When it comes to hiring new farm staff, human resource management specialists Clint Vawser and Tracey Ebert encourage growers to invest time in planning to determine how to capture the right person, engage them and keep them in the job.
Mr Vawser, director of Oasis People and Culture, and Ms Ebert, from South Coast Facilitation, present two of the 'Being a Better Boss' workshops for Partners in Grain (PinG) WA.
The workshops are a professional-development series examining human resources and industrial relations management in a broadacre context.
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GRDC investment has enabled PinG WA to deliver the third and newest instalment, which focuses on team productivity and time management.
Ms Ebert says one the first steps in hiring new farm staff is making time to think about the skills and attributes (values) of the person needed.
“It’s often a step that businesses owners generally miss because they might just grab the first person because the need is urgent, rather than having a think about who might be the right person for the business,” she says.
However, requirements can change over time, which is why Ms Ebert says it is so important to sit down with all the people involved in the business to work out the skills and attributes needed.
Mr Vawser says writing a job description will assist in clarifying the types of tasks that the new employee will be performing.
“It also serves the purpose of communicating to a candidate what the role will entail and communicating expectations really clearly,” he says.
“In my experience, one of the problems growers face is articulating their expectations of others, so spending time getting clear on what is expected on the job is really important.”
Another suggestion, Mr Vawser says, is to develop an employee handbook to outline some of the behavioural expectations. For example: 'Is it appropriate for farm staff to wander inside the farmhouse at any time of the day?' or 'Is wearing uncovered shoes to work permitted?'
He says taking time to add some professionalism to the recruitment process is important because growers are competing to hire talented employees.
“Growers are not necessarily geared to think of impressing others with what they’re offering as an employer, and it’s unfortunate because I think they have a lot to sell,” Mr Vawser says.
“If you think about recruitment as a sales exercise its important to be organised and offer value to the applicant.
"If you have to clear dirty dishes off the kitchen table to make space for an interview, your starting point, professionally, is pretty low.”
Past success a predictor
Mr Vawser says the best indicator of somebody’s future performance is their past success. As a consequence, he encourages asking the applicant about their past on-the-job experiences, examples of problems solved and how things panned out.
“That will ensure they’re relating something that did actually happen in their previous job, rather than telling the interviewer what they think they want to hear,” he says.
“I would use ‘what if’ questions sparingly, if at all.”
Aside from the interview, Mr Vawser encourages the use of online assessment surveys and simple on the job tests.
“An interview is really just one piece of the puzzle, so using a practical on-farm test, such as moving some hay bales if they’ve got a front-end loader ticket or completing an online assessment, can reveal a lot about a person’s capability and their nature,” he says.
Through the interview process, Ms Ebert encourages the use of open-ended questions and making time to phone the applicant’s past employers to check skills and attributes.
Once on board
Once an applicant has been selected, the next step is developing a process of introducing them to the business and training them in what is expected.
“An induction is part of the engagement process, making sure that your staff are well trained and understand their responsibilities,” Ms Ebert says.
“Being professional, referring to codes of conduct such as the drug and alcohol policy, accommodation and what is expected in terms of work wear, allows you to speak about all those issues from the start of somebody’s employment to ensure the first few months leave no unanswered questions.”
Mr Vawser says inducting a new employee is a process not an event. For a long-term worker the induction period could span two to three months or just a week for a seasonal worker.
“Most employees are at risk of leaving their employer in the first three months, so growers need to lead well to get the best out of their people and offer support once people are working on the job,” he says.
“Leadership is actually about empowering people and that means supporting them, letting them have a go, giving them feedback, correcting and coaching, empowering and trusting so that farm owners can get on and do the high-value work.”
A phrase that Mr Vawser likes to use is 'inspect what you expect'. By this he means following up and checking on work that has been delegated and providing feedback on performance that is positive and developmental.
“Feedback needs to be timely. If something’s happened, give feedback straight away. If you leave it too long it loses effect,” he says.
“Some growers will walk into the workshop and pick out all the errors, while others will just see the nice stuff and avoid having the difficult conversations. Feedback needs to be balanced.”
Also, Mr Vawser says, feedback needs to be specific.
Feedback needs to be timely. If something’s happened, give feedback straight away. If you leave it too long it loses effect.
For example, he suggests avoiding 'you never do anything right' and using phrases such as 'last Thursday, I saw you digging a trench for a new water pipe and I noticed … '.
By providing targeted feedback, Mr Vawser says people can better understand expectations and make specific changes to their behaviour.
Ms Ebert suggests growers can improve the chance of keeping a highly skilled employee by developing their communication skills.
During the PinG WA 'Being a Better Boss: Team Productivity and Time Management' workshop, Ms Ebert encouraged participating growers to start looking at how well they consult, connect, clarify, act with consistency, and are clear and concise in their communication.
“We ask them to think about what they are good at and areas they need to brush up on,” she says. “The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes will make you an employer of choice.”
Mr Vawser agrees, adding that a farm owner can influence the way an employee does a job simply by the way they treat their staff, such as the way they listen to them or invite them to offer input.
“When we meet the needs of employees and help them feel respected and secure we find that employees tend to engage more in the job and give a little bit more of themselves,” he says.
“And that’s what we’re looking for as business owners. We want to encourage higher productivity and performance and that’s also going to make for a happier workplace for the employee.”
GRDC Project Codes: PIW1806-001CAX, PIG00009
More information: Tracey Ebert, 0427 389 010, email@example.com; Clint Vawser, 0411 798 696, firstname.lastname@example.org; Debra Mullan, PinG WA, 0477 083 999, email@example.com