raised by attendees of the breakfast event. A good example of this surrounds healthcare benefits. Traditionally, private healthcare offerings have been reserved for senior employees only. However, there is growing discomfort with this type of arrangement leading to questions around how companies level their benefits offering and the role of healthcare offerings in supporting the wider workforce. 


As the majority of organisations operate grading structures based on hierarchy, does that mean employers must take away traditional hierarchical benefits, or make sure that there is equality for all employees? Will benefits become more ‘purpose-led’ rather than ‘market-driven’ in order to better link to an organisation's purpose?


Undoubtedly there will be many different approaches to dealing with this issue depending on the individual organisation and other factors such as budget. However, at REBA we expect the issue of levelling up or down benefits to become a key one in the months and years ahead.


Employers have also been making concerted efforts to remove benefits that are non-inclusive, and to ensure that they align with the corporate culture of the organisation. Often that involves reframing benefits – either what they've got already or what they're planning to do – into a cohesive strategy. Ultimately, however, in order to be truly inclusive benefits offerings will need to expand to provide more choice to employees.


Finally, employers are being more selective about the vendors they are choosing to work with. By vetting vendors employers can ensure that their values align to their own corporate cultures.

The journey to alignment


Of all the organisations that partook in our breakfast session, not one had completed their journey to alignment. In fact, many were still grappling with how to connect their organisation internally to ensure that HR was not siloed in its efforts to align values and culture. In some organisations that meant creating a new strategy role to oversee sustainability and ESG, and ensure a cohesive approach.


However, a key element that was highlighted was the need for strong leadership sponsorship so that employees can see management leading the way in trying to align corporate culture with values. Without this strategic input there can be a disconnect, making it a lot harder to connect the whole business with the changes that are needed.


Strong, clear communications were also seen as central to this journey to ensure that employees understand what they’ve got and how it links to the corporate culture. By having a clear purpose that runs through the benefits offering organisations can strengthen the alignment between culture and values.


As external pressures continue to mount, the need for organisations to walk the talk when it comes to human values and corporate culture is only going to increase.


For more on the issues raised in this article, read the second report in our Transforming Engagement Series: Aligning corporate culture and human values.

The author is Dawn Lewis, content editor at REBA.

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