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6 steps to hiring the right employee

Farm employee recruitment has come a long way from the personnel department one dairy farmer used years ago. “It was the county sheriff,” said the farmer to Bernie Erven, a retired Ohio State University Extension agricultural economist, who now heads Erven Human Resources Services. “Whenever I needed a milker, I called the sheriff and asked who was getting out of jail that day.”

That may have worked a generation or two ago. Today, though, placing untrained or unqualified employees in charge of high-tech agricultural equipment or strategies risks your farm’s future. Time spent undoing mistakes also hurts your farm’s efficiency. Following are six steps that Erven recommends to help ensure you make the right hires.

1. Be proactive

Anticipating labor needs well in advance allows ample time to hire the right person.

“You cannot hire successfully in the middle of a crisis,” says Erven. “Some people who do the best job may take six months or more to find. Commit to hiring the right person.”

Always be open to potential job candidates, even if your farm currently has no openings. Erven says several corporations have a waiting list of people who want to work for them. Strive to make your farm’s reputation similar to these firms.

“Your reputation is the most useful tool you have,” he says. “If people come in your driveway and ask if you are hiring, you may say no, but tell them to fill out an application anyway to learn more about them.”

If an opening surfaces that matches their skills, you may have a built-in job candidate already in your system.

2. Delegate hiring to one person

Hiring the right person requires knowledge, skills, and special abilities.  

“A hiring leader driven by a passion for finding the right person is best,” explains Erven. “The person doesn’t necessarily have to be the person’s supervisor. It should be the person who is dedicated to hiring.”

It’s important to still involve the supervisor in the interviewing process. A dedicated hiring manager, though, will likely be more in tune with the hiring process.

“Remember that the supervisor may never have been at the other side of the table,” he says. “That supervisor may never have been a job applicant, may never have had to answer questions in an interview, and never has had to go looking for a job.”

3. Define the job and expectations

Employees want to know duties and expectations. A written one-page job description is an excellent way to explain this and to eliminate any confusion.

“Recently, I talked to an applicant who turned down a job at a farm,” says Erven. “He said he talked to four different people on the farm, and they all described four different jobs. If four people didn’t know what the job was, he didn’t want it.

“A written and detailed hiring plan will help everyone involved,” he adds. “Tell them about the job, too, and what a typical week is like.”

4. Build an employee applicant pool

Advertising a position used to be as simple as putting out a Help Wanted sign or buying a newspaper advertisement. Social media has changed this, particularly with younger workers.

“Young people don’t go to the newspaper; they go to a website,” says Erven.

Internships are a good way to find applicants, particularly those who have no farm experience. “Some farm employees start as seasonal workers, and if they work out well, they become full-time employees,” says Erven.

Well-satisfied workers can also help fill positions. “Take advantage of your reputation as a preferred place to work,” he says.

Making a farm a preferred place to work entails:

  • Enjoying and appreciating employees.

  • Using written job descriptions.

  • Providing training.

  • Showing trust.

  • Catching people doing things right.

  • Developing pride in your business.

  • Celebrating successes.

  • Communicating clearly and often.

  • Compensating employees fairly.

  • Promoting from within.

  • Making the business family-friendly.

  • Being proud of advancing employees.

“It’s an interesting order in that compensation is near the bottom,” says Mike Boehlje, Purdue University Extension agricultural economist. “Money doesn’t matter nearly as much as other actions. If you pay employees a dollar an hour more than others but they are angry with you, do they care what their paycheck is?”

5. Interview properly

Review application forms, résumés, and cover letters to figure out who would best fit qualifications. Telephone interviews can help identify the best candidates to bring in for a face-to-face interview.

The hiring team should include more than one person combined with individual interviews. If current farm employee numbers enable you to do so, include an intermediate supervisor and a coworker on the interviewing team.

During the interview, avoid asking yes-and-no questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions, such as:

  • How did you resolve a conflict with a former coworker?

  • How would you describe your best (or worst) supervisor?

  • How would you perform a job-related task such as backing up computer files?

6. Follow up

Check references. “You can find out some valuable information from other farmers and employers,” he says.  

Cautiously scrutinize input from present employers. “Remember, some managers will give you glowing recommendations because they want to get poor employees off their hands,” he says. “Others will give you poor references on employees they don’t want to lose.”

Maintain standards

Above all, don’t lower your standards for hiring employees. An employee who does not work out can harm your farm’s efficiency for a long time to come.

“You wouldn’t be content to get along with weeds, low yields, and more debt,” Erven says. “So why would you do that with employees? Refuse to lower your standards by taking shortcuts in hiring and bringing on people you know are not right.”

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