employee management

4 lessons from non-ag businesses about employee engagement

An engaged employee is a productive employee.

Only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, meaning nearly 70% are not reaching their full potential due to varying levels of disengagement, according to a Gallup survey from 2010 to 2012 on employee engagement. How many dollars is this lack of engagement costing the business these individuals work for? On your farm or ranch, how much could disengaged employees cost your operation, or what impact could their disengagement have on other employees?

Employee engagement is a new buzzword in human resource management. Gallup, a national market research firm, has conducted three decades of research focusing on the American workplace. What has surfaced is the importance of employee engagement, which Gallup defines as employees who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

Unfortunately, the agricultural industry does not have specific numbers about employee engagement. However, we can glean take-home messages from non-agricultural business entities about employee engagement on our farms or ranches. Here are some critical points:

Select the right employee.

When an employer finds an employee who is the right fit, it’s a win-win situation. Employees are more likely to be engaged in work they are confident they fit. Creating job descriptions is a streamlined way for employers to articulate what is expected of employees.

Job descriptions should consist of: personality, experience, and education needed; regular functions (e.g., work with equipment, process cattle, ride horseback, etc.); physical, technical and intellectual skills needed (e.g., how much lifting the person will do); and specific skills or licenses required. Often in agriculture, we don’t think we need job descriptions, especially for family members. Yet, employees who understand the expectations of their role are more engaged, and realize their managers have created a job description to offer guidance and a measurement tool that can be used during employee evaluations. In case any legal situations arise, job descriptions become a valuable reference.

Invest in your employee. 

Showing you care for your employees can be demonstrated in many ways, and one is by providing them with the “tools” they need to succeed in their role. A Gallup study of 10 million people found employees’ who knew their employer “cared about them and their success” were significantly more likely to stay, be substantially more productive and produce more profitability for the organization.

An example in a ranch setting is offering training and orientation. Taking time to invest in new employees truly shows you care. Employees who feel more enthusiastic about their future are 69% more likely to be engaged in their job.

Often, however, agricultural people are humble and not always willing to admit that training and orientation time would be helpful. It’s important for employees to put humility aside and recognize that if employers are willing to invest in you, they want you to be successful. Training offers extra time to communicate with your managers or employers, where they can view your strengths firsthand. Gallup’s studies have proven that building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach than trying to improve and focus on weaknesses. Employees who use their strengths in their jobs are six times more likely to be engaged.

Build a company culture.

A culture which focuses on employee well-being and security is a company where employees want to work. Employees who feel a level of comfort and have opportunities for growth, such as additional education and cross-training, as well as time for family and health and wellness, for example, have hope that their job is more than just a paycheck. The result — they are more engaged.

Happy employees are also more healthy employees. Recognition is another way to create a positive culture. But recognition should not be a drive-by thank-you, or a quick tap on the back saying “You did a good job,” as this type of recognition often comes off as insensitive. Recognition should be individualized, be conducted at an appropriate time and focus on what the employee did that made a difference.

Gallup says what I would speculate most employees would say if asked what they dream of in the workplace — “a great boss who cares about their development, and a company [e.g., farm or ranch] that focuses on and develops their strengths.”

Hearing from employers

Dick Helms, Arapahoe, Neb., has had employees assisting with his seedstock and farming operation for 30 years. Even though a son and a nephew, along with their wives, have returned to the farm, additional employees are essential because of the continued growth and overall size of the operation.

Helms has learned over the years that mediocre employees cost you more than good ones. “It’s amazing what a difference finding the right fit of an employee can do to your operation — they do the little things just that much better, and it really does help the ranch’s bottom line.” Helms explains that quality employees take the initiative to be careful around equipment, thus usually meaning fewer breakdowns and repairs — and when it’s the right fit you know, because they get along with the team and enjoy their job.

“There are young people wanting to work on ranches today, and some don’t have a ranch to go back to; those are the people you want to find and hire,” says Helms. He wants his employees to make employment at Flying H Genetics a career. As a result, he has continued to add incentives such as a new employee stock option program. “The employees really become part of the team this way, and they know their daily productivity enhances the productivity of the business overall, and will reflect in the value they receive back when they retire.”

With family members returning to the ranch and several outside employees all working at either his south-central Nebraska ranch or Missouri site, Helms says, “Everyone brings something to the table, a skill that is needed, so we are all a team — whether you are a family member or an employee, you are here because your skill is needed.”

Scott Schiff oversees 30 employees at Schiff Nebraska, a large commercial cow-calf operation in Minatare. Employee management is key to the success of Schiff’s business. “The most important role for me as an employer is to make sure my employees have the tools to execute and succeed in the jobs I am asking them to do,” says Schiff. “If I don’t provide them with the supplies, equipment, inputs, etc., I am stifling their ability to use their readily available talents,” he says.

When selecting employees, character is the No. 1 trait Schiff looks for. “I am seeking someone with the willingness and ability to work as part of a team.” With the size of the operation, employees may move from one ranch site to another regularly to help out another crew. Therefore, it is important the employee has the ability to be a team player, Schiff explains.

“My goal has been, and will continue to be, moving forward to build more stability in my team. I want them to have confidence in me and our company as an employer — because my goal is to build a culture where the company grows, and it unifies everyone involved.”

B. Lynn Gordon, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Extension agricultural leadership specialist at South Dakota State University.

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