March 2015
Farm & Field

HR Advice

  Dr. Bernie Erven

Addressing “People Issues” on Farm and Ranch

If you’re like many farmers who report that labor is one of their top management problems, but think managing human resources is something only big companies need to worry about, it may be time for an HR checkup.

That’s the advice from Dr. Bernie Erven, Ohio State University professor emeritus who specializes in HR issues in his work with farmers and ranchers.

Erven minced no words in his comments.

"Your HR situation will be about as good as you choose to make it," he bluntly told more than 300 farmers and agribusiness representatives at the recent Farm Futures Business Summit held in St. Louis, Mo.

"Everything (in your farming operation) involves your people," he said, adding that "people issues" are easy to postpone because operational matters are what most producers are more comfortable managing.

And while HR management isn’t rocket science, there are no magic formulas because farms and farm families aren’t alike.

And make no mistake, he noted: "Family farm businesses and family relationship issues are both part of the … challenge."

Elaborating on family relationships in farm operations, Erven noted that many difficult HR-related issues may need to be addressed, ranging from what authority a 90-year-old grandfather has to assign tasks and other priorities to other employees and family members to an automatic assumption that the new fiancé of the farm operator’s daughter will solve the farm’s labor shortage problem.

Erven readily acknowledges it’s easy to adopt a sarcastic and/or cynical attitude about HR management – that it’s simply a matter of doing the required paperwork, that the only real goal is to find people with common sense who want to work, and then figure out how much you need to pay them, and find ways to control and perhaps motivate them.

A more productive alternative calls for elevating HR management to a new level of importance and making a first-class farm workforce a passion rather than a headache, he suggested. Accomplishing that goal requires not just talking about it but also what you actually do.

Erven offered a checklist of steps for improving HR management, including:

- Having a clear and written vision of what you think HR success includes – a message you can share with your people.

- Developing HR goals that are SMART, i.e, specific, measurable, achievable, rewarded and time-oriented.

- Having an organizational structure that includes job titles and job descriptions. "Your organizational structure is either an asset or a liability. It should make explicit what has been vague, unmentionable or avoided," including the responsibilities of the grandfather and fiancé noted earlier, Erven counseled. The structure also should give one person clear responsibility for overall HR success, including hiring and training, rather than sharing those duties among others on your team.

- Having a farm culture that fits the operation’s goals and family. Shaping that culture can only be done from the top down by management, never from the bottom up by employees, Erven said. Preferably incorporated in that culture is elements such as teamwork, self-motivation, self-discipline and trust that are valued.

- Having appropriate HR practices in place. Such practices and procedures have been developed for large, non-agricultural business, but can easily be tailored to fit individual farms and their circumstances, Erven maintained. Examples of HR practices include: having job descriptions; an employee handbook or written summary of key policies and procedures; job application forms and steps in the application and hiring process; procedures such as orientation and training to equip employees to succeed; and ongoing matters related to safety, communication, job performance evaluation and feedback, discipline and discharge, compensation and benefits, and operating within federal and state laws.

- Making sure those in supervisory positions have the ability to handle HR responsibilities.

Elaborating on the final point, Erven maintained that HR management abilities are important not only for senior personnel but also for middle managers and working leaders. Outstanding experience at one level does not adequately prepare a person to succeed at the next level. "Encourage and provide needed training at every management level," he concluded.