Building relationships, not managing employees

17 03 2014

By Tom Parker, guest writer

McPHERSON, KS – Farmers, like any business or corporation, have certain expectations of employees. Some of those expectations are reasonable-honesty, integrity, punctuality, a strong work ethic-while others border on wishful thinking. A major source of conflict, and something often heard by Richard Wiswall, a farming consultant and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, is the expectation that employees should be exact clones of their employers.

“We want someone who does it just like we do,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”

According to Wiswall, it is. His advice is to adopt a proactive form of management that gives employees, and employers, room to breathe while maintaining a well-defined, hierarchical structure. It also doesn’t hurt for employers to lower the bar on expectations.

“The sooner you lower your expectations, the better,” he said.

Wiswall spoke of the “neglected side of farming,” or the business aspect, at a special full-day workshop entitled “Farming Smarter, Not Harder: Planning for Profit” held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Pachamama’s Alton Ballroom in downtown Lawrence. The event was sponsored by Kansas Farmers Union, Frontier Farm Credit and Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition.

There are several keys to good management, he said, starting with the basics: furnish written job descriptions, define farm policies and have them posted, resolve conflicts as they arrive and before they can fester, provide proper training and keep track of employer responsibilities such as wages, withholding taxes and other government forms. In reality, effective employee management requires a hands-on approach followed by a hands-off approach once the employee is trained.

“I don’t think people are born with a work ethic,” Wiswall said. “They need to learn how to work at a specific pace, and some people are more motivated than others.”

Wiswall, or some of his more experienced employees, work alongside less-motivated or new hires to get them up to their full potential as soon as possible. It’s critical to answer any and all questions and to provide the best training possible. After all, he said, “you’re imparting knowledge to the people you work with.”

Farms, like manufacturing plants, get paid by the piece while employees get paid by the hour. Inculcating a productive work ethic ensures that employees can keep up with the paces required for a farm operation. “We need to incorporate the belief that no matter how small the project, it’s important to the overall health of the farm,” he said. Fixing target rates for chores, mixing fun tasks with not-so-fun-tasks and teaching employees skills that go beyond the normal day-to-day routine go a long way toward assuring happier, and more productive, employees.

A fair working wage is also important, he said. Paying more than minimum wage and giving generous bonuses might seem counterintuitive, but Wiswall sees it as putting money back into the local community as well as cementing employer-employee relationships. “Employees become promoters of our business,” he said. “That’s a huge impact for everyone.”

Communication is essential, he says. At Cate Farm, in East Montpelier, Vt., which he owns and operates with his wife, Sally Colman, meetings are scheduled first thing every Monday morning. A roster of duties is given to his crew chief who oversees the employees. A defined schedule is even more important for farmers in that every week during the growing season brings changes that must be dealt with. Employees want to know what they’ll be doing and when they’ll be doing it and it’s up to the employer to tell them. “Organize everyone’s day,” he said, “including your own.”

It’s also important to take time out for yourself. He’s found that when he has a crew working, there never seems to be enough time left over to finish his own responsibilities. Rather than continually falling behind, he sets aside two days each week where nobody works, except, that is, for him and his wife.

“It takes time and effort, but having a different relationship with an employee makes a huge difference,” Wiswall said. “Make it a fun way to retain people and enhance the work ethic, and effort, of the farm.”

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