What does a company stand for, apart from its work? How do employees resolve issues or make decisions in a way that reflects well on their employer?

Ultimately, questions such as these are resolved by what business gurus call core values -- shared systems of belief that all companies have, whether they recognize them as values or not.

A little more than a year ago, Lee Kimball Kitchens, Boston, began holding a series of half-day meetings, once a month at first, later every six weeks. At the first meeting, president Bruce Johnson, his brother Greg, vice president, and the company's employees set out to define the company's core values by listing 14 of them. Among them were attributes such as positive attitude, exceptional customer service, honesty, accountability, and profitability.

Beliefs, Bruce Johnson says, are "hard to put your hands around." So meetings -- each devoted to a particular core value -- focused on developing lists of behaviors associated with that value. These would then be reduced to four or five principles that could be applied on a daily basis. For instance, the session on accountability determined that the particular value was characterized by clearly defined and understood responsibilities; arriving on time every time; taking ownership of a problem and alleviating the problem; and communicating issues honestly and openly.

The meetings "relate a lot to how you deal with things in your personal life and how you deal with clients and co-workers," says sales designer Jason Simonetty.

Johnson sees the values as creating a basis on which employees can make decisions that affect the company. Long term, he hopes the core values meetings boost referral rates by making Lee Kimball Kitchens "a truly exceptional company."