Including Employees in the Decision-Making Process


How many farms operate under the “Ben Cartwright School of Farm Management” where the boss (owner) makes all the decisions and the employees execute the “orders”? In this kind of operation, employees believe that they are always “walking on eggshells” in the presence of the owner because he frequently criticizes the speed and quality of their work. If an employee makes a suggestion to the owner, the idea is quickly dismissed, and the employees are told that the idea will “never work on this farm.” Furthermore, the owner operates under this attitude: “I have farmed all my life, and what would an employee know about operating my farm?” Employees must present ideas to the owner in a manner that allows the owner to think that the new information is “his idea.” This kind of management style may reduce the farm’s profitability because the owner will make changes only when he thinks “his ideas” will improve the operation of the farm.  

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Consider Employee Morale

Many farm owners believe that that they must constantly “ride herd” over their employees. The employer may have stated on numerous occasions that employees need to “tend to business and work hard”; otherwise, they can easily be replaced.  The employees may believe that the owner does not trust their judgment in making decisions and does not care about their physical and emotional well-being. Employee morale may suffer, and employee turnover may increase because the employees think that the owner considers a model employee to be an individual with a “strong back and a weak mind.”

Merely talking about employee suggestions and not implementing the suggestions conveys the distinct impression that management does not wish to change the operation of the farm. Employee morale will decline because employees perceive that the owner will never change the way the farm operates.

Employees Are the Farm‘s Most Important Asset

A farm’s employees are the business’ most important asset. Employee development will be the key to the long-term viability of a farm because, as farms grow and expand, they hire additional personnel.

As the former owner-operator of a dairy farm, the author encouraged employees to attend industry and extension meetings as well as farm shows. The time that employees spent attending industry-related functions “on the owner’s time” reaped major dividends. By encouraging employees to attend educational programs, the owner conveys to the employee that the employee is a valued member of the farm operation. Second, the owner respects the employees’ judgment. Finally, the owner is looking forward to hearing the employees’ views on the programs they attended. We all have different learning styles. Thus, owners and employees may pick up on certain concepts at a meeting that another person may miss. The time that the owner and employees spend discussing their perspectives on a educational program may provide solutions to specific problems and strategies to improve the farm’s profitability.  

Carry through with Employee Suggestions

Implementing employee suggestions shows the employees that the employer values their suggestions, which will simplify the operation of the farm and improve farm profitability. The author is a strong proponent of the “KIS” (keep it simple) style of farm management. His former herdsman, Ron, was adept at breaking down a task into its numerous steps. Reinforcing the concept that time is money, Ron was able to streamline a task so that the time and effort to complete the task were reduced. His employees knew that if the profitability of the farm increased, the owner would share a portion of the profits in the form of employee raises and the purchase of shop tools and farm equipment that would make everyone’s life easier on the farm. Remember, if business owners were not open to new ideas and willing to change, they would still be traveling to the West Coast in covered wagons!

Schedule Employee Meetings

Employee meetings provide a forum in which the owner can train and update employees on changes in the farm’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Owner and employees can air concerns about the farm’s management. Prior to the busy seasons (planting and harvesting crops), meetings on the author’s farm focused on discussing the “game plan” that would be implemented to accomplish the necessary tasks. Employee responsibilities were reviewed. Employees were cross-trained to handle tasks performed by another employee. The meeting concluded with a discussion of how the farm operates as a team.  Employees left the meeting with the clear expectation that the owner and employees would do whatever it took to get the job done. It was clear that lapses in employee safety and unsafe equipment operation would not be tolerated!

Take Breaks as Necessary

After the busy season was completed, the author and his employees “slowed down” for one or two days. Herd, cropping, and financial records were updated. An inventory was taken of equipment that needed repairs and scheduled maintenance. Several days later, a meeting was held in which full-time and part-time employees discussed the farm performance during the “crunch time.” Employees were recognized for making decisions that contributed to the success of the task (e.g., quickly repairing broken equipment, taking care of the herd with a limited amount of help, etc.). Discussion was focused around the following questions: What worked well? What changes should be made? How should changes be prioritized? The owner and employees need to reach a consensus when the changes should be implemented. Then the owner makes the changes. 

Maintaining Communication

Owners and managers need to “cast their shadow” every day – ask how an employee is doing (ask how they are feeling, how their children are doing in school, sports, etc.), how is their job going, and what can the owner do to help the employee (equipment needing repairs, ordering  supplies, etc.).  Although asking these three questions may take less than a minute, this gesture conveys that the owner is interested in the employee’s health and well-being and in helping the employee perform the job at maximum productivity.

Farm owners who are open and receptive to their employees’ suggestions create a positive work environment. Employees relish the opportunity to work for a business where the owner acknowledges and implements employees’ suggestions.  Remember the old adage “Sometimes two heads are better than one” in solving problems.

Delegate Tasks and Lead by Example

An owner’s willingness to delegate responsibilities states that the owner believes that the employee is a valued member of the farm’s operation. Owners should lead by example. Never ask an employee to do a task that you would never do. The author’s former herdsman, Ron, was given the latitude to make decisions when equipment broke down or the weather forced a change in plans. Employees knew that the owner always backed up Ron’s decision and would never second guess his actions.

Employees Must Know Their Responsibilities

To maximize employee productivity, owners need to provide each employee with a job description that will outline the employee’s responsibilities. “Reading the boss’ mind’ should not be a part of the employee’s job description! Owners and managers must take the time to explain and train the employee to perform a specific task in a manner that follows the farm’s standard operation procedures. Constant training is necessary to make sure that owner and employees are on the same page. 

Author Information

Peter Callan
Extension Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Virginia Cooperative Extension