Over the past two years, my colleague at Michigan State University Extension, Phil Durst and I have received answers to questions regarding satisfaction and engagement from 174 employees on 14 dairy farms. The project was designed to obtain anonymous feedback from employees and then develop a report for owners and managers that would help them improve their employee management.
On today’s dairy farms, we rely on employees to handle the daily care of animals, equipment, etc. If farms are going to be successful in meeting their quality, production, and profitability goals, it will be because employees are performing their job to the best of their abilities.
Our interviewer asked employees “What do you like most about working at this dairy?” and “What do you like least?” These are open-ended questions that enable people to share whatever they are thinking.
Some of what we learned can be used by farm owners in recruiting new employees, and other responses can help managers and owners improve their management and thereby retain the good employees they already have.
Frequently, we heard what we call “generic” responses, such as “I like working with animals (or equipment)”, “I like working outdoors” as things that employees like most. That is good; we certainly want employees who enjoy the general job they are doing. These responses can help employers develop job ads and descriptions that will attract those who share these preferences.
But as we shared with farm owners and managers, positive responses specific to their operation showed us that employees had a loyalty to this farm, rather than just liking farm work. Farm-specific responses fell in the following categories;
- Teamwork on the farm
- Owner/Manager and their treatment of employees
- The job itself
- Learning on the job.
Imagine your next job posting promoting being able to work on a farm where there is great teamwork, employees are treated as part of the family, the job is challenging and fast-paced, and there is opportunity to grow in the business!
Most frequent responses on the “Like Least” question included:
- Owner attitude/treatment of employees
- Communication deficiencies
- Perceived fairness issues
- Lack of teamwork
- Work schedule problems, and
- Equipment problems.
Owner attitude and treatment of employees included things like poor employee management, owner or manager swearing, coming to work with a bad attitude, etc. Owners/managers are responsible to set the tone on the farm. If we want a work environment that is positive, respectful, and productive, it starts at the top. Owners/managers have a responsibility to lead, and good employees recognize when we are doing a good job. Management also cannot put off dealing with problem employees. If you do, the good employees will leave, not those that you are letting slide.
Communication is another important area that was lacking, and was often magnified by language barriers. Management has the responsibility to lower these barriers and ensure that employees feel they have a voice on the farm.
Closely tied to communication is fairness. We heard from employees on several farms that they didn’t feel that they all were being treated the same within their respective farm. Often times the perception of fairness is impacted by poor communication. Employees need to know “why” things are the way they are. If you don’t adequately communicate with them, they will come up with their own story to explain the situation. It is much better for them to know the real “why”!
Like many of the negatives, teamwork, is either a plus or a minus on your farm from an employee’s perspective. Most employees want to be part of a well-functioning team. They don’t want to work in an environment were there are frequent employee-to-employee conflicts. Good employees will leave this type of farm, just like they will leave a farm with a poor manager.
Work schedule came up as a frequent “like least” answer as well. One take home message from our employee surveys is that farms should not assume that certain groups of people want to work long hours, and every day of the week. We need to work with employees to make their jobs livable, enjoyable and rewarding. We need to make sure they have time for a personal life as well.
Finally, employees need to have equipment that works. Working with broken equipment that is slow to be repaired will reduce employee productivity, increase employee accidents, and likely will cost more than the repair.
So what would your employees say about you and your farm? It’s your reputation that we are talking about. In future articles, Phil Durst and I will address these areas and how managers and owners can improve them.