Three Simple Steps to Take Charge of Your Shelter or Rescue’s Workplace Culture

December 10th, 2019

By Kristen Hassen-Auerbach

If you’ve ever worked in or visited an animal shelter with poor workplace culture, you have seen that a bad culture permeates nearly every aspect of the organization. Staff negativity, poor customer service, burnout, absenteeism, and even stressed-out animals are all signs the culture has major problems. Yet this area is still sorely ignored or under-addressed in most shelters and takes a back seat to the day-to-day crises that characterize our work. For many shelters and rescues, improving workplace culture can feel overwhelming and out of reach. The good news is that there is one way to make an immediate cultural change in your shelter – Simply tell people what you expect! These three simple steps will help you build a culture or conduct agreement that reflects the values, attitudes, and actions that you want to see among shelter employees and volunteers.

  1. Find a starting point. We first discovered this idea in a 2005 issue of Animal Sheltering Magazine. It laid out a template for a workplace culture agreement. Initially, we just decided to adopt the version the article suggested, but we soon realized this meant we were missing a key aspect – employee and volunteer buy-in. Because we just handed them the agreement, they didn’t feel a connection to the guidelines and they felt it was being ‘imposed’ on them. Once we understood this, we decided to use the document as a starting point but to make it personal to our unique organizational culture.
  2. Get input from staff and volunteers. Once you have a starting point (feel free to use ours!), share it with staff, volunteers and foster caregivers. Hold staff meetings to get input on things that may need to be added or changed slightly. Ask your team to help you write a document that truly represents your organization and community. You’ll be surprised how excited people are to participate in this. Bring the copy to volunteer meetings and do the same thing. For people who may not attend meetings, send out the draft in e-mail and ask for written feedback. It’s a lot of fun to see what your shelter or rescue can come up with. Ours looks dramatically different than it used to because we went through this input process.
  3. Finalize your document. The entire feedback process doesn’t need to take more than a few weeks and at a certain point, you will decide you have something ready to share. Recognize that this document will evolve as your organization changes and grows but for now, pick a stopping point. Once you’re done, make it into a cute design (a volunteer can help with this if you don’t have staff who do design work) and make it into wall posters, a social media graphic, and a graphic that can be shared in e-mail with staff and volunteers. Share this far and wide and let everyone know these are the expectations for all volunteers and staff.
Be sure to check out PACC's Workplace Culture Expectations!

Once you’ve created and shared your workplace culture agreement, your team can have a great time using it to improve the day-to-day culture of your organization. At PACC, we’re creating a reward system based on the five tenets of the agreement so we can immediately recognize when someone exhibits positive behavior. For example, if we see a staff member taking a few moments to offer comfort to a frightened shelter pet, we will recognize that behavior with a small token or certificate to say, “That’s what we want everyone to model!” Additionally, we have every staff and volunteer sign this agreement and we often use it in employee counseling sessions or when mediating conflicts between staff and volunteers.

When it comes to ‘return on investment,’ there is almost nothing easier or more impactful you can do to fundamentally change the culture of your shelter or rescue.

Kristen Hassen-Auerbach is the director of Pima County Animal Care Center in Arizona.

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