Farms have their fair share of challenges finding and keeping good employees. Is it due to an industry-wide shortage, a lack of employees who are willing to learn or is the workplace atmosphere unpleasant?

Linda Falcone, Extension educator of Entrepreneurship, Economic and Community Development, Penn State, said research shows that workplace culture has a direct impact on employee retention. If the culture isn’t helping to accomplish goals, changes should be made.

“Culture is the shared set of beliefs values, attitudes, standards, purposes and behaviors,” explained Falcone. “It reflects both the written and unwritten rules people follow in your workplace.”

Examples include how work assignments are determined and what opportunities there are for advancement. Do people enjoy collaborating and working together, and is the workplace casual or formal?

While most farms have an employee handbook, culture begins where the handbook ends. What are employees doing when management isn’t present? While managers hope employees are doing the right thing, are employees following only the rules set in place, or are they working together to enhance workplace culture? Who do they look to and where do they get answers?

“It’s the unwritten way people react and act,” said Falcone, further defining workplace culture. “It’s the vibe in the organization.”

Workplace culture begins at the top – employees should enjoy coming to work each day, and policies in the workplace should affirm a desire among employees to come to work. Employers should evaluate whether the cultural values in the workplace are moving the organization forward and bringing in people who match the organization’s values and culture.

“Culture is not good or bad,” said Falcone. “It’s whether it fits your organization’s goals and whether it helps your organization achieve what you want it to achieve. Do you have a written vision and mission? Do people understand the mission and vision, and do they feel they’re part of something important and making something happen?”

Everyone learns something about culture from the time they are children, but in the workplace, it’s the responsibility of managers and owners to train new and current employees about what is expected of them. “Culture is behind the work and provides the context for the work,” she said. “It’s how people work together to get things done.”

In a healthy workplace culture, productivity is high and downtime is minimal; turnover is low and morale is high. People want to be present as scheduled, have a desire to work cooperatively with others and are satisfied with their jobs.

“They know what’s expected of them, they fit in and belong and enjoy working toward the mission and vision,” said Falcone. “They know who to go to when there’s a problem so problems are resolved quickly and in the way management wants them resolved.”

In a healthy workplace culture, job-related politics are minimal and employees at all levels work together as a team without division. Managers have the same general goals and address issues according to the same rules and standards. Examining the workplace culture requires self-examination by management to determine what’s working well and what needs to change.

A survey of dairy farm employees revealed their top priorities include a desire to have fun at work under good leadership. Salary, bonuses and pensions weren’t as high on the list as other priorities, proving that good employees aren’t solely focused on a paycheck.

Culture is also related to how long people remain with an employer. Some of the reasons people cite for leaving jobs include poor leadership, lack of respect for management, substandard coworkers, lack of training, no chance for advancement and scheduling issues.

Employers want to hire people who meet basic expectations, but employers also have to meet expectations. “We want our opinions to be valued, and we want feedback,” said Falcone. “If there’s negative feedback, do it in a way that’s constructive and not destructive. People want a sense of belonging and purpose in life.”

Employees want to work for someone who meets the terms of hiring. If someone is hired for morning work but is then scheduled to work at night, they will quickly become dissatisfied. Employees expect courtesy from managers and coworkers, and are more willing to work a different schedule if they’re respected and treated as valuable team members.

“The cost to recruit someone is about $4,000,” said Falcone. “That varies widely but with turnover rates, it can be as much as 30% to 50% of an entry level salary.”

If an employer has been documenting what a new employee has been doing on the job and sees less than desirable work habits, expenses can add up quickly. Managers have likely had meetings with the employee, which means time spent doing paperwork, possibly followed by unemployment to pay. Next comes the cost to hire another person including advertising, interviewing, screening, background checks and making sure all points are covered.

Subsequent onboarding, training and the time it takes a new employee to become accustomed to the operation also takes time that comes with a cost. A new employee might be on board within a certain amount of time but not productive for several more weeks.

There are unseen costs of people leaving employment, including lost expertise and lost productivity if there’s no one on the farm who can immediately fill the position. There’s also potential for decreased morale when other employees see people leaving.

One priority for managers in establishing good workplace culture is clarity in what employees are expected to do and how it is taught. Mentors are often a good solution for helping new employees understand the culture, and managers should take time to spend with new employees to determine the success of the acclimation process.

Consider the rewards and punishments in the organization, which should be clearly stated and demonstrated by experienced employees and management. “Look at what you’re teaching, what you’re rewarding and what you’re punishing,” said Falcone. “Pay attention to people – what they’re saying and doing. They want to work in a good place and will give feedback they think will help. Even naysayers who complain really care about the organization and want things to be good for themselves and others.”

Managers should constantly reinforce the farm’s mission and vision, and consistently reinforce desirable activities. When a new concept is introduced, perhaps a weekly meeting with coffee and donuts, does the atmosphere become more inviting to all employees?

“Culture affects so many aspects of the operation,” said Falcone. “It determines the path your organization takes to reach its goals, mission and vision.”

by Sally Colby