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Use these four action items to strengthen your HR strategy

7.5 min read

In our previous article, Four ways to use process and structure for effective leadership, we explored how to create a workplace where leaders can lead effectively, and employees have the confidence they’ll be treated equally and fairly.

In this third article, we reinforce these principles and consider the following action items for farm businesses looking to strengthen and improve their human resources (HR) approach:

  1. Conduct an HR review

  2. Create or improve an HR plan

  3. Conduct employee performance evaluation

  4. Spot and resolve staff problems before they grow

1. Conduct an HR review

A review of the current situation is a logical first step before creating or changing the human resources plan for a farm operation. The objective is to identify the practices that work and areas that need improvement, and to collect that information to create or strengthen an HR plan.

The scale and scope of the review depends on your current situation. Whether you have a farm operation with two generations of family working together, a small team of family and non-family employees or a growing agri-business with dozens of employees, a review can be invaluable.

The HR review should confirm current practices comply with all applicable laws and regulations. This is especially important for farms shifting from a family workforce to hiring non-family employees. When it’s just family, there can be a lot of give and take in how everyone approaches getting the work done. With non-family employees, things must be done right to prevent any legal exposure. It’s worth getting help if you’re unfamiliar with the laws. Paying for a consultant is far less expensive than resolving legal issues resulting from bad practices.

A simple HR review could be confirming legal compliance, reviewing the employee handbook and looking for any glaring issues that need to be addressed.  A more comprehensive review will look at the following:

  • Hiring process

  • Employee on-boarding and initial training

  • Compensation and benefits plan

  • Performance review process and frequency

  • Termination and exit interview process

  • Turnover rate and causes

2. Create or improve an HR Plan

Investing in a formal HR plan results in more motivated and committed employees who perform better and are more likely to stay.

Even if everything seems to run smoothly, investing in a formal HR plan results in more motivated and committed employees who perform better and are more likely to stay. It also positions the farm for future growth and makes the operation more appealing to potential employees.

Farm businesses face unique challenges in sourcing high-quality employees, so the plan must take some of these realities into account. If relying on seasonal or temporary foreign workers, what is Plan B if something like the COVID pandemic delays or eliminates workers’ opportunity to enter the country? How does the farm address short periods where additional staff are required to get through seeding or harvest?

Ideally, the HR review directs how the plan is created or modified. If the review reveals employees hired through word-of-mouth or via social media appear of a higher quality, make this part of the plan. If the actual work done by specific employees does not match their job descriptions, make it part of the plan to regularly review and update.

Questions to take the process from review to planning

  • Is there a current organizational chart and employee handbook detailing policies, procedures and standards?

  • Are there accurate job descriptions for every position?

  • Is there a welcome package for new employees and scheduled new employee check-in meetings?

  • Do the farm business goals include a vision for HR?

  • Are expectations and performance measurements clearly defined for the team?

  • Is there a communication and feedback process to help employees become high performers?

  • Does the farm have an employee and leadership training program that can help individuals excel and the team achieve the farm’s goals?

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC) has templates that help farmers create an HR plan and implement HR best management practices. This resource and other tools are available to individuals through a subscription.

3. Conduct an employee performance evaluations

For some farmers, a performance review might be as simple as having an informal post-harvest meeting with each team member about highlights and improvements during the growing season. The key is to write things down and review them before seeding starts. This reinforces that there should be a defined process, a consistent interval between evaluations and a commitment from both employer and employee to follow-up on action items. The process for employee evaluation and performance review should be explained in the employee handbook.

Performance reviews can be stressful for employees if they don’t know when they’ll happen or if experience suggests it’s just going to be about all the person’s shortcomings. The discussion should benefit both parties, be constructive and follow a consistent process.

Leaders and managers will get more value from the reviews if they’ve thought about how they’ll raise and discuss goal setting, position expectations and performance metrics before an employee evaluation. We’ll explore this in more detail in the next article in the series.

Frequency is key. Is an annual review adequate, or is a quarterly check-in beneficial? The timing and frequency will depend partly on the kind of farm business.

Start with these ideas for performance reviews

There are no hard and fast rules for conducting performance reviews, but these are a good start:

  • Employees and managers should write down both positive and negative points prior to evaluation.

  • Use a form or checklist to document the discussion and review any previous evaluations in advance.

  • Start the meeting by reviewing the expectations via the employee handbook and ongoing communication from the manager.

  • Tackle the hard topics first and end with the positives.

  • Be clear and provide examples if the employee has not met expectations or violated company policies or workplace standards. Keep the tone positive and professional.

  • Listen. Don’t forget that employees view the performance review as a formal opportunity to say their piece. Give them the opportunity and take note of their comments.

  • Provide a written summary defining what’s expected of the employee and any job or compensation changes.

Employees often see the performance review as their best opportunity for a raise. Managers should be clear in advance as to whether compensation is part of the discussion.

The performance review should not be the only time employees receive feedback. Continuous and consistent feedback on good work and areas of concern helps ensure no one hears these comments for the first time during the review.

4. Spot and resolve staff problems before they grow

A huge part of being a good leader involves catching small problems before they blow up and implementing solutions early. Even with the best intentions and process, the performance review can devolve into a negative, grievance-filled session if an employee becomes emotional. The skills required to manage an angry or distraught employee can be used anytime, not just during performance reviews.

Plan a team meeting

Preventing conflict is much easier than fixing it. Effective, ongoing communication is the best way to keep problems from escalating into conflict. On farms where family members do all the work, communication might be very informal, which can be a problem. Assumptions about roles, decisions and the future of the business can lead to confusion and anger.

Whether it’s family or hired staff, team meetings go a long way towards eliminating friction before it turns into conflict. These can be daily, weekly or even quarterly, but to be effective, everyone must be at the table and allowed to voice their thoughts and concerns.

The meeting might be discussing what needs to be done on the farm for the week. The tasks are identified, and everyone understands who is responsible for them. Without the meeting, incorrect assumptions can lead to discord in the team.  Have someone take notes or have a whiteboard available to help focus the discussion with bullet points and record decisions and action items.

Managing conflict

A good team leader will spot warning signs that conflict is brewing. Reduced engagement, less chatting and frustrated or angry behaviour are red flags. Conflict within the team can be signalled by strained communication between employees and tense body language. If these signs are present, it’s time to get to the root of the tension.

If conflict arises between team members, the leader’s role is to mediate and de-escalate the situation using the following concepts:

  • Adjust your mental attitude. It’s important to enter the discussion without prejudgments. Be open and curious. Avoid assumptions.

  • Ask good questions. The conversation should involve asking the individuals questions about how they view the situation. Ask them to expand their perspective.

  • Listen. Allow both employees adequate speaking time without interruption. Actively listening to their answers is crucial to understanding their viewpoints and emotions.

When dealing with someone who is angry or emotional, the leader’s first objective is to let the person “regulate” before engaging with them. It can be helpful to stop the discussion and suggest getting a coffee or something to eat, or maybe go for a drive. This helps re-set the situation and puts everyone on the same level emotionally before digging into what’s behind the blow-up. Asking questions like “what am I missing,” or “what is the worst part” also helps regulate employee emotions.

When all efforts fail to resolve ongoing conflict within a team or between the leader and team members, it may be necessary to bring a professional mediator to resolve the situation.

In the next article in this series, we will look more closely at employee discovery, retention and development.

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