Do the right thing - use your employee handbook
Does your farm have an employee handbook? I talked to many dairy farmers about employee handbooks this last winter. Many farms have a handbook, which is great! However, farmers tell me they are unsure of how to use the handbook once it is written. Too often, employees do not look at the handbook or farms forget they have it and the handbook collects dust on a shelf.
An employee handbook can be a very valuable communication and labor management tool. I would like to propose four reasons why your farm needs to not only have an employee handbook but also needs to actively utilize it.
Communicates what your farm is about
An employee handbook communicates what your farm is about. In other words, what is the culture of your farm? Business culture can be defined as values, beliefs, and behaviors that are typical of your farm. For example, if being on time is an important behavior on your farm, your handbook should reflect its importance. You might have a very firm policy on tardiness and missed work that is included in the handbook. Perhaps the farm’s culture is to keep things simple. Your handbook might be succinct with only a few critical policies included.
Every farm has a culture. The way in which you write and the topics you choose to include in the handbook will send a strong message about your farm’s culture. This will provide clarity to your employees because they will understand what is important to you and how they can be successful on your farm. Clarity is critical in labor management because it helps employees understand your expectations and, in turn, meet them.
Highlights important policies
A handbook highlights the most important policies on your farm. Are there certain behaviors that would cause immediate termination? These unacceptable behaviors and their consequences must be listed in your employee handbook. If employees engage in one of these behaviors, and they have read and signed off on the handbook, there will not be any question as to why they were terminated. This protects your farm and you.
Human risk management tool
An employee handbook can be a powerful tool for human risk management. Are you concerned about an employee mishandling an animal? Maybe you worry about an employee having an accident with equipment. You need to create policies on farm safety, animal welfare, and any other risks associated with employees. These policies need to be in your employee handbook. Furthermore, these policies need to be reviewed with employees. Provide training on these policies to your employees, so that the expectations are completely clear. This is managing your risk. All employees should sign off that they read the policy and received training on the policy.
If an unfortunate event happens on your farm, you will have the documentation to show that you did your due diligence. There still may be ramifications, but having a written policy and training (and re-training) can lessen the blow of an event. More importantly, a policy that has been explained well can prevent an event from occurring on your farm.
Builds leadership and business skills
As you write, update, and utilize your handbook, you build your leadership and business skills. This is a strategic activity, as opposed to being a day-to-day activity like milking and feeding cows. Every time you look at the handbook and review your policies, you are spending time on your business and setting its direction. You are thinking about the type of farm you want to have and what its future might look like. I encourage every farm owner to spend time each week (30 to 60 minutes once per week is a good place to start) on strategic activities like the employee handbook, business plan, goal setting, transition plan, etc. Anything that will have a big impact on your future, but does not feel as urgent as milking cows, is something that you can work on during this time. Put the time on your calendar and hold it; do not let other activities creep in. Take the time to shape your farm’s culture and future.
If you have gotten off track, i.e., you have a handbook but have not looked at it in a while, it is okay. Just pick up where you left off. If it needs to be updated, do that first. Then begin to ask your current employees to read it. Implement the best practice of requiring new employees to read the handbook within a certain time period of their hiring. Have employees sign off after they have read it and provide time for your employees to read it! If you have staff meetings, review sections of it during your meetings. Provide training and re-training on the most important policies. It might seem redundant, but this will ensure that even your more seasoned employees are reminded of your farm’s culture and policies.
Employee management is challenging right now. The entire workforce in Minnesota (not just the agricultural workforce!) is facing a shortage. There is no silver bullet to solve this. You have a choice, though, in how you want to manage your employees and business. Choose to be proactive and do the right things. Over time, doing the right things, like utilizing an employee handbook, will provide great results back to our farms.