Incentivizing Farm Employees and Cultivating Farm Staff Relations

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Sara Miller Reporter

HERSHEY, Pa. — Successful bosses have mastered savvy techniques for managing their employees. They understand their workers’ needs as people, yet hold the line between friendly and too chummy that might conflict with meeting company goals.

Managing farm employees is no different, according to Miguel Saviroff, Penn State Extension educator, who conducted the lecture, “Leadership by Knowing Your Employees,” Jan. 29, during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, held at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center, Hershey, Pa.

He said many farm managers have hired Hispanics or high school students, where language, cultural or age barriers might be confusing to navigate.

To break down these barriers while maintaining a position of authority, Saviroff stressed the importance of supervisors getting to know their subordinates.

“Knowing them is a big part of the equation,” Saviroff said. “So how you approach that ... has to be in a systematic way.”

He went on to explain why friendly rapport with farm employees is important. For one, it helps the manager gauge the employee’s interest level.

A key factor, Saviroff said, is that it motivates the employees, and they feel inspired to improve performance, when they see the farm manager as an inspiring role model.

“You want to make sure you are incentivizing some attitudes, some passion to the operation so that they don’t see the business as yours, and instead, they start thinking about (the farm as) our’ business,” he said.

Shared motivation ensures friendlier, more diligent customer service, he said. And, employees work their hardest alongside their mentor as they work toward achieving their own professional goals.

Meeting the farm’s goals, Saviroff said, can be helped by including employees in the process by conducting surveys. Surveys, he explained, help define and refine the goals, identify problems within the operation, help form new or remedial strategies, and communicate to employees that their input matters.

Of course, a boss first wants to find stellar employees for the farm team. Saviroff said this can be achieved through reference and background checks, enlisting a trusted employee to take part in the interview process, and then hiring the employee on a limited probationary status.

Maintaining that friendly team atmosphere that motivates staff toward the farm’s success can be more effective through scheduled social activities, he said.

“The company picnic is the best way to know your employees — one of the best. And, in the case of the Hispanic (culture), it is required to play soccer and hit the ball pretty good,” Saviroff said with a smile.

He also recommended team-building exercises. Such disciplines, he said, acquaint staff with one another, improve communication, enhance motivation by boosting morale, and help identify effective business strategies, as well as employees’ strengths and weaknesses.

Some people are uncomfortable with team-building activities, he acknowledged, as they do require perceived comfort levels they may not yet — or ever — be comfortable with. Some alternative methods include one-on-one or small group meetings.

Identifying what employees desire, followed by respecting their wishes, is another element in the synergistic employer-subordinate relationship. For example, attracting employees with pizza or doughnuts during meetings can lift their spirits.

People work to make money, not spend it, he pointed out, so asking employees to contribute toward gifts should be avoided.

Respect their time off by not bothering staff on vacations, even if they claim not to mind, Saviroff urged.

Other employee wishes include: providing employees with feedback and soliciting theirs, leaving difficult decisions to the boss; feeling comfortable asking questions, and forthrightness.

Employers are not mind-readers, so good communication among staff is essential.

“You never know what’s going through (your employees’) minds, so always question as many times as needed,” he said.

Boss Versus Buddy

Saviroff said it’s important for a boss to be friendly but not buddies with employees.

“Many managers want to be their employees’ best friends,” he said, “but what happens when you really need to treat them like a boss?” He said that a boss needs to be taken seriously when reprimanding or making difficult business decisions.

There are some exceptions to the strictness of this rule, though, he pointed out. Examples include: a friendly, charismatic boss; an operation with few employees; low turnover; constant and effective communication; and clear and enforced rules.

On a farm operation, the manager may already have relations with employees’ families, Saviroff said, so genuine concern for the workers is prerequisite.

To determine the values of boss-versus-employee-versus-friend roles, Saviroff analyzed the needs and expectations of each.

The employer, he said, expects an employee to be self-motivated, a good communicator, experienced in his or her position on the farm, eager to learn, committed to the operation’s mission and willing to listen to the employer’s perspective.

In turn, the employee expects the employer to provide him or her with challenging work, access to information, increasing responsibility, involvement in decision-making, a sense of personal accomplishment, and a sense of importance in the business. He stressed the need for recognition of hard work and good ideas, and concern for the family, he said.

“In the case of Hispanics, it’s very important for them to be asked (about their families). ... It’s important that they have a sense of both importance between the dire important and (general importance) within the business,” Saviroff said.

Finally, friends look for honesty, forgiveness, help or advice, understanding, and one another’s time.

So, to define the often-blurry lines between boss and friend, keep staff meetings formal; give regular feedback; and be consistent in policies, procedures and family relations.

“Build those close relations outside the business,” Saviroff said. “Separate business and family communication. ... Avoid resorting to the business for friends.”

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