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Navigating farm business holiday celebrations

It’s going to take more thought before you decide how your farm should celebrate 2020

Navigating farm business holiday celebrations

Social events like the Christmas party have traditionally been a big focus for non-farm businesses, giving staff a chance to mix and mingle, and employers a chance to show their appreciation. Increasingly, Christmas celebrations are popular on the farm too, providing an opportunity for employees and family members to meet and greet without the stresses of the daily grind, and often a chance to meet other people who are important to your business too.

With workplaces becoming more diverse, many farm businesses have been revamping holiday festivities to be more inclusive to all, which takes a bit of thinking and preparation.

And this year, pandemic public health guidelines will also have a big impact on gatherings, so multiply that need for a bit of thinking and preparation times two.

There are other new concerns as well, like whether guests can take phone photos or record any presentations, and where they can post them afterward.

In other words, there are all sorts of reasons for giving your party a fresh approach for 2020.

Country Guide reached out to two HR experts for their take on trends around how your farm can tackle the business of holiday celebrations this season.

In bigger organizations, Winnipeg HR consultant Michelle Painchaud says the trend has been toward smaller and less formal Christmas parties in the past 15 years. “What used to be large annual dinners with gift exchanges, dances and formal events are now more often a catered lunch at the office,” she says.

In her 27 years’ working as an HR consultant with clients including the Manitoba Pork Council, Winnipeg’s Janice Goldsborough has seen a similar trend. “Farms have to be more cognizant that some workers come from countries that don’t celebrate Christmas,” she says.

Not wanting to lose the benefits of the year-end party, some farms are re-imagining the event as a Winter Party or they are pushing it off to January, when things are less busy, says Goldsborough.

Some choose to mark the end of harvest or the farm business’s anniversary instead.

There are many considerations when planning an inclusive and safe social event. Some cultures don’t eat meat and some religions don’t approve of dancing, so the traditional chicken dinner and anything involving dancing aren’t going to cut it, says Goldsborough.

If you are planning entertainment, you have to consider whether the entertainment will appeal to everyone’s tastes and be inclusive.

With more immigrants working on farms, Christmas has become a sensitive issue, says Painchaud. If you are unsure how to proceed, she recommends doing an employee survey or having a discussion at a staff meeting to learn what employees would like and what would be appropriate for their cultures.

And increasingly, the legal liability of serving alcohol has businesses changing their approach. You could be in deep trouble if an employee causes an accident after they’ve been served alcohol, even if it’s at a hotel, explains Goldsborough.

To help ensure employees get home safely, some employers provide alternative transportation or car services. To stem the potential for employees to over-consume alcohol, some have a cash bar only or limit free drinks by issuing one or two drink tickets per employee or serve alcohol for only a short period of time.

“Many employers are very concerned with alcohol consumption at parties and are not offering it at all anymore,” says Painchaud.

HR advisors warn that when alcohol is served, there is also an increased risk that inappropriate behaviour and harassment could take place.

And don’t forget to develop a policy around taking photos and posting them to social media, and make sure everyone, including all your guests, knows what that policy is.

Maybe have one person who will take photos for the group, or consider asking employees to use a specific hashtag so that you can more easily sense-check what has been shared.

Also ask your neighbours how they are handling such issues, adds Goldsborough. You aren’t the only one with questions.

A tale of two farms

Truly Green Farms, a Chatham, Ont. greenhouse which employs 250 people at their peak, including offshore workers from Thailand and Jamaica, hosts a hot catered luncheon for their employees each December.

The greenhouse is made festive with Christmas decorations and there’s music, says Joe Barkhouse, Truly Green’s head grower who is also in charge of human performance. Employees also receive a small gift at this time.

While the workers from Thailand are generally Buddhist and not Christian, they are not offended by having a Christmas event. “That seems to be more of a Western thing,” says Barkhouse.

Instead, they see it as an opportunity to learn about Canadian culture.

The company also recognizes dates that are significant to their workers, such as Thai New Year’s and Jamaican Independence Day, with announcements and cake. As well, flags from each of the countries hang in the front entryway of the greenhouse. “We try to cross that cultural divide and make sure that they realize that we respect where they come from and what they do for us. It’s beneficial for both sides.”

While the goal of holding these events isn’t to increase the company’s bottom line, “the end result is a happier, more productive workforce… you can see it in the workplace,” says Barkhouse. “The workers really do appreciate it a lot.”

Kroeker Farms, one of Canada’s largest fresh potato producers located in Winkler, Man., usually holds four events during the year for their staff, which peaks at 300 and includes workers from Mexico. There’s a spring breakfast meeting where safety, human resources, the strategic plan and a motivational speech are on the agenda, says CEO and president, Wayne Rempel.

In addition, 15 per cent of the profits from the previous year are distributed to employees (prorated according to income level) at this time. And each worker is thanked personally by Rempel.

In summer, there’s a picnic for staff and their families. After the harvest is complete, there’s a banquet to celebrate a safe harvest, and in December, a big party, including spouses, to celebrate Christmas.

With the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the company has not been able to host their usual staff events. In place of the annual picnic, employees were given family passes to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. Instead of the Harvest Banquet, employees will be given a restaurant gift certificate to enjoy a meal with their families.

Holding the annual Christmas banquet isn’t looking promising either, says Rempel. While he had hoped it might be possible to have staff participate by dividing into the small groups they work with, this isn’t looking likely, he says with disappointment.

The Christmas bonus: Is it a good idea?

Giving out a Christmas bonus is a practice that’s falling out of favour with some HR advisors.

When farm businesses give a bonus every year, it becomes expected and is no longer a bonus, says HR consultant Janice Goldsborough. That can be problematic when there is an economic downturn and the company cannot afford to pay the bonus.

Once employees get used to a bonus every year, they also begin to plan on it and can get into a squeeze if it doesn’t come through.

HR advisor Michelle Painchaud prefers to see bonuses linked to meeting performance goals.
“If an employee knows their goal, knows the expectations, has the tools and resources and gets feedback, they are more apt to be a high performer. Bonuses linked this way have a better impact on overall company performance and profitability.”

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