Advice on hiring, motivating and training farm staff

Farmers are often the first to say that they are stockmen, not people managers. But as units get bigger and the labour market becomes more competitive, producers can no longer afford to ignore this employer duty.

Brexit adds further challenges around sourcing labour, too. Quite simply, farmers need to get smarter at how they attract, manage and retain staff.

We asked a panel of three people consultants to answer key staff management questions, some of which were submitted by FW readers.

The panel includes:

  • Gaynor Wellwood, independent consultant and dairy farmer (GW)
  • Ian Lindsay, LKL and Agristaff Consulting (IL)
  • Paul Harris, people consultant from Real Success (PH)

Many farmers say they struggle to find good staff – what’s the answer?

Gaynor Wellwood: It starts with the advert and recruitment. Sometimes ads can be too bland or have too much information. It needs to strike a balance.

Be clear and concise, draft a job description before you place it, include some summary points of what you want the person to deliver and be clear about the experience needed.

But it’s not just about an ad. It’s having a reputation and showing that you’re business focused and forward thinking. That attracts good staff.

Top tips when employing staff

  • Write a clear job description.
  • Communicate your values and business objectives clearly.
  • Be honest about the positives and negatives of the job and tell them your future plans.
  • Make sure the interview process is professional – don’t forget, they are interviewing you as much as you them.
  • Plan questions in advance to keep you on track and ensure you cover all relevant areas.
  • Do a two-stage interview – one desk interview and one among the dairy herd. Ask them for their observations when walking the farm.
  • Carry out a personality profile on your shortlisted candidates prior to interview.

Ian Lindsay: Farmer attitude to staff is far more important than facilities.

You need to develop a reputation as a good employer. If you’re putting time and resources into staff training and you shout about it, that will give you the edge over most farmers.

Paul Harris: I always say, make sure everybody has MMFI printed on their forehead – Make Me Feel Important.

It may feel cheesy, but do you make your staff feel as important as your cows or your land? The businesses that do are the ones that staff go to.

Holding on to staff is another common complaint. What’s the secret to keeping them?

GW: It comes back to the interview process and setting out clear objectives then and communicating the standards you want to achieve.

Also, provide continued professional development.

Speak to individuals to identify what training they would like as it will be different for different people.

And ask your team to provide ideas on how they think things could be done better. You’re looking to empower them and give them ownership of the business.

IL: It’s about developing the right climate. That comes from treating labour as an investment, rather than a cost. Also, there needs to be an awareness of how the team feels about the job and about you.

Satisfaction surveys can help identify underlying issues in the team by asking how they feel about certain areas. But the results need to be posted where people can see them and acted on.

PH: Train people and invest in training. People often say “what happens if I invest in people and they leave?” but my question is, what happens if you don’t invest in people and they stay?

If they leave in four years, you’ve got the most from them and then you attract the best people as you’ve invested.

Family dynamics often cause issues on family farms, what’s the best way to manage these challenges?

GW: It’s easy in family businesses to make assumptions that you know what’s going on and you don’t need planning meetings, but it’s probably even more important.

In our own dairy farming business, we meet once a week to discuss the plans for the week ahead. Also, have financial planning meetings to discuss business performance against budget.

IL: Have clearly defined roles and a formal agreement of who does what and future succession plans. And try to leave the business at the kitchen door.

PH: The main challenge is families don’t see each other as colleagues. If they were colleagues, you’d have clear roles.

I’ve sat with families in tears of relief after they understand their place in the family and it provides clarity on what they’re good at and it relieves tension.

Also, have you ever interviewed your son or daughter? You just presume they can do the job. You need to invest in their skills and develop them as a person. That will help with harmony. It’s grounded in understanding your children and their strengths and weaknesses like you would an employee.

What’s the best way to motivate staff?

GW: Carry out annual appraisals to get an idea about what motivates your staff. It may not be money, it may be a crush that makes their life easier or a study tour. You’ll find that motivations change as people mature so it’s important to keep on top of that.

See also: How to conduct a successful appraisal with your staff

IL: It’s about empowering staff. Have regular meetings with all of the team in one room. One of the first meetings I do on farm is a “strategy execution plan”.

Talk to the team about the aims of the business and engage them in providing the answers.

Then explain how every person at all levels has a role to play in achieving that. Tell people why they do a job and give them praise when they do it well. That can often be more appreciated than say £50 for doing it.

PH: The key is to create an environment that’s motivating. When you’re a boss, it’s saying thank you and admitting when you’re wrong. That’s hugely motivating.

If a farm has a small team, with one problem person, what’s the best way to deal with the issue?

GW: Bring in a specialist HR person to help with a problem person and work through a programme of improvements together.

If you don’t bring in external help, the risk is you can get into difficulty. It’s worth getting support. This may still result in the person exiting the business, but the right process must be followed.

IL: See what the underlying problem is and take a proactive approach to address it. Don’t just ignore it, nip it in the bud early.

Sit down with the problem person and be open with them. Ask them what’s causing the issue and if there’s anything you can do to resolve it.

If you have to get rid of them, it’s a 12-month process with a series of written warnings, but ultimately you’ve got to deal with it because often a problem person can cause other people to leave.

Staff using mobile phones can be a problem. What can be done to minimise the issue?

GW: When you take people on, you need to have a clear policy on mobile phones. For example, it may be OK at break or lunch or in an emergency, but the rest of the time, it needs to be put on silent.

When people join the business, give them an orientation pack. This should include things like health and safety policy, emergency contact numbers, farm maps, and mobile phone policy.

IL: It’s a careful game to play but you can play on the health and safety side as mobiles can be a distraction.

If it’s a real issue, you can ask them to leave it in the break room and issue them with walkie-talkies. Then if they have an accident, they have an instant form of communication.

Annual appraisals

Annual appraisals are a valuable tool in helping to identify areas for improvement on farm and to find out what motivates your team.

Some questions to include in an appraisal include:

  • What is your understanding of your main responsibilities?
  • What do you consider to be your most important/significant achievements of the past year?
  • What do you consider to have been your biggest challenges/difficulties of the past year?
  • What help could the business give you to develop you or improve your performance?
  • What do you consider to be the three most important areas for you to focus on in the coming year?
  • Are there any other issues you’d like to discuss at your review?

Always give the team a week to fill out their written appraisal before the meeting and fill one out as an employer, too. It may be worth doing a one-on-one appraisal between employee and employer and then a whole team workshop together on team dynamics. Using an external facilitator to guide the review can also be helpful.

(Source: Gaynor Wellwood)

Webinars on demand

Several Farmers Weekly webinars are available to view including topics such as Agribanking, Succession and Tax, OSR yields and more.
Watch now