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Get professional with your HR

The Doelman family is finding their HR plan is an essential pillar for their farm’s success. You may too

With the current shortage of good labour in the ag industry, putting more effort into HR planning can help you keep your staff, thereby saving the cost and aggravation of recruiting and training new people — if you can find them.

Hiring new staff is worse than dating, says Jennifer Doelman, who farms with her husband Michael near Renfrew, Ont. “We have good staff, and we wanted to know what we could do to keep them,” says Doelman who completed a human resource (HR) plan as part of a farm business management course she took in 2014 through the Agri-food Management Institute (AMI).

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The plan is helping to stabilize the farm business during the succession process. Doelman and her husband have taken over the farm and seed part of the business while Doelman’s brother and his wife manage the farm supply side of the business.

Keeping core staff was even more critical during the transition phase, she says.

Doelman understands why many farmers don’t have HR plans. “New technology is exciting, production is exciting, but HR tends to get put on the back burner,” she says.

Although creating an HR plan requires making an investment of time up front, it makes you more effective, says Doelman, who also notes that HR planning is more enjoyable when you prioritize it instead of waiting until it becomes a problem.

Others agree. “An HR plan involves creating and maintaining a plan for the people side of your business that encompasses all of the activities associated with managing the people who work for you,” says Jade Reeve, a manager with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC).

It includes HR policies, hiring methods, compensation and benefits, training, performance management, health and safety, and succession planning. The HR planning process helps producers identify gaps in their HR policies, says Reeve.

The AMI course was so valuable that Doelman encouraged her husband to take it the following year. She says taking the course helped them both “to recognize that the HR plan is a pillar of success in the business.”

The course provided templates that allowed Doelman to break their planning down into a series of steps, making it more manageable, and she learned not only from the instructor and the course materials but also from the other people sitting around the table.

The HR planning process has had the added benefits of boosting morale and making it easier to resolve conflict, says Doelman. “It (the HR plan) broadened my scope and helps me to manage for the long-term, not just day-to-day,” she says.

Noting that the culture of the business has changed now that the next generation has taken over, it’s one of Doelman’s goals to update the HR plan.

“I have a draft plan in my head,” she says, but she hopes to get it down on paper soon. While it can be frustrating not to be able to get everything done as quickly as she would like, Doelman is heartened by Rob Hannam’s wise words when he taught her course: “It’s about progress, not perfection.”

Should you hire an HR consultant?

Michelle Painchaud.
photo: Supplied

Many business owners struggle with building an HR plan because they don’t really understand all the aspects of HR, says Michelle Painchaud, president of Painchaud Performance Group, an HR consulting firm in Winnipeg. “HR is such a big topic — covering everything from recruiting, training, health and safety, employee contracts, performance management, retention, succession planning, culture, etc.”

Painchaud says that by default, HR planning tends to fall to the accountant because they handle payroll, contracts, etc., but most of the time they know very little about it.

Because “you don’t know what you don’t know,” Painchaud recommends that every year a business should conduct an HR audit, a review of what they are doing in HR, where they are lacking, etc. “Based on the gaps and needs, they can decide if/when to bring someone in,” she says.

In Painchaud’s opinion, because employees are such a large percentage of a company’s expenses, it is wise to have a professional occasionally provide an “audit” or some guidance. They can identify the biggest risks for the company such as a lack of health and safety programs, a lack of valid employment contracts, or exceptionally low morale and culture having an impact on employee performance and attendance.

Painchaud’s tips for hiring an HR consultant

1. Interview the candidate.
2. Does the consultant have at least five years experience?
3. Has the consultant taken HR training courses?
4. Is there a consulting timeline that clearly identifies the process, expected outcomes and billing?

Questions to ask when hiring an HR consultant

Make sure you get an HR consultant who is going to deliver what your business needs. Winnipeg HR consultant Michelle Painchaud shares her suggestions for the questions you should ask to help you find the consultant with the best fit.

  • Tell me about how you were able to help a business with their HR needs and issues? (This will help you get an understanding of the type of work the consultant has done, whether the businesses were in a similar industry, and if the size and issues of those businesses will be applicable to you.)
  • What has been one of the most challenging HR projects you have worked on? (From this you will see whether the issue described is something that could/would ever have an impact on your business. This also speaks to the scale of work the HR consultant does. If the examples are of very large, union-type businesses and your farm is a smaller, family culture organization, the consultant might not be a fit.)
  • HR consultants can sometimes cause anxiety and angst with existing staff. Describe how you work collaboratively with clients and how you mitigate the employee fear.
  • Based on our discussions about our need for an HR consultant, describe how your consulting methodology will help us and how you will lead us through the initiatives.
  • As a consultant, how will you measure the success of the work you will do for us? (This is a really useful question. It will tell you a lot about how the consultant measures success and how much emphasis they put on their own work versus the company for the success factor.)
  • Because HR is such an intangible area to measure, how can you help us better understand ways to measure our HR initiatives and programs? (This will enable you to get a better understanding of the consultant’s experience and knowledge about different areas of HR.)
  • HR is such a large topic. It covers everything from recruiting, training, onboarding, retention, employee morale, culture, succession planning, health and safety, compensation, etc. What are your areas of expertise? Which areas are not?
  • What has been your journey in HR and why did you start a consultant business?
  • As a consultant, what is your code of ethics working with clients? (From this you can get an understanding of their values and professionalism as a consultant.)
  • If we were to award you some HR projects, what could cause the projects to fail? (See how much responsibility the HR consultant takes… and listen to the types of questions they ask — it will again tell you about their experience.)
  • HR in agriculture is a bit more unique that other industries. Tell me about your experience working HR in ag versus other types of companies.
  • Describe your reporting and billing process.
  • Tell me about an HR project you worked on that wasn’t successful.  What happened, what was your role?
  • Do you have a team that works with you or do you complete all the work yourself?
  • After describing the type of HR work you want the consultant to help you with, ask them to paint a picture for you: “Once we have completed this project, what will be different? What will our organization look like? How will we be able to sustain it? Walk me through this please.”

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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