In his 2012 book, “Reviving the Work Ethic,” Eric Chester argues that an entitlement mentality is growing among the new work force, and that, “work has degenerated to little more than a four-letter word, a necessary evil … no longer viewed as something to be proud of.” This is a pretty strong statement, and a generalization for sure, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “People just do not want to work anymore,” or something similar, I would have at a least cookie jar full of cash. A strong work ethic is not necessarily a quality of every prospective employee coming to your farm.
    Chester is a business consultant and has asked many employers what they expect for each and every employee. He summarizes, “Employers are searching for positive, enthusiastic people who show up for work on time, who are dressed and prepared properly, who go out of their way to add value and do more than what’s required of them, who are honest, who will play by the rules, and who will give cheerful, friendly service regardless of the situation.”
    There are seven elements in that sentence: positive attitude, reliability, professionalism, initiative, respect, integrity and gratitude.
    As children grow, parents and teachers try to program their value systems. Children all around the world are taught to smile and play nice, be prompt, look their best, do their best, obey the rules, tell the truth and say please and thank you. Chester points out that these values are exactly the same seven characteristics that employers want in their workers; he calls these values sandbox values.
    Work ethic requires knowing what to do and then doing it, or in other words, cognizance and compliance. We can build a matrix where cognizance is on the horizontal axis and compliance the vertical axis. Cognizance ranges from “don’t know” on the far left to “know” on the far right. Compliance ranges from “do” on the top to “don’t do” on the bottom. This gives us four quadrants: the bottom left, or idle quadrant, is where employees live who do not know what to do and also would not do it if they did know. The upper left, or lucky quadrant, is for employees who don’t know what to do, but actually try to work, and occasionally get lucky by doing the right thing. The occupants of the lower right, the cheating quadrant, know what to do, but choose not to do it. Finally the upper right, or valued quadrant, where we would like everyone to reside, is for people who know what to do and just do it. Do you have employees that fit into these quadrants?
    In reality many employees spend some time in each quadrant. To increase the value of your people you need to help them improve their knowledge (cognizance) and their actions (compliance). It is dangerous to pigeonhole employees into any particular quadrant, because Chester argues that most people can be pulled up and over to the valued quadrant. This means teaching people what they need to know and motivate and inspire them to do it.
    Remember, we are talking about values, not skills here. The “what” refers to the seven values in a great work ethic. Most employers expect to teach skills, like how to milk a cow, but not values, like reliability for instance. Some people may not understand what reliability is, so you have to define and explain just what it means on your operation. You may have to do this for all seven sandbox values with some people.
    Moving employees to the right of the matrix (cognizance) has three components: clarify, assess and mentor. Clarify means using crystal-clear terms and understanding that teaching values requires regular and significant maintenance. Assess means never assuming that everyone knows and lives the seven values. Good teachers assess first, and they understand that many people will not say anything when they do not understand something they are told because they do not want to look stupid. To mentor means one-on-one coaching. It involves teaching, re-teaching and reinforcing.
    Moving employees to the top (compliance) of the matrix has three key elements: relevance, reward and radiate. Relevance means knowing the “why,” and it is important because people often need to know the why before they will take action on the what. For example, believe it or not, someone may not know why arriving 30 minutes late is a problem, and may need to understand the impact of tardiness on other employees, animals or the operation. Reward means catching people doing something right; in particular something that represents a positive work ethic. Radiate means to spread something all around from a center. Radiating values means establishing them as central ideas and then spreading them throughout teams and organizations. This also means living them yourself.
    Not everyone who applies for a job on your dairy understands and lives the core values of the work ethic for which you are looking. Can values be taught? Chester argues they can. In fact, he argues that for most employers today, teaching these values is necessary to developing a productive work force. With a good teacher, most employees can be pulled up and over to valued quadrant where they understand and live a good work ethic.
    Jim Bennett is a dairy veterinarian at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at with comments or questions.