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Job descriptions: The right HR tool for our farms

“Self-efficacy” is a concept worth learning for farmers who want to manage their way to better farm productivity

“It’s different than self-esteem,” says Sara Mann, of the University of Guelph. “Self-esteem is your overall belief in yourself. Self-efficacy is task specific… it’s the belief that you can actually do your job.”

Self-efficacy is an idea whose time is right, says Mann, who has trained over 120 farm owners and supervisors on how to more effectively manage employees as part of an OMAFRA-funded research study.

“Self-efficacy one of the top motivators for individuals,” Mann says.

And for farm managers, she says, it’s also actionable, with results that are worth the effort.

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In its way, it could hardly be simpler. Self-efficacy starts with the employee being confident they understand the job they have to do. So the recommendation for farmers is to develop job descriptions than ensure employees know those jobs, and that everyone is on the same page.

“Only then can a person work on having a high level of self-efficacy,” says Mann.

Job descriptions still aren’t high on the agenda for very many family farms. Even so, farmers who recently participated in focus groups to help the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) develop its National Occupational Standards for different sectors of the industry came away excited at how useful the tools could be to their own farms.

“We had people who said: ‘I need this on my farm,’” says Jade Reeve, manager of agri-jobs research and tools at CAHRC.

“Sometimes the formal HR process can be intimidating,” Reeve says. “Farmers are busy with their operations, so they were happy to see the templates we developed for them and to see it’s not as hard as they imagined it to be.”

Making expectations clear

A job description is a valuable tool for farm managers, family members and employees because it helps to articulate expectations This creates clear parameters for the job, and also identifies the knowledge and experience needed to fulfill that role.

“It’s a good starting place to ensure the family member or employee has the training they need for the position,” says Reeve.

In recent years, a series of agricultural management training programs have been emphasizing the importance of HR strategies and tools like job descriptions and performance appraisals. One of these programs is Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTEAM), and CTEAM instructor Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of the College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph, says she is encouraged by how many family farms have adopted HR policies and how effective they have been.

“In some of my discussions with farmers, around the topic of job descriptions in particular, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of farms that report having them and they speak about how incredibly helpful they’ve been,” Christensen Hughes says. “The farms that implement job descriptions realize how much misunderstanding and confusion there has actually been about people’s roles, which has been causing conflict in some cases.”

How the Brenns got started

Shawn Brenn would be the first to recognize that his team of employees are fundamental to the success of Brenn B Farms, the fourth generation family farm that has an employee pool during peak season of 75 people. Brenn feels that job descriptions are vital for medium- to large-scale farm operations. “As our business increased in size, it became apparent that we needed to create some formal structure in order to meet the changing demands of our business” says Brenn.

“Our workplace has always been flexible and very family oriented but we had a couple of past employees who felt as though their work schedule should change frequently based on their personal schedules,” says Brenn. “In turn, I felt that the morale of our employee group was starting to shift in a negative way. I blame myself for not taking appropriate measures. We did not have the proper job descriptions and documentation in place to performance manage.”

Brenn started by creating an employee handbook so that everyone was aware of the company’s expectations and policies. “We wanted to be employers who, if someone needed to go to the doctor or wanted to watch their child’s school concert, we would try to accommodate their request but also ensure the needs of the operation were met,” he says.

Next, the business developed job descriptions. The idea was sound but the task of sitting down and writing job descriptions was daunting.

“There are not enough hours in a year to write job descriptions for everything that gets done on the farm,” says Brenn. “I met with each employee and we worked on the job descriptions together. We wanted to make the job descriptions list specific tasks yet leave some flexibility to assign other duties.”

That flexibility is especially important on the farm, he says. “There will be times when you cannot do your main tasks due to weather so we’re going to want you to do some work in the shop or packing/processing operations. Some days it is all hands on deck to fix a breakdown or get an order out, and we need that flexibility and commitment from our team members, and they are always good with that.”

The Steeles adopt a coaching tool

After taking CTEAM five years ago, John and Eadie Steele decided to implement job descriptions on their family-owned sheep farm near Norwood, Ont. They began with a detailed job description for the temporary foreign workers they employ each season. It clarifies tasks and helped form the basis for an employee manual.

“Our employee manual has a whole bunch of operating procedures and other things, and the job description we wrote is almost like the index to the standard operating procedures for each month and for each task,” says John Steele. “We thought, we’ve got the job description, so why don’t we cut and paste it and drop it into the manual and set out all the things an employee will be doing.”

Steele believes firmly in the value of having both job descriptions and an employee manual. “If staff need a reminder about something, we can say go and look in your employee manual. It’s a go-to, and it helps with performance reviews because you can say, as outlined in our employee manual, these are the ways that you are expected to do this task,” says Steele. “It’s a coaching tool, and we can add anything to it that we think is helpful. For example, for our foreign temporary workers, we include things such as, ‘This is what poison ivy looks like and don’t touch it.’ There are all the important contact numbers for people like the veterinarian, mechanics, the guy that fixes tires, so that when we are away things can carry on.”

The manual also has maps of the farm, with the names of every field and how they all relate on an overlay map so new employees can orient themselves and not get lost. “We farm 17 different parcels of land and it’s quite complex to find your way around the township and find the properties,” says Steele. “Now all the employee has to do is take a photocopy of the map, put it in the front of the truck with them and they’ve got directions.”

Foundation of the HR strategy

Job descriptions are foundational documents that can provide the basis for other tools that define the HR strategy and, in some cases, the overall organizational structure and culture of the farm business.

“It allows you to do a performance appraisal, develop interview questions, and develop a pay system. It’s the foundation of everything that you do from an HR perspective,” says Mann.

Unfortunately, many employers don’t realize they need a job description until there is an employee problem. “Maybe it’s some sort of legal issue or somebody’s not performing, then all of sudden the issue of job description comes up because the employer wants to do a performance appraisal,” says Mann. “It’s very rare, from my experience, to see a farm that is proactive enough to have job descriptions in place ahead of some sort of problem.”

Yet without job descriptions, farmers can find themselves in a bad spot from a legal standpoint.

“If someone feels discriminated against or feels they’ve been dismissed for the wrong reason, the first thing you’re going to be asked to produce are performance reviews and the job description,” Mann says. “It’s critical to have a job description because if you don’t, it can put you in a situation where you may not be legally defensible.”

The content of job descriptions varies depending on the type of operation, but they should be consistent for all employees, advises Mann. “It should be detailed enough that it’s representative of the job and the same process should be used for every position in the organization, because being consistent in how you write job descriptions improves your legal defensibility if someone raises a grievance.”

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