The Value of Corporate Culture

The following post comes to us from Luigi Guiso, Professor of Finance at the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance; Paola Sapienza, Professor of Finance at Northwestern University; and Luigi Zingales, Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago.

In our recent NBER working paper, The Value of Corporate Culture, we study which dimensions of corporate culture are related to a firm’s performance and why. Resigning from Goldman Sachs, vice president Greg Smith wrote in a very controversial New York Times op-ed: “Culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years.” He then adds “I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years.” In his follow-up book, Greg Smith seems to blame the demise of Goldman Sachs’s culture to its transformation from a partnership to a publicly traded company.

While highly disputed by the company, Greg Smith’s remarks raise several important questions. What constitutes a firm’s culture? How can we measure it? Does this culture—however defined and measured—impact a firm’s success? If so, why? And how can different governance structures enable or curtail the formation and preservation of a value-enhancing culture? In this paper we try to answer these questions.

Whether culture was Goldman’s secret sauce or not, Goldman certainly went out of the way to advertise it. The first page of its IPO prospectus was enumerating the “Business Principles,” including “Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.” Yet, in this regard Goldman is not unique. When we look at companies’ web pages, we find that 85% of the S&P 500 companies have a section (sometimes even two) dedicated to—what they call—“corporate culture,” i.e. principles and values that should inform the behavior of all firms’ employees. The value we find more commonly advertised is innovation (mentioned by 80% of them), followed by integrity and respect (70%). When we try to correlate the frequency and prominence of these values to measures of short and long-term performance, however, we fail to find any significant correlation. Thus, advertised values do not seem to be very important, possibly because it is easy to claim them, so everybody does. Thus, is there another, more meaningful way, to measure values?

To this purpose we use a novel dataset created by the Great Place to Work® Institute (GPTWI), which conducts extensive surveys of the employees of more than 1,000 U.S. firms. While only the list of the best 100 firms to work for is publicly disclosed, we have access to the full database. The advantage of this database is that it measures how values are perceived by employees, rather than how they are advertised by the firm. In particular, there are two questions in the survey that measure the level of integrity of management as perceived by the employees.

When we use these measures, we find that high levels of perceived integrity are positively correlated with good outcomes, in terms of higher productivity, profitability, better industrial relations, and higher level of attractiveness to prospective job applicants. These effects are also economically relevant: a one standard deviation increase in integrity is associated with a 0.19 standard deviation increase in Tobin’s Q, a 0.09 standard deviation increase in profitability, and a 0.24 standard deviation decline in the fraction of workers that are unionized.

Since these statements are part of a longer survey instrument, we are concerned that there might be some “halo” effect, which might contaminate all the answers. In companies that pay more, for example, employees may tend to be happier and all the answers may tend to be more positive. To address this problem, we use as controls responses to questions that, though containing the halo effect, in theory are orthogonal to the integrity question, such as the answers to statements like “This is a physically safe place to work” or “I can be myself around here.” The correlation of integrity with positive outcomes survives these controls.

While these correlations do not prove causation, they suggest that companies’ obsession with corporate culture might be justified, as some models have tried to capture. In O’Reilly (1989) and Kreps (1990), corporate culture is considered relevant because employees face choices that cannot be properly regulated ex ante. Thus, corporate culture acts as a constraint. In Erhard et al. (2007), adherence to integrity acts as a commitment not to engage in economic calculations. In this way, for example, an employee will not trade off customers’ satisfaction for larger profits today. Thus, maintaining a culture of integrity can have some short-term costs (the forgone profit today), but also long-term benefits.

If a culture of integrity is valuable, why do some firms end up losing it? We know from Edmans (2011) that firms included in the 100 “best firms to work for” (as measured by the GPTW ranking) tend to have a higher future abnormal stock market returns. Since integrity and trust play a role in the determination of being named one of the 100 Best, we can interpret this result as saying that the market initially underestimates the value of the integrity capital and only over time—as the profits come in—appreciates its value.

If this is true, it might be value maximizing (at least in the short term) for publicly traded firms to underinvest in integrity capital. To test this hypothesis, we analyze whether ceteris paribus publicly traded firms in the GPTW dataset have a lower value of integrity (as measured by the survey responses) than privately held ones. We find this to be the case, even after controlling for industry, geography, size, and labor force composition. Public firms have an integrity value that is 0.21 standard deviations below similar firms that are private.

Not all firms see their integrity drop when they go public. Venture capital-backed firms do not seem to experience any drop. This different outcome might be the result of a longer horizon generated by the presence of a large shareholder or by a better organizational design made by professional founders.

To disentangle these hypotheses, we test whether the presence of a large shareholder or other corporate governance characteristics affect the level of integrity capital. We find that the only corporate governance characteristic that is statistically significant is the presence of large shareholder (at least 5% ownership share), yet it has a negative correlation with the level of integrity. Thus, it looks like a focus towards shareholders value maximization undermines the ability of a company to sustain a high level of integrity capital.

The full paper is available for download here.

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  1. By Culture, integrity and profitability | Conflict of Interest Blog on Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 10:59 am

    […]  and Luigi Zingales    (which is available from SSRN here   and was summarized last week  in a post on the Harvard corporate governance blog) – takes direct aim at the issue of whether ethical behavior promotes […]