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Top HR issues for farmers

Concerns about employment standards and employee performance are driving more farmers into HR training

Young Farmer Carrying a Bale of Hay

When human resources consultant Janice Goldsborough first gets a telephone call from a farmer, it’s usually with questions related to employment standards.

“They might be asking about whether they have to pay overtime, the rules around statutory holidays, or is their farm even covered under employment standards; those are typically the kind of questions that farmers ask,” says Goldsborough, who is contracted by Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and the Manitoba Pork Council to help their members with HR issues.

Unfortunately, most of those calls occur when something has gone wrong, which is something Goldsborough is trying to change by raising awareness about the need for sound HR strategies for farm businesses.

“I go to producer meetings and do a lot of presentations about HR and employment rules, and most times they look at me like I’ve got three heads because they’ve always done things their way and are reluctant to change,” says Goldsborough. “Then they call me a month or two later saying, ‘I got my hand slapped, so I had better start looking at what I’m really supposed to be doing.’”

If a farm is strictly a grain operation, employment standards don’t usually apply to them but if the farm has any kind of climate-controlled operations, for example a cattle barn, dairy or pig barn, employment standards often apply, whether they employ only family or not.

“In the past there was never a separate Employment Standards Act for agriculture. Everybody was lumped in together and it was up to Employment Standards to try and figure out who was covered and who wasn’t,” says Goldsborough. “Now there is a separate act for agriculture, and for construction and a number of other industries, so I think that was an awakening for many producers. And of course, with changes in government there are always changes in employment standards, and it’s quite complex to keep up with those changes.”

Next generation more concerned with HR

Goldsborough helps farms develop a HR strategy, and says that HR is increasingly being recognized as an important part of farm management, especially among the next generation of farmers.

“The universities are really focusing more on the human resource aspect,” says Goldsborough. “The older generation is looking at succession planning and it’s the younger ones who are coming out of school with a better knowledge about HR issues.

Goldsborough’s strategic HR framework starts with looking at the legal side of the operations. “Are they following employment standards and do they need written policies?” she says. “Smaller farms maybe don’t but larger farms should have policies in place that state how much vacation somebody gets, how much time off they get for lunch and other basics like that. Do they have job descriptions? How can the business hire somebody if it doesn’t know what it wants them to do or the skills required to do the job?”

Often, HR issues arise for farm businesses when they start to hire people other than family members and realize that they need to get up to speed on employment rules and requirements. Workers Compensation, as an example, was an eye-opener for many producers when it became compulsory for the farming industry a few years ago.

Goldsborough helps identify some of the pain points for farmers and provides some training to help them through the processes involved in HR management, including recruitment.

Helping with the recruitment process

Rick Prejet has worked with Goldsborough over the past couple of years as chair of the Manitoba Pork Council’s Sustainable Development and Research Committee. He has also found her advice and knowledge invaluable to his swine operation near Notre Dame in southern Manitoba that employs 35 people.

Some of Prejet’s staff have attended Goldsborough’s recruitment training courses. “It’s given our staff a better understanding of things like how to run an interview, and what questions you can and cannot ask,” says Prejet. “It’s also helped them understand some of the legal responsibilities when you’re recruiting and once you have somebody hired.”

Farm employers are also dealing with different expectations from their employees. Increasingly, younger people are more concerned with life/work balance than their predecessors were. Young parents also want flexible working hours to accommodate their children’s needs, and employees from other countries may have different cultural approaches to employment.

“It’s been very valuable for our staff to attend Janice’s courses because she talks about other cultures, and we have a lot of foreign employees,” says Prejet. “Each culture is very unique and she has helped us understand what things are important to them, for example, their respect of elders.”

Being able to understand the expectations and needs of employees across different genders, demographics and cultures, and to incorporate that into an HR strategy helps keep employees engaged and feeling that they are valued, which has immense benefits to the farm business because recruiting and training new employees is costly and disruptive to operations. “It can really shock some people how much they spend to hire employees,” says Goldsborough. “I always say, if you’ve spent all this money, you want to keep them so let’s look at things like training, staff development and performance management.”

Managing employee performance

The Manitoba Pork Council’s HR Committee recently surveyed its members to find out what HR issues were priorities for its industry, and performance management and conflict resolution topped the list.

“These are broad issues that we have to wrap our heads around,” says Prejet. “Typically, in farming in the past, you didn’t spend much time on HR. It’s definitely a different world today because you notice that if you do or say the wrong thing for certain people, all of a sudden, the performance is not there and it can spread quickly amongst the whole staff. To build a culture and maintain it is a challenge. For us, we want to find the best ways of motivating employees.”

Most of the employees that Prejet has hired over the last few years have been friends or relatives of existing employees. But, with expansion plans for the business in the works, the company needs to adopt different strategies to recruit people with the management skills it needs.

Prejet has also started advertising in local newspapers, through the Manitoba Pork Council and through the federal government’s Job Bank website.“We need to have more people with management abilities and people skills, and they tend to be harder to find,” says Prejet.

It’s crucial, says Prejet, that the company find people who can manage and motivate the many different cultures it has within its workforce.

“Every country has its own culture, and its own method of production and everybody’s got their own views on health and safety and so many other things,” he says. “It’s not easy to put all that together and find somebody that can come in and push everybody to do a better job, but also lead them and have them buy in on that. If it doesn’t work out you lose months of time and you’ve got to start all over again and there’s no guarantee the next person is going to work out any better.”

That’s why Prejet and his company are working on a complete HR strategy that includes a bigger plan to develop the people they have.

“We want all of our staff to take these HR courses, not just our managers because conflict resolution is not just about somebody coming in and taking care of everything; people have to understand what’s going on,” says Prejet. “When we sent people to conflict resolution training in years past, they came back with a better understanding that if I’m part of the problem, I need to be part of the solution. It’s good for everybody to take this kind of training.”

Prejet says Goldsborough has provided them with some excellent tools to help the process along, including a couple of online manuals to set up company HR policies that they are adapting to their own company. Having that outside help has been critical for them, he adds.

“Janice is independent and her advice is non-judgmental; it’s not government related because people are often scared that they’re going to get in trouble with Workplace Health and Safety or the Labour Board or something,” he says. “She helps farms be within the rules and regulations but also to understand the people they’re working with. It’s nice to be able to pick up the phone and know, even if she isn’t an expert in every field, she’ll help us with what she can and direct us on to someone else for the things she doesn’t know.”

What does it cost to replace a worker?

It costs a lot more than you think, according to research

The cost of replacing a single worker can be as much as 150 per cent of their annual salary.

“Turnover” is the rate at which workers leave and are replaced. Many farmers don’t know what their turnover cost is, yet it can have a major impact on the productivity and profitability of their farm.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) has just launched two new online tools to help farmers calculate and understand their turnover costs and see how their turnover compares against industry benchmarks for their province and commodity.

The Cost of Turnover Calculator estimates the financial cost of each worker departure including employee wages and benefits, separation costs, hiring and training costs and the cost of employee ramp-up time.

The Turnover Benchmarking Tool allows a farm to see how its turnover rate compares to other farms in the same province or commodity and assess whether that turnover rate is healthy or if it is hurting the farm business.

Employee turnover is a costly issue for farms across Canada. Once you’ve hired motivated, committed and qualified people, it is key to retain these workers. While turnover is a natural part of business, avoiding unnecessary turnover will ensure that your business is as productive and profitable as possible.

The Turnover Calculator and Benchmarking Tool research was funded in part by the federal government’s Sectoral Initiatives Program.

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Angela Lovell

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