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Would You Want to Work for Yourself?

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star May 20, 2006

"Would you want to work for yourself?" That may sound like an unusual question, but it is one that farmers should ask themselves if they have any employees. A 2005 University of Minnesota Extension survey of Minnesota dairy operators found that 68% of dairy farms employ one or more full time equivalents of hired labor. A similar survey in Wisconsin showed that nearly 40% have at least one non-family employee. Most farms are still family businesses, but these surveys show a high percentage of them are in the labor market where they are competing aggressively with other employers in the community to attract and keep quality employees.

Compensation is frequently cited as a reason for employees leaving a job, but often an underlying cause is that they "want to leave the employer." Dissatisfaction with the employment situation and their supervisor is often a reason for employees leaving. Because you are competing with other businesses in the community, you need to at least be competitive in your compensation packages. However, your reputation as an employer will probably do as much, or perhaps more, to attract and keep employees.

It is essential that the employees feel important and valued by the farm owner/manager. Treating employees fairly, with respect and with appropriate praise will build a sense of pride in the minds of good employees. They will feel valued and will usually be more willing to give of themselves for the farm.

Employers and employees naturally build a relationship. What that relationship looks like depends a great deal on the attitudes of the employer. If the employer appears to be enjoying the work and the people on the farm, employees sense it. There might still be times when things go wrong, or an employee needs discipline, but that shouldn't dictate the attitude of the entire operation.

Use job descriptions on your farm. A well-written job description lays the framework for a relationship. It clearly outlines expectations, the rewards for good work and consequences of poor work or improper behaviors. It needs to be understandable for all parties so questions of performance or responsibility can usually be addressed by a look at the job description. A job description should also describe lines of authority, thereby avoiding later conflicts.

Provide thorough initial training to new employees so they have clear understanding of what is expected of them on the farm. Also provide regular opportunities for professional improvement. Send employees to relevant seminars once in a while if it is a topic that will help them perform their appointed tasks. It will build their confidence and demonstrate that you value their contribution to the farm. It should also result in better trained employees for your farm.

Compensate employees fairly. You don't always have to be the highest paying employer in the community. If you offer good working conditions, and some low cost benefits that may not be available elsewhere but are of value to the employee, you can compete.

If your employees speak little or no English, providing English classes may appeal to them. Remember the employee and maybe family members on important family occasions with a simple card or gift. Have an employee show guests around the farm from time to time. A work clothing allowance or an occasional employee lunch shows that you value them for their contribution to the farm. If you tie lunch together with an employee training opportunity, you get double the value. And, for employees with families, some flexibility in scheduling creates a lot of good will.

Promote employees within your system when possible. It shows your confidence in them and it rewards them for their contribution. If an employee becomes so good that another employer draws him or her away, view it as recognition of the good job you did in finding and developing a quality employee. If it happens more often than you are comfortable with, maybe it is time to review your compensation package. For example, a retired bank president in southeast Minnesota took great pride in telling of the number of vice-presidents he had lost to higher positions at other banks. He was proud of them and the role he had played in their professional development. You can take similar pride.

Don't just be a leader or manager of employees, but be a coach as well. It is important that you see what each employee contributes. Look for ways you can help them grow. Create an atmosphere where they feel they can take measured risks that may benefit the farm and themselves. If they are afraid failure will only bring criticism, they are likely to quit trying new things or offering ideas that may be of benefit.

If you show genuine interest in the well-being of your employees as well as your farm, you are well on the way to being an employer for whom others will want to work in the future. That kind of reputation spreads and those same farms often have files of applicants waiting for jobs on that farm. Wouldn't that be great? One more benefit of being a good employer.

[Sources: "U of MN Extension Service Survey of Dairy Producers and Affiliated Individuals"; "Making Your Dairy an Appealing Place to Work", Bernard L. Erven, OSU; "Building a Reputation as an Employer", Sarah Fogleman, KSU; and "What Makes a Good Boss", Kevin Nolan, PDCA]
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