Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How To Keep Key Non-family Employees

October 15, 2001

For some families in agriculture, the most stressful factor is labor. It is the hiring, management and retention of a reliable farm workforce that can determine profitability. Finding and hiring quality people is an art in itself and sets up management to succeed. If hiring is done well, the next biggest key is keeping them. What are some of the keys to retention?

Compensation: There are pros and cons about incentive programs and profit-sharing. These are excellent tools for gaining commitment. There are some drawbacks though if you set it up so the employee "farms" the bonus program and neglects basic duties, like haying, fencing, maintenance of equipment that don’t directly benefit him or her. One farmer estimates the average yearly cost of machinery repairs, and if the repairs are lower than that figure, the savings are passed on to the employees.

A lot of farmers let their employees feel the pride of ownership. This way, they develop a personal stake in the growth of the operation. For many, it is a way of being in farming or ranching when they don't have the wherewithal to own land or equipment.

Allowing an employee to put his own cows in the milk line or to run in the herd is a great incentive. This can be spelled out as a part of the compensation package or perhaps as a rental fee.

Major squabbles can develop if the fringe benefits are not spelled out. If a farmer plays on this turf, he'd better know his responsibilities and pay Social Security benefits and Workman's Compensation Insurance. Dot all the "i’s" and cross all the "t’s" when it comes to paperwork and your legal responsibilities.

Spell out any non-cash benefits: Non-cash benefits are a form of compensation. Employees needs to know that. Some people leave a farm or ranch job to take a supposedly higher paying job in town. They find out too late that they were better off on the farm. Anything with financial implications needs to be talked about and a dollar amount put on the extras that are provided.

There is another reason for talking about the benefits. There are a lot of situations where abuse or disagreements can occur. Some issues that cause disagreement could be housing, remodeling, lights and utilities, access to a gas tank, or using a garden spot. If there isn't trust and understanding about the way property is treated or expenses incurred, it won't be long before the relationship will fall apart.

Communication and delegation. Employees need opportunities for growth and creativity. Know their strengths and interests and delegate responsibility and authority for management and stewardship in areas where they can shine. This will communicate basic trust and respect. Don’t micromanage their methods but operate within broad guidelines of goals and accountability. Listen and be responsive to their concerns.

Care should be taken to show respect in personal communication. How something is said or requested makes a big difference. Control your temper and criticisms. Differences should be worked out in private. Listen to their ideas and give timely feedback. Have a clear channel of supervision so there is no confusion about what the left or right hand is doing.

Have regular meetings in which there is give-and-take discussion. Operate on the philosophy, "the best idea wins." Invite their ideas for improvements.

Recognition: Personal recognition is important. Give credit where credit is due. Acknowledge contributions of employees in front of the neighbors; in ag meetings, when awards are earned, and put their work into the limelight. The term "hired man" or "hired help" is awkward and demeaning. A lot of owners avoid the term entirely. They introduce their employee with something like, "I'd like you to meet my partner, we run this thing together."

Specific titles also communicate respect. "Meet Bill, he is the chief mechanic around here," or "I'd like you to meet my herdsman." A compliment can be thrown in: "Without him, I don't know what I would do."

When salesmen come on the place, they can be steered to the employee without informing them about ownership and titles. "You'd better talk to that fellow over there, he makes all the decisions in that department." Authorize him to write checks and make purchases - within guidelines - without having to check back. It is a great boost to self-esteem.

Relationship with the family of the employee: Inviting another family to work on the place is a major invasion of privacy. One piece of advice is to locate the employee and his family in another set of buildings out of eyesight and earshot. Let them remodel, plant grass and trees and put down roots.

Socializing as families is nice but there are drawbacks. This will complicate hard decisions you might need to take with them someday. Not everybody likes to "talk shop" all the time. If you socialize, socialize and keep the farm out of it.

Find a satisfactory role for the spouse and see that the farm employment also fits with family living. Be kind and respectful to their children and involve them on the farm as their ages and skills permit. Put them under their parents’ supervision. If there are future considerations such as passing on land, this should be put in writing so everyone knows exactly where they stand.