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Farm Operators: Here are 8 Ways to Help Employees Excel


As the boss of a farm or ag business, managing employees can be a challenge. But with a few key human-resource management tips, anyone can become a better boss, says Bob Milligan, professor of applied economics and management emeritus from Cornell University.

Milligan, also a human-resource consultant in the ag industry, likes to use the sports analogy of a coach and his team when talking about managing employees. “In order to play the game, players must be familiar with the field or court; they must understand the rules of the game and they must develop skills with training from their coaches.

“Officials must also interpret and enforce the rules during the game, and a procedure to keep score and determine who is winning must also be in place.” Without those rules, procedures and keeping score, the game would likely be riddled with frustration and arguments by the players, he says.

Milligan calls this “chalking the field,” and he says it’s as important in the workplace as it is in sports. He says, “Managers need to ‘chalk the field’ for employees so the rules of the game and expectations are understood, and employees are better able to use their skills, energy, creativity and leadership to personally succeed and contribute to the success of the business.”

Here are eight tips to help employees excel in their jobs from Milligan and Bernie Erven, Ohio State University professor of ag economics emeritus, who also consults on employee-management issues. These tips are as important for family members who are employees of the business as they are for hired employees, they emphasize:

1. Share the business vision, mission, core values and goals. These help everyone be engaged in and committed to the farm’s success, says Milligan. They identify for the employee what is important and enable him to make decisions that will be in the best interest of the business.

2. Identify standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the business. These are the day-to-day procedures used to get things done on the farm or in the business. Again using the sports analogy as an example, Milligan points out that the coaching staff develops the “plays” that the team will execute. These plays, – be it offensive schemes, defensive alignment, special teams, etc. – enable the players to excel. “Similarly, business SOPs developed by management enable employees to excel and clarify how tasks are expected to be completed,” he says.

3. Be clear about job responsibilities. Erven is a big proponent of written job descriptions to clarify who is expected to do which tasks. Job descriptions should be developed and shared with all individuals involved in the business. These do not need to be complex; a job description that is one page long and in simple terms will do, he says.

4. Define policies and consequences for failing to follow rules and policies. Just as sports officials adhere to a rulebook when officiating a game, supervisors must define the consequences for employees who don’t follow business policies, says Milligan. Such policies and procedures might address daily starting times, absences, SOPs for common tasks, following safety rules, alcohol and drugs in the workplace, fighting in the workplace, sexual harassment, deviating from instructions and operating equipment in a way that threatens others. Policies might also address treatment of co-workers, handling confidential information, family members abusing their family status, etc.

Once these policies and consequences are in place, Erven and Milligan emphasize, “Fairness and consistency in applying these rules is critical.”

Communication, training, performance, information

5. Communicate performance expectations. Establishing quantifiable performance expectations directly under the control of the employee allows the employee to monitor how he is doing. Putting it in sports terms, Milligan says, “whether they are ‘winning’ at their work.” These expectations should:

  • Be developed jointly by the supervisor and the employee
  • Define superior performance
  • Be consistent with the vision and goals of the business
  • Be challenging but attainable
  • Be measurable with a timeframe for attainment
  • Specify resources available to the employee.

Milligan suggests the supervisor and employee review performance expectations regularly – typically monthly – at a collaborative meeting where expected and actual performance is discussed and expectations for the following period are established.

6. Provide training. Assuring that people have been trained well to do their jobs is one of your most important responsibilities. “A willingness to invest in employee training not only ensures that employees acquire the skills to better contribute to the business’s labor needs, but also contributes to job satisfaction for the individual,” says Milligan.

Training should not be reserved just for new hires – it should be viewed as an on-going investment throughout an employee’s career, he and Erven suggest.

7. Reward performance. A supervisor may also consider rewarding employees for things like surpassing performance expectations or successfully following safety rules, says Erven. Informal rewards in the form of kudos or positive feedback can be offered randomly, but larger monetary bonuses or incentives may be offered and tied to performance expectations. Share them with employees in advance so they have the opportunity to strive for those rewards, these experts suggest.

8. Have a system to keep employees informed.Communication is often the key ingredient that helps encourage employees strive for success. Erven and Milligan suggest employee handbooks, regular staff meetings and individual discussions with employees are communication tools that supervisors can use to help make procedures, policies and rules acceptable and productive.

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