Using core values with employees

What are the principles that are most important to you in your business? How well do you do, not only in communicating them, but in putting them into practice and making them a part of regular routines and conversations?

Hands coming together to depict teamwork.

It is one thing to articulate core values for your business, but how do you transfer them to your employees? Are integrity, attitude, quality and others more than just words on a page? Are they drivers of the way everyone at the farm works, relates and acts? What does it take for core values to become practice?

During a trip by the Michigan State University Extension Dairy Team to Central Texas, we visited Southland Dairy. Sure enough, the core values for that business were listed on a sign in the parlor as well as in the break room.  That is a good start, but it cannot, and did not, end there.

The farm owner told me how the core values are part of the interview process. During the interview, he would rehearse the core values one by one with potential employees and then ask them to tell him an example of how that value has played out in their life.

Think about what that would be like. Let’s say that the core value was safety. Imagine a conversation where you ask an applicant to tell you how he or she relates to that value, what it means to them and why it is important to them. What if they said that they understood the value of safety because their brother was hurt badly in a work accident? Then, you took that experience and helped them understand how their actions on the farm impact their own safety or the safety of others.

Taking it further, what if, as the owner, you noticed some unsafe practices on the farm, such as riding in the bucket of the tractor? It could be a time to talk with everyone about safety and remind them of the examples they cited during the interview and the conversation about safety.

Core values are fundamental beliefs about what is most important in your business. They are the principles that should drive decisions, enabling all employees to know what is right and what is wrong. Core values are the key to you being true to yourself as you build the business. You want employees who uphold the core values that you have identified. You want the core values for your business to become core values for your employees at, and outside, the workplace.

It doesn’t happen quickly, it takes repeated reference to them to remind employees what core values you hold to. That is why the owner at Southland Dairy regularly took the opportunity at employee meetings to discuss core values. Core values relate to actions, so actions must be evaluated in light of the core values.

Again, let’s imagine some scenarios where a business has core values of integrity, teamwork, and quality. Gustavo is late for work again, Maria is not following the milking protocol and Mark has been picking fights with other employees. Relate these to core values: lateness is an integrity issue as well as impacting teamwork, protocol impacts quality and integrity and fighting degrades teamwork. Employees will better understand the meaning of core values when you put actions in the context of those values.

Core values must always begin with the owner. They must be the principles that guide his or her actions. Don’t talk about teamwork and consider yourself above the team. Core values must be modeled consistently. It was notable that at this farm, where one core value was quality, the employee break room was spotless. Even as we stood there and talked, an employee was cleaning out the cupboards and wiping down every shelf. That commitment will likely affect how employees clean the parlor.

Even when you do all this, it doesn’t mean that every employee will abide by those values and be a valued employee. As I talked with the owner on that farm and asked him what stood in the way of his reaching his goal for milk quality, he mentioned three employees, two of whom had already received warnings. Those employees may or may not make it on the farm, but without core values being identified and articulated, employees have no way to know what is most important to you as the owner.

Core values are not determined overnight, but this would be a good time to start thinking and talking about them with family members. The purpose of identifying core values is not just to say you have them, but that you use them as the standard by which owner and employee actions are judged.

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