Recruiting and hiring farm employees

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

As many farms are encountering labor shortages, the farm’s recruiting and hiring practice should receive closer scrutiny. Stan Moore, Michigan State University extension agent presented “Recruiting and Hiring Employees” as a recent webinar.

Moore said whether a farm is large or small, following recruiting and hiring practices is important.

“When you look at labor resources, they’re just getting tighter on farms,” he said. “We need to focus on things we can have an effect on.”

He said those include effectiveness of recruiting and hiring; wage and benefits offered; farm culture; farm progressiveness; effective employee management; and farm reputation. That can help mitigate the effects over which farmers have no control, including increased border security, changing demographics, Americanization of workers and changing priorities of workers.

Farmers should look at how the position should help the business instead of who to hire.

“What competencies are required to do the job and be successful in the position?” should be a question farmers should ask themselves.

He recommended developing a job description for each title or position on the farm.

“I can’t say the majority of farms use job descriptions, but if you want to hire someone who’s a good fit, the job description helps you do that,” Moore said. “It’s important for the employee and it also helps the employer focus on the skill sets you want. It helps with training.”

Employees should know what’s expected, including job analysis, the duties, tasks or activities on the job; job design, the structure and advancement; job qualifications, the knowledge, skills, abilities and physical demands for success in the position; and the job description, which should include a written job title and duties based on the job analysis, design and qualifications.

The job description can also help with performance evaluation by allowing the employer to compare the job performance to the expectations outlined in the job description. Moore added that in case of an employee termination for poor performance, the job description offers a basis for defending the decision.

“Make sure you document why you let that person go,” Moore said.

The job description should include the work relationship — who the employee reports to.

For finding good applicants, Moore recommended asking current employees what they like about working for you.

“Promote this to those that you wish to hire in creative ways,” Moore said. “Recruiting is marketing.”

He also believes word-of-mouth advertising represents the best way to recruit, but only if the farm treats its employees well.

“A lot of research shows that farm workers are drawn to your farm because of your farm’s reputation,” he said.

Asking employees to spread the word may help in this effort.

“Do employees know about the job so they can share that with potential other workers that they know?” Moore asked.

A farmer could even incentivize current employees to tell job seekers about the opening.

Moore said informal contacts may also provide a means of finding employees, such as spotting good quality workers in other industries.

“Keep your eyes open,” he said. “You may be in McDonald’s or someplace and see someone with a great attitude. Give them a card and ask them to call you. I wouldn’t encourage you to recruit from another farm, but certainly outside farming. There’s lots of different ways you can advertise these positions.”

Internet advertising, social media, a business website, print media and attention-grabbing help wanted ads all may help draw more applicants.

“If you’ve put out a position and have some people interested, asking them to do an application and resume is good because it offers a level playing field so you can compare apples to apples,” Moore said.

If you receive a large number of applicants, Moore recommended mini telephone interviews to thin out the group.

Moore stressed farmers should prepare for the interview. Farmers should take the process seriously and plan ahead. The farm may have an “interview team” and decide in advance where it will take place, what questions to ask and how else they may use the interview time.

“More than one person can be involved because we get biases,” Moore said.

The interview should be structured.

“You can’t let applicants take over the interview with stories; that can happen,” Moore said. “You need to prepare with questions. Ask the same basic questions of all applicants.”

That helps ensure no questions remain unasked of some applicants and prevents the interviewer from wandering into legally sticky questions.

Legal questions “directly relate to the job and the ability of any person to do the job,” Moore said.

Framing the questions correctly can help the interviewer get the right information.

“Yes/no questions would really minimize those,” Moore said. “We want to focus on what they’ve done in previous jobs and not what they promise to do.”

Questions could include past behavior such as, “How did you resolve conflicts between co-workers when you were leading a crew?”

A question about job knowledge my be, “What are three ways to back up critical data on a computer? Which one is easiest? Most secure?”

“What-if” questions may include, “What would you do if we asked you to do something you don’t know how to do?”

Questions to avoid involve seemingly innocent questions such as:

“What country are you from?”

“Where were you born?”

“What is your native language?”

“What religion do you practice?”

“Do you have or plan to have children?”

“Do you have childcare?”

While not illegal, some questions should be avoided because they won’t give good insights into the candidate, such as expected questions like “What are your goals and aspirations?” or “Why do you want this job?” Most candidates will have a canned answer ready.

Opinion-based questions only share what the candidate thinks and doesn’t offer much objective information, such as “What do you think about…?” or “What are your strengths?”

To follow up, Moore said farmers should ask each of the interviewers on the interview team to submit their evaluations on the question asked by the lead interviewer and then determine which applicants are acceptable.

“Check references and collect additional information as needed,” Moore said. “Rank acceptable applicants and then offer the job to the highest ranked applicant.”

Checking references used to yield more information about applicants than it does now. Moore said most former employers provide the least information possible.

But if possible, good reference questions should include, “How long did you work with this person?” “What were his/her responsibilities?” “What strengths did he/she bring to the job?” “What skills does this person need to work on?” “Would you hire this person again?”

“With some larger companies, the last answer may be the only one you will get,” Moore said.

He warned against potential selection bias, such as allowing a candidate’s personal characteristics make him stand out above another, such as someone who grew up on a farm or interviewer bias, such as discrimination against a qualified applicant because his brother was a bad worker. Limited time can also cause a poor choice.

“Avoid selection biases,” Moore said. “Give your full effort and attention to make your decision.”

The farmer should make an oral offer to the first choice, followed by a written offer. All candidates should be made aware that the hiring decision has beef there are other candidates that may be good in a future position, you could keep them in mind,” Moore said.

When onboarding new employees, “the number one factor is to be there,” Moore said. “Make sure you’re meeting them a lot during those first few days and weeks. Things happen pretty fast for a new employee. That extra time you spend at the beginning with that employee is going to be very important in retaining that employee down the road.”

It can also help to assign a mentor to the employee so they have someone nearby to help him know what to do. Moore also suggested meeting two or three days after the first day, then one week after regularly