Dairy Excel: The bad times and good human resource management

Bad times happen. The bad times often come from changes and calamities over which a farmer has no control.

Better times follow bad times as surely as bad times follow good times.

The human resource goal is clear – come out the other end with a group of employees at least as committed to the farm as when the bad times started.

The “right” human resource practices for bad times vary farm to farm.

The practices cannot be easily selected from some prescribed magical recipe. A practice that works for one farm may be a disaster for a neighboring farm.

The following list is a cafeteria of practices to consider for bad times.

Their relative importance is unrelated to their order in the list.

* Acknowledgment. Be honest about the bad times in hiring new employees. New employees already have enough challenge in dealing with a new job.

There is no need to add misinformation about the farm’s challenges.

New employees will appreciate an interviewer’s accurate description of the situation and what is being done to work through the bad times.

* Fair work. Be fair about work loads. It is common in bad times to expect other employees to pick up the work that had been done by an employee who has quit, been dismissed or retired.

Extra work with no explanation or adjustments in compensation leaves an impression of unfairness.

It is easy for employees in this situation to jump to the conclusion that the employer is better off as a result of there being one less person in the work force.

The employee’s view is that the work is still getting done and the farm has one less person on the payroll.

* Postpone work. Fairness may also require postponing some low priority work so that the work of the employee who left can be covered.

Temporary adjustments in compensation may also be justified including overtime pay and bonuses.

Sometimes farmers go so far as temporarily dividing the pay that the former       worker would have earned among the people now doing his or her work.

* Family fairness. Fairness to family members is also important.

When faced with a shortage of labor and resources to hire another employee, it is sometimes assumed that family members have unlimited dedication to the business and the capacity for more and more work with less and less sleep.

This bad assumption can have long lasting effects on relationships among family members. Marriages and quality of family life are also at stake.

* Continue to reward high quality employee performance.

The rewards can be in forms other than pay.

In fact, during bad times there may be no raises or even pay cuts for everyone.

Knowing what each employee will appreciate and consider as a reward is critical.

One employee may appreciate greater flexibility in scheduling work hours while another will appreciate his supervisor giving up her two tickets to the Ohio State-Michigan football game.

Verbal and written recognition of the sacrifices that employees are making during the bad times can be among the most important nonmonetary rewards.

* Prior duties. Honor previous commitments. Canceling the commitment to an employee for two weeks of unpaid vacation time so that he can visit his brother in Washington can have a bad impact on his morale and his co-workers.

Unless the employee volunteers to give up his promised unpaid vacation time, finding a way to cover for him should be a high priority.

* Thanks. Catch people doing things right and say thank you.

Stay on the lookout for great performance. Maybe the business can start an “extra mile” award for those people who truly go the extra mile for the good of the farm.

* Nitpick. Avoid nitpicking the performance of stressed and tired employees.

Nitpicking can make an employer appear insensitive to an employee’s effort.

They probably won’t notice that the farmer is making even more sacrifices and is more stressed than they.

Bad times call for patience and sensitivity to what employees are going through.

* Listening. Listen to what employees have to say about problems and what can be done about them.

Listen with an open mind. Listen without immediately judging the worth of their ideas.

Ask how and why not when evaluating their ideas.

* New challenges. Provide new goals and new challenges for employees that will help the farm get through the bad times.

No matter how discouraged and skeptical employees may be, they want something to believe in.

It says that the farm is doing something about the bad times rather than simply waiting and hoping for better times.

Finding out how to earn a profit at lower prices, how to get the work done with one less employee and how to cob together workable repairs for the old combine rather than replace it are examples of problems where employees may have the best ideas.

* Good news. Avoid reinforcing how bad the times are day after day. Avoid having one more discussion that includes no good news.

Disagree with employees who say there is no hope. Help employees understand that better times follow bad times.

Help employees understand that other businesses are worse off.

* Family, friends. Avoid the myth that treating employees as friends and family will cause them to sympathize and be willing to sacrifice more.

In fact, taking advantage of “friends” during bad times can damage relationships rather than making employees happy sufferers.

* Priority management. Continue giving priority to your management responsibilities.

Filling the shoes of former workers by working alongside everyone else says to the remaining employees that you are avoiding important management responsibilities.

They expect you to be looking out for the longer-run interests of the farm and deciding how to get out of the current mess.

Avoiding trouble? Bad times are not fun for anyone. They cannot, however, be avoided.

Top managers in the farm have the primary responsibility for leading the business through the bad times.

Human resource practices adjusted to fit the bad times are important to making it to better times.

Bad times need not weaken the employer/employee relationships that have been built in good times.

Ironically, employee problems handled well during bad times can strengthen the work force and employee commitment to the farm.

(The author is an ag economist at Ohio State University specializing in human resource issues and a member of the OSU Extension DairyExcel team. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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