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Getting onboard with your employees

The most valuable time you spend with any employee may be their first few hours on the job

Whew! After months of advertising, searching and interviewing, you’ve finally found and hired someone to help on your farm. As processes go, this one has been stressful, time-consuming, and more than a little frustrating.

Nor is that surprising. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council found in 2014 that our farms have a job vacancy rate of seven per cent, leading to an estimated $1.5 billion in lost annual cash receipts for Canadian farmers.

But in this case, your new employee arrives on their first day actually on time. You breathe a sigh of relief, assign them a job and promptly go about your business.

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Wait! Before you close the door to your office to catch up on paperwork or make the calls that you’ve been putting off, it’s time for what human resources folks call “onboarding.”

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, onboarding is the process that helps new hires get quickly and smoothly adjusted to the social and performance aspects of their jobs, and helps them learn the attitudes, knowledge, skills and behaviours required to function effectively within an organization.

It turns out that if you do more than just the traditional job training during the first week, your employees will stay longer and generally be happier.

This introductory period is a perfect time to connect and engage the new person, as well as train and inform them, because a longer and more in-depth and structured orientation process will help new employees learn about their role and the farm’s culture and values.

“Research shows that fully half of new hires decide they will leave the company, business, or organization in the first week on the job,” says Bob Milligan, professor emeritus of applied economics and management at Cornell University, and currently a farm human resources consultant based out of Minnesota. “Not all leave immediately, and a few probably change their minds and stay, but most leave eventually without ever becoming engaged employees.”

So what exactly does a manager have to do to get a new employee onboard. It’s more than teaching the skills required to do the job and filling out paperwork. It’s about making them feel welcome and giving them a plan of what their new job is going to look like.

Onboarding should continue until the employee is acclimatized to your vision, core values, and farm culture, and they are fully performing the job. So be prepared for it to take time. In fact, human resources experts says the first three months at a new job strongly affect an employee’s decision to stay longer.

According to Milligan, there are three parts of onboarding — orientation, engagement and training. Usually we do it in the opposite order and start with training.

Here are some ideas to help you get your new employees onboard.


Try imagining driving up to your farm for the first time, as if you’ve never been there. Where do you park? When is start time? What and who are important to what jobs? Where’s the bathroom? The lunchroom? What do people wear here? When is the lunch hour? When are the breaks?

Answering these very obvious questions can be key to someone adjusting quickly to a new job. However, when you are so close to a workplace (maybe even raised on it) it’s easy to forget these things.

For example, don’t forget to share key phone numbers. And if you have a cellphone use policy, now is the time to explain it. As well, think ahead and outline the seasonal expectations and how payroll works. Tell them how to let you know when something happens and they can’t make it to work or will be late.

Write down an orientation checklist, thinking about all the things a new person would need to know to feel comfortable. A good approach, Milligan suggests, is to ask the most recent employee you’ve hired to help develop the checklist and add to it over time. The information the new employee requires in orientation may be so second nature to you, he says, you may overlook important questions.


Gone are the days when you could simply show a new employee where the tractor was parked, and then point to the field that needs work and let them go at it. Today when an employee may be taking on both high-skilled and low-skilled jobs, as well as some jobs that are complex and some that are repetitive, plus jobs sometimes where dangerous machinery is involved, training is essential.

As well as making it a safer work environment, good training can increase consistency and productivity, and it can reduce employee turnover. “Explain why tasks are performed the way they are,” Milligan recommends. “This explanation will enhance the new employee’s comfort level, confidence, and engagement in the tasks and the farm.”

Also know your provincial regulations. As of July 2014, for instance, workplaces covered under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act include all farms with paid employees. They must complete basic health and safety awareness training.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s human resources tool kit has modules to develop on-the-job training for workers in lower-skilled positions, a safety training program for your workers, and records to track training and procedures. Documenting training can potentially resolve legal or insurance issues resulting from workplace injury or illness.

Also, keep in mind that training should be longer than one session or one day. Don’t simply forget about new employees. And whatever you do, do not forget that they’re new, even if they seem very competent. Managers should regularly check in on new employees, especially in their first months.


Engagement can begin on day one. “The most productive, easiest to supervise, and longest tenured employees are those who are passionate about the farm’s success,” says Milligan.

Frequently discuss and use the farm’s vision and core values, starting during the recruitment process. This can include sharing the history of your farm and the people who founded it. In addition, explain your hopes for the future and how you plan to make those dreams happen.

“Let your passion for the farm show through,” says Milligan.

The first week is also not too early to talk about opportunities for career paths at your farm. By connecting early with possibilities, you’ll stimulate goal setting and engagement. Beside new employees are likely to be thinking about their futures.

For many, as well, being connected to the people at their workplace can be as important as the work itself, so managers need to build strong relationships with their entire workforce. Having friends at work is usually correlated with engagement and long-term service.

During the orientation of the first week, also take time to introduce your new employee to everyone they will be working with, maybe using your knowledge of the new employee to suggest common interests. Also, share the traditions and events important to the farm’s people and the community’s culture, says Milligan.

This social need goes beyond the first day, so it’s important to check in to make sure the new employee is being assimilated into the workforce.

To make sure this happens, Milligan suggests explaining to new employees on their first day that you’ll meet with them weekly at a set time to discuss their onboarding process.

And never forget these two simple questions: What’s going great? What could be better?

About the author

Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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