12 September 1997

APPRAISAL CAN BRING

TWO-WAY BENEFITS

An annual staff appraisal gives you the chance to talk to your workers about their performance and them to comment on the way they are managed, as Charles Course from Bidwells Northampton office explained to Suzie Horne

SETTING aside time at least once a year to talk to employees individually about their performance, ambitions and training needs is an important part of managing staff on the farm.

It can also be a significant factor in motivating the work force because if properly handled, such an appraisal can help people to feel involved and informed and therefore valued.

This applies whether you employ one person or 20, says Charles Course, who heads Bidwells farm management and consultancy division from the firms Northampton office.

It is also important that this is seen as a two-way process, with the employer or manager being prepared to listen to what the employee has to say about the way he or she is managed, points out Mr Course.

"Farmers and their staff are becoming more and more isolated. They may see each other every day, but they wont necessarily spend much time together because the nature of the work has changed. We no longer have the number of jobs where they are working closely together. People are also busier so there is less time for discussion."

Those who have taken up the idea of appraisals have often been sceptical at first and even suspicious, but after two or three years, they see the benefits," says Mr Course.

"It is a very good motivator, but it must be followed through to be of use. For example, each year when we sit down with farm employees, we look at what was noted from the previous years review and whether it has been carried out."

The appraisal also gives the chance for employees to offer ideas or suggestions about how things might be done in a different way on the farm, and these can be followed up the next year to see how they have worked.

Under Bidwells system, the process begins with the employee appraising his or her own performance, on a rating of one to five. Areas included cover the relationship with the owner of the business, technical performance, personal skills and leadership skills where this is appropriate.

Basis for discussion

This self-appraisal gives a basis for discussion, and should help to highlight any areas where the employee feels that training is needed. The main areas covered by the discussion should include the relationships on the farm, the employees role and level of training needs, says Mr Course.

"Usually you will have a good idea of where people are with their technical skills, but it is useful to see how they rate themselves and what is important to them."

While the appraisal process offers a good indicator of any technical training requirements or areas of difficulty in carrying out practical tasks on the farm, it is the relationships aspect which usually provokes most discussion.

"Attitudes are often an area of difficulty on both sides – it may be that an employer thinks a member of staff too casual, or he may feel that he has put himself out to accommodate certain needs, while at the same time the employee may feel he or she is not sufficiently valued or recognised.

"It is often a small issue that causes problems, just a niggle, and this gives the chance for that to be aired. It may be helpful for a third party to be present,"he says.

Honesty in both the appraisal and subsequent discussion is imperative for the system to work properly. Mr Course insists that salary discussions should not be a part of the process, as this can impede the frankness of the discussion.

"If an employee has an area of weakness or a grievance, that is the last thing they will want to raise in a salary discussion," he says. Salary should therefore be left to a quite separate meeting at another date.

Increasing sophistication

Training needs, however, are a central part of the assessment. Because of the decline in the farm work force, employees and farmers are expected to carry out a greater number of tasks, so training to maintain and improve on those skills is crucial to the safe and efficient running of the business.

The increasing sophistication of farm equipment brings special requirements. "Far too many people invest a lot of money in kit and never really get the value out of it because they or their staff are not fully trained in how to use it."

While farm managers and farmers sons and daughters are coming out of college with better technical knowledge than ever, this too may need updating, says Mr Course. At the same time, the legislative burden on the industry is increasing and staff should be made aware of all relevant legal requirements and responsibilities.

Expectations and ambitions have also changed, and unless some forum for discussion of this is provided, staff or family members could become despondent about their prospects which may lead to poor levels of motivation.

"Where the job or career is going long term should be very much on the agenda. It has to be recognised that people will move on and change jobs in agriculture much more now than in the past," points out Mr Course.

In this context, appraisals between family members are just as important as those for employed staff. This is true even where father and son are the only farm labour, he says.

Planning for retirement is an important element of such discussions. "Delegating responsibility to the next generation as early as possible is so important. Sons and daughters need to be given individual areas of responsibility and be allowed to make their own mistakes," says Mr Course.

"They should come into the business when they are young enough and hungry enough. If they have to wait until they are 40 or even 50, they will have lost that drive, and may even lack confidence if they have been overshadowed all that time."

If conducted with honesty, the appraisal may even highlight where the lack of opportunity for some family members means that they must gain other skills and seek full or part time work in another area. This may build on skills acquired on the farm – for example, contract services – or it may mean a change of direction.

"A farmers son or farm manager coming on to a 300-400-acre farm will find that this will not offer him the opportunity to progress and develop right through his working life – some will have to go and do something different."

Farm staff should also be encouraged to plan for their retirement. Even if the employer does not offer any pension scheme, accommodation on retirement should be discussed, for example, whether staff should consider investing in a house to rent out until they retire.

One area to which Mr Course thinks more time should be devoted is in assessing the range of skills on the farm, with the aim of reducing the amount spent on bought in services such as those of the agronomist.

"We encourage all our farm managers to become BASIS qualified, and many of those coming out of college now have that qualification. Most arable farm managers can recognise weeds, pests and diseases very well – they may then need to get specialist advice about how to deal with their problem, but they could be saving £3.50 to £4/acre on field-walking charges."

The appraisal can also be used to inform staff about the performance of the business.

Margins get tighter

Farmers themselves need to be aware that they may require more training in certain areas in future, suggests Mr Course. Practical skills will be increasingly required as margins get tighter and farmers find themselves spending more time on tractors and in the workshop, for example. They also need these skills in order to be able to teach and train their staff.

The appraisal should end with an action plan being drawn up as a result of the discussion, with definite deadlines and dates. This can refer both to improvements or changes on the farm and to training needs.

"We follow this up with a written note to the employee on what was agreed and this will form the basis of next years discussion," says Mr Course.

Machines have steadily replaced staff on UK farms over the years. What staff are left work in increasing isolation and may not meet very often.

Under Bidwells system, farm staff get a chance to appraise their own performance – including their relationship with the farm owner, technical performance, leadership qualities and personal skills.

Under Bidwells system, farm staff get a chance to appraise their own performance – including their relationship with the farm owner, technical performance, leadership qualities and personal skills.

Bidwells Charles Course (right) says those who have taken up the idea of appraisals have often been sceptical at first but then seen real benefits.