Whether your farm has two employees or 25, it is important to be consistent in communications with workers about expectations and conditions of employment. One tool that can assist in this task is a written employee handbook or policy document. Such a written document can be short and simple or highly detailed, depending on your needs. What could an employee handbook do for your farm operation?
Melissa O’Rourke, an Iowa State University Extension farm and agribusiness management specialist in northwest Iowa, provides the following information and advice. She is an attorney experienced in ag law, estate planning and employee relations. She can be contacted at 712-737-4230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background information about your farm is important
Provide background information about your farm and farming operation. An employee handbook can be a tool to share information with your work team about your farm’s history and background, as well as your values and vision for the farm. When employees know a little about the history of the operation, it helps them to understand the organization they have joined.
Hopefully, you have given some thought to your core values and vision for the future of your farm. Writing a farm mission statement could be the entire topic for another article – but, here’s an example:
We are a family-owned and operated farm. We value rural life and are committed to keeping our rural community vital. We strive to care for the environment and produce the highest quality livestock and grains that will be used to feed people in America and around the world.
This kind of a statement helps your workers to understand what is important to you in your farming operation. Whatever your farm vision, share it with your employees.
Rules, standards let employees know what is expected of them
Outline work rules, standards of conduct and other information that lets employees know what is expected of them. Most of us like to know what is expected of us. New employees have questions as basic as what to wear, where to park, where to eat lunch and the location of restrooms. Workers like to know what their work schedule will be or where it will be regularly posted.
Basic information about safety policies and training can be outlined in an employee handbook. Do you have other policies, such as “no smoking”? Think about some of the most “frequently-asked-questions” on your farm and that information might well be outlined in an employee handbook document.
Explain wages and benefits for employees working on farm
Provide information about pay and benefits of working at your farm. Workers like to know when and how often they’ll be paid. They may wonder if they will have an opportunity to earn a raise or bonus. If you offer any benefits, the employee handbook is the place to outline those details. Even benefits such as opportunity to obtain farm-raised meat could be mentioned in the handbook. Employees like to know how and when their work will be evaluated and the handbook is a good place to share this information.
What’s the legal relationship between employee and your farm?
Confirm information about the legal relationship with the employee. The law in Iowa (as in most states) is that the employment relationship is “at-will.” Be sure your employee handbook doesn’t create a contract with the employees. In fact, it is recommended that employee handbooks contain a clear statement that employment at will is the policy of your farm.
Here is a sample statement: Our Farm does not offer guaranteed employment. Either the Farm or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice. This is known as “employment at will.” This employment at will relationship exists regardless of any other written statements or policies contained in this Handbook or any other documents or verbal statements. Also, while we may choose to discipline employees in an attempt to improve work performance when necessary, the Farm is not obligated to do so.
While you can use posters to provide certain information that may be required by law, an employee handbook is another good place to do this. Have employees sign as simple document stating they have received the employee handbook and reviewed all policies contained in it. Keep the document on file, just in case you ever need to prove the employee received the written policy document.
Use good communication practices with your employees
Do not use the employee handbook to replace good communication practices. Remember that nothing can take the place of good interpersonal communication in the workplace. New employees need orientation and training, and seasoned employees need updated training, motivation and feedback. An employee handbook is a good reference tool and guideline. But it should not take the place of regular farm meetings, training and face-to-face feedback--both positive and constructive.
More information—there are helpful resources available
Looking for more information on farm employee handbooks? There are resources available to assist with writing or updating an employee handbook or policy document. Go to the Ag Decision Maker website and print a copy of File C6-58: “Checklist for Iowa Agricultural Employers.”
It is at www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/c6-58.html. A list of links and resources can be found there which include discussions and templates for farm employee handbooks. Have your document reviewed by a legal professional who is experienced in employment law.
“Future articles will continue to address other farm employee management issues,” says O’Rourke. “In the meantime, feel free to contact me with any of your farm employee management questions.”
For farm management information and analysis, go to ISU's Ag Decision Maker site www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm and ISU Extension farm management specialist Steve Johnson's www.extension.iastate.edu/polk/farmmanagement.htm.