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What are your deal breakers?

Tom Wall Published on 31 August 2012

If I worked at your dairy, what would it take for me to get fired?

Normally, most people aren’t going to just come right out and ask you that. But the truth is that’s a real concern for a lot of employees – both the good ones you want to keep and the bad ones on your team flirting with trouble all the time.

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For the most part, people who are productively paranoid about keeping their job genuinely appreciate it and add value to their work. Ultimately, those are the people you want on your team. But the reality is that not everyone fits that description.

So what happens at your dairy when you have a few “problem employees?” And I’m not talking about the people who show up late or don’t follow your milking routine.

I’m talking about troublemakers … you know, the type of people who tend to get in trouble with the law. How do you deal with these employees’ “off-the-job” issues?

The easy answer is: “We don’t do anything. If it happens outside of work, it’s out of our control.” Honestly, most dairymen would probably agree with you if that was your approach.

It’s hard enough to make sure your employees do what you expect when they’re at work, let alone when they’re on their own time! But the reality is, that’s probably not the right answer.

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You see, troublemakers tend to be magnetic – and not in a good way. Trouble attracts more trouble. And unfortunately, troublemakers don’t only attract more troublemakers. They also tend to attract the police and other law enforcement agencies.

OK, so what should you do? Or maybe a better question is what can you do? As if you didn’t already have enough challenges to deal with, now you’re being confronted with how your employees’ actions away from work affect your dairy?

Here are three steps to help you and your dairy.

Make a list of deal breakers that you won’t tolerate.
Decide on the consequences for breaking your zero-tolerance policy.
Follow through with it.

First, make a list of behaviours and activities that you cannot and will not accept. Working with dairies, I’ve seen that most dairy producers have lists that are almost identical.

The most common at-work deal breakers tend to be: fighting, showing up to work “under the influence,” abusing animals and stealing. And the most common away-from-work deal breakers are typically police-related issues like drunk driving, dealing drugs and assault charges.

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So what’s on your deal breaker list? Do you even have one? It seems that some managers prefer to just deal with these sticky situations as they arise. Unfortunately, that strategy doesn’t work very well.

You see, if you plan on creating and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on the fly, you’ll be the only one who knows what it is. Sure, the punishment for the most serious violations would seem pretty obvious to most people, but your team might still be taken by surprise if you terminate someone with little or no warning.

But if everyone on your team knows what your “one-and-done” issues are from the start, they will see that you simply followed through on what you said you were going to do.

But that’s not the only reason for deciding on a deal breaker list before you need it. If you don’t make a zero-tolerance policy before you actually need it, chances are you probably won’t stick to it when that time comes.

You see, it’s pretty easy to follow your list when the circumstances are straightforward. But when times get tough, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to make exceptions as you go.

Let’s say one of your newer employees gets picked up for drunk driving after hitting a telephone pole. The good news is that no one got hurt, but the bad news is that he missed three days of work while sitting in jail.

That’s easy … you replace him, right? But let’s be honest about the reason. You replace him because he missed three days of work and you needed to hire someone to fill his spot. You can say that you terminated him because he got a DUI, but that’s probably not the whole truth. Not convinced?

OK, same scenario … except this time, the employee who misses work because of a DUI and hitting a telephone pole has been with you for seven years. And on top of that, you’re busy trying to get second-crop hay cut before it rains in a few days. Now what do you do?

It’s not a zero-tolerance policy if you choose to accommodate certain individuals and apply it only when it’s convenient. The whole reason for having these policies is to protect your dairy and the people who depend on it in order to support their families.

Chances are you’ve seen the footage of farm employees who were videotaped while abusing animals, right? Those farms were in serious legal trouble within days of the videos being uploaded to the Internet.

And what about all the publicity your dairy would receive if local news reporters showed up to film your dairy’s facilities and nearby residents after “five farm workers were arrested in a large drug dealing ring?” And what about when someone gets seriously hurt by fan blades that are missing safety covers?

You see, if you’re truly going to implement specific standards and expectations for employees’ on-the-job and off-the-job actions, it’s absolutely critical you make your policies clear before you actually need to enforce them.

