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I am seated in an aircraft heading back to the terminal. We had been speeding down the runway when the pilot slammed on the brakes and aborted take-off. He told us a warning light had gone off and he had to contact maintenance and see what needed to be done. He then educated us on the airline’s core values, concluding with the boast that the most important is passenger safety.

I am not encouraged; my years of experience with corporate values have taught me they bear little relevance to practice. Should I get off the plane?

Finance director, male, 54


As there is no way in hell that they would let you get off and as aeroplanes almost never crash, I am going to ignore your direct question. And as you wrote this two weeks ago, and as I haven’t heard anything about a finance director dying in an air crash, I’m guessing the story had a happy ending.

Instead, I’m taking the question to be whether one should feel alarmed when companies start reciting their values. Normally, the answer is yes. A company that forces employees to tell customers that it is dedicated to creativity and life-long learning is as absurd as a person who, on meeting another for the first time, says: “I’m Lucy. I’m honest and creative and really like other people.” There is never any point asserting such things. The only test is in the doing.

Any declaration of values is made all the more dismal because the values themselves are so banal. You could say safety is not banal, but then it is not really a value at all. To be told that an airline values safety in the same breath as being told it values, say, curiosity or diversity, is the opposite of reassuring.

However, there is something about this particular situation that sets it apart from most contact that occurs between employee and customer. This is because you, the hapless passenger, are being held captive for what is likely to be – if my experience is anything to go by – a frustratingly long time.

Some of the others around you may be nervous and it is the job of the pilot to show some leadership by saying a few words. So the poor chap has no choice but to fill the cabin with soothing patter.

This is where the values can come in handy. You don’t mention what airline you were flying on. But if it was, say, Delta, there is enough about its values on the website to give the pilot something to talk about for many hours.

The US airline has an entire document called “Rules of the Road”, including the insight that “the ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘what’” and the key value is “Develop and leverage deep customer insights”.

After a while you would surely find it so boringly predictable that you would have nodded off, and before you knew it the problem would have been solved and the aircraft cleared for take-off.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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