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Better employees for a better business

It turns out that giving your employees opportunities to improve their skills really can be good for business

When you want a little more crop from the field, you shell out a little more for fertilizer. Or if it’s a few more pounds you’re looking for from your livestock, you spend a bit more on feed.

Is it true of employees too? Can a little extra investment boost your results?

There’s an extra consideration, of course. Few farms can compete on wages with every business in the area, and they’ve had to face the possibility that almost any employee might leave for a better-paying job in, for instance, the oilfield or manufacturing.

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So why put effort into upgrading the skills of your employees, when it’s only going to benefit their next employer?

But now there’s a new twist, because it turns out that investing in your employees can not only help the farm in the short term, it can improve employee retention too.

There are many factors to consider, however.

Gerard Bos, who works for the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Workforce Development Initiative, says he is seeing primary producers with clear objectives. They are looking either to minimize annual staff turnover or to improve work quality.

They also have a clear idea of how to get the job done in a business-smart way. Using cost-share programs like Alberta’s Retention Improvement Grant or Productivity Improvement Grant, farmers get to work with a consultant to identify specific employment needs and to implement a strategy that is customized to meet them.

Such options are highly flexible, but do keep in mind that farmers really aren’t the main group that is supposed to benefit from these programs.

“Our programs are open to primary agriculture and food processing… and 90 per cent of what we do is on the processing side,” Bos explains.

Plus, skills training may not always be your best approach. “If it’s a feedlot and they have some staff but they don’t have any professional HR capacity, they might hire a consultant to develop job descriptions,” Bos says. “Or we’ve seen farmers use the funding to develop an orientation program.”

In the heart of southwestern Ontario, Gary Mawhiney of Ag HR Solutions, says incurring a few non-training costs might also be very effective for keeping employees. A Christmas or birthday card, for example, costs very little but can go a long way with an employee. Providing coffee and doughnuts at break time can be another low-cost investment.

Mawhiney also often recommends drug plans because when an ill employee discovers a $200 drug is only going to cost them $20, they’re incredibly grateful for their employer.

When designing retention programs, however, the guiding principal is very simple.

“If you treat your employees as you treat yourself, or better, you’ll get it back in spades,” Mawhiney says. “You want the pros, and if you find someone who is giving you really good quality and is making a difference, why would you object to paying more?”

Granted, not everyone can afford to spend more on labour. Still there are very simple ways to keep your hired help, or to make them run away.

Mawhiney says he had one case where it seemed all of a farm’s workers were walking off the job all at once. On location, Mawhiney soon learned the very simple reason was because the couple running the farm had suddenly stopped saying hello to their employees in the mornings.

Struggling through a divorce, the couple had been unaware how this one small change in behaviour was affecting staff, but employees had picked up on it as proof that the rumour was right — the farm was about to be dissolved.

The upshot was that even the best employees started seeking new jobs, unaware that the owners were still committed to keeping the operation viable.

It offers a critical lesson any farm manager is wise to heed, Mawhiney says. “Your employees need feedback.”

Yet this too feeds back to the case for investing in skills enhancement.

According to a study conducted this past spring by international talent consultant Mercer Global, a lack of communication from managers and lack of transparency about career progression within the organization impacts employee loyalty in almost every industry. More than 75 per cent of employees said they would stay at their job if they knew what their career path with the organization might look like, and over half of employees said they get “no input” or “input only once in a while” on how to do their jobs better.

A quarter of employees said “not at all” or “hardly ever” when asked if their company makes it easy to understand opportunities for advancement.

The biggest surprise, however, is that it can be fairly simple to give employees a reason for answering yes.

Mawhiney points to conferences as an example, and he typically recommends employers send each of their workers to at least one conference per year, paying for the registration, travel, and meals of each individual, and also paying their wages for the day.

Dr. Sara Mann at the University of Guelph suggests that keeping such strategies simple is the best way to retain and motivate hired help. You don’t have to do any goal setting. There doesn’t have to be a paper trail. You just need to give some consideration to three areas of your business, and then act with purpose.

1. Does investing in employees fit your business model?

It’s not true that all businesses should always look to invest in their employees. Some businesses need to remain focused on cost management, and Mann says organizations intent on producing a high-quality product or exceptional customer service tend to benefit most from investing in their employees. In rural areas, however, a huge consideration can be retaining good workers.

“I think farmers would have a tendency to look more at the individual and think about what the right thing to do would be,” Mann says. “Given that positions are very specific on farms and involve some skills, it would be wise for them to invest in their employees to hang on to them.”

2. Are your current employees committed to you?

Employees can be committed to their job because they have to be. This is called continuous commitment, and it is exemplified when someone has been with a company for 20 years and they continue to stay so they don’t lose their pension plan, even if they hate their job.

Another category of commitment is called normative, where an employee stays because of commitments to friends or family connections.

“We don’t want employees to have either of these types of motivation because we know it doesn’t lead to higher motivation on the job or influence their job performance,” Mann says. “What we want is someone who has affective commitment and stays because they love to work there.”

When your employees brag about their workplace, those high levels of affective commitment produce employees who show up to work without being late and generally go above and beyond while they’re there. If that sounds pretty ideal, it’s important to understand one of the ways an employer can get this type of commitment from their employees is by investing in them. But the difference between generating affective commitment, instead of continuous or normative commitment, is communication.

“Explain to your employee why you’re investing in them, and that you know there’s a risk they might leave,” Mann advises. “That will go a long way in boosting their affective commitment.”

3. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it

The two most effective, zero-cost ways to cultivate affective commitment are to provide continuous feedback and demonstrate fairness. “Telling your employees what they should stop, start, or continue doing on a daily or weekly basis is a really quick and easy way for employers to enhance the experience of their employees,” Mann says. This generates intrinsic motivation that too many managers neglect to foster. Managers also commonly fail to communicate their reasoning for decisions they’ve made. “For any decision made in assigning a job, vacation, or hours worked, or any decision related to the individual’s employment, make sure the decision is fair and that the employee sees it as fair,” Mann recommends. Quite often supervisors will make a decision that’s completely fair, she explains, but when they don’t communicate why they made the decision, the perception is that it was unfair, even if there’s a good reason the supervisor simply hasn’t shared.

If you feel confident your employees are happy with the amount of job performance feedback they are getting and that the decisions regarding their work are fair, it’s time to talk about motivation. “Different people are looking for different kinds of motivators,” Mann says. “Some people might like a snack at coffee break, other people could care less because they don’t eat in the morning.”

Ask employees about your ideas for rewards. Find out if these are things they would like. Maybe it would put them behind at work. Maybe it conflicts with their commitments they have outside of work. Maybe it’s just not something that interests them.

“Figuring out that you’re giving rewards that match the people you’re giving them to is really important,” Mann says. This is where you have to be careful not to project your own desires onto the people who work for you, she adds. Invite their input and ask what you could be doing differently.

But don’t confuse rewards with reinforcers, she advises. Providing a snack at coffee break is a reward. It’s going to increase morale, but not job performance. A reinforcer on the other hand, is a reward that you give that is tied to performance. Often managers offer these in the form of a financial bonus but reinforcers don’t have to be a huge monetary reward. Managers who have these important conversations will soon learn that for some people, a half-day off would be more welcome and save an unnecessary cost while still reaping the reward of an invested employee.

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Amy Petherick

Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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