That way, your employees will know what to expect and you don’t have to fret over what to do.

So that leads us to step two. Just like it was critical that you make your list before you need it, it’s even more important that you decide what you’re going to do to when an issue arises.

Now that your list of deal breakers is firmly in place, what are you going to do when someone violates it? The most obvious and logical consequence is typically immediate termination.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds. If you fire someone today for getting in trouble with the police, who’s going to work in his place tomorrow? It’s hard to find qualified candidates to replace your current employees.

It turns out this is probably the hardest step of the deal breaker process. While you need to protect your dairy from the extra attention troublemakers can bring to the rest of your dairy’s team, you also need to operate a 24/7 dairy business.

So how can you balance those two management challenges? I’m afraid there’s no easy answer to that question. Just like a college coach who benches his star player before a big game for off-the-field misconduct, you need to make some tough, courageous decisions too. And yes, those tough choices are pretty hard to make in the short term and hard on the rest of the team.

But you’re not in it for the short term, are you? You still plan on milking cows tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, right? So before lowering your bar on what you’re willing to accept, think about the company culture you want to create for the long haul.

As a family-owned and family-operated dairy, who do you want on your family’s team? But more importantly, who do all your employees want to work with?

Here’s the good news … most of the people you currently have on your dairy’s team are good people. They show up and work hard every day.

They take care of your animals and sincerely care about your dairy. And although they might not come out and say it, they don’t want to work alongside people who cause trouble at work or attract attention from law enforcement on their days off.

Like you, most of your employees simply want to do their work and enjoy time with their friends and family. And when the extracurricular activities of problem employees begin to affect the quality of life of these low-key co-workers, these “good employees” secretly hope that you, the boss, will address the troublemakers and take action.

The truth is your good employees already understand why you need to take a strong stand against problematic behaviour at and away from the dairy. And if they don’t, you’ll need to explain that it’s your job to protect everyone from the potential problems “bad apples” bring to the rest of the team.

Even though it’s important that you deal with these serious issues in a fair and consistent manner, it’s also important that you recognize that not all problems are created equally.

Some “police problems” are out of your employees’ control. Unfortunately, it seems that every small town has at least one cop who has nothing better to do than pull your employees over nearly every time they drive to work.

And although I wouldn’t put these traffic citations on my deal breaker list, they do start to add up and can’t be ignored. Hopefully, employees who don’t have valid driver’s licenses can find affordable housing closer to the dairy.

Let’s face it. We will all make mistakes. And some of these missteps your employees make can actually be “learning experiences” for the rest of your team.

Depending on the infraction, I think you might have to be somewhat cautious when assigning consequences to your deal breaker list.

If the infraction is serious yet lacks the potential to cause serious bodily harm or death or cause the entire dairy to be shut down, you’re probably better off to give an employee a written warning and take him off the schedule for a couple of days (without the ability to trade or recoup those lost shifts with co-workers).

The last thing you want to do is fire someone for “anything and everything” they do wrong. If that becomes your policy, you’ll lose a lot of good people and then end up replacing them with new employees who make similar mistakes down the road.

You’re better off sticking with people who already learned from their mistakes and genuinely want to contribute to the success of your dairy’s team.

And that leads us to the third and final step, taking care of your entire team by implementing your zero-tolerance policy. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It turns out that a lot of people struggle to follow through with these types of policies.

But if you put serious thought and consideration into the first two steps of identifying your deal breakers and the consequences that go with them, enforcing your zero-tolerance policy will be a lot easier.

Although following through with a pre-made policy like this can be uncomfortable for a lot of managers when there are real people and real emotions involved, you need to remember why you made this policy in the first place.

Your job as a leader is to protect your company and its team from people whose actions could jeopardize the stability and livelihood of everyone.

As your dairy’s leader, you are responsible for the success and sustainability of the company that your employees and many other stakeholders depend on every day.

Hopefully you’ll never have to use your zero-tolerance policy with anyone on your team. But if you do, you’ll have everything in place and your team will understand why you need to enforce it. Just as you depend on your employees to help run your dairy, your employees count on you to make tough decisions and do the right thing.  PD

Tom Wall

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