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By Val Farmer, Published May 07 2010

Farmer wonders how to retain employees

Dr. Farmer, I know hiring and keeping employees is a widespread problem. I feel if I don’t take action on this right away, the outcome could be disastrous financially – both physically and mentally on me.

With the size of our operation, I can’t run it alone. Yet when I have an employee that I am depending on and he abruptly walks out on me, I am in big trouble right now! Our last two employees worked five to six months and then abruptly left.

I am outlining what I consider to be reasonable practices I use as an employer of farm laborers. Why are we having so much trouble dealing with and keeping employees? What am I missing? – a farmer from Illinois


His list of attributes as an employer:

- I am honest with my employees and expect them to be honest with me.

- I make it a point to stay completely out of their personal lives and respect their privacy and property.

- I am open to their suggestions and comments. I don’t tell an employee to do something, I always ask them to do something.

- In the right situation, I give them a choice of jobs and let them know that I have no problem taking the most difficult or dirty job.

- I try to make employees feel they are part of a team. I share information with them, take them on field trips, and try to help them feel they are an important part of the operation.

- I always give an employee the benefit of the doubt, even if they look me straight in the eye and tell me what I am pretty sure is a lie.

- If an employee and I have a major disagreement, I tell them we will go sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk. We will have no shouting matches in the barnyard. I stress this when I hire someone.

- When I have to discipline an employee, before I confront the person, I think to myself, “I can make this a constructive conversation or a destructive conversation.” I try to be as calm as possible before starting this type of conversation. Most of my instructions, in order to be very clear, are written and also in verbal form.

- I try to remain flexible and give people time off when they have things they need to do. I tell them to let me know as far in advance as possible. I expect an employee to be to work on time, and if they have a problem being on time, they need to call and let me know they are going to be late.

- I stress safety at all times. I have never had an employee injured or hurt.

- I always refer to an employee as an employee, not as a hired hand.

- I try to set a good example of how I want things done. I try to spend an adequate, but not excessive, amount of time training people.

- I think an employee must be responsible for their actions.

Dr. Farmer’s answer: This seems like a pretty good list to me. It is not obvious what might be causing the difficulty in retaining employees.

What might be missing from this list is helping the employee feel connected to the farm by describing the overall management philosophy and farm goals from the outset.

The basics need to be done the owner’s way. The reason management philosophy is so important is that it underlies the owner/operator’s favored explanation for success. When family members and/or employees violate these principles, it causes irritation or anger and sets the stage for ongoing conflict until there is coherence to the operator’s basic goals and methods.

Don’t be rigid with methods. Members and employees of the family business need to be on board with the overall principles and need leeway when it comes to methods and creative thinking when it comes to achieving farm goals. Not everything is a basic principle; some things are preferences, especially when it comes to methods.

An owner/operator who dictates methods will eventually stifle the thinking, creativity and management perspective of employees/

family members who need to be self-directed and to trouble-shoot problems with good judgment as they occur.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” When hiring and training employees, owner/operators who review their management philosophy and put it in proper perspective avoid bringing people into the operation who are hell bent on doing things their way. Also by emphasizing what is really important at the outset, it saves a whole lot of piecemeal explanations, especially after mistakes happen.

Recognition is worth about as much as money. Employees and family members need to feel important and that their work is appreciated. Comments about a job “well done” mean a lot. Building a team feeling and encouraging pride in the work helps with overall morale.

What management ideas work for you when dealing with employees and family members who are just joining your operation? How do you train them? How are mistakes handled? What guidelines do you have for hiring the right people?

Please send your practices and policies that work for you to: Employees, The Preston Connection, PO Box 1135, Orem, UT 84059 or in an e-mail to val@valfarmer.com.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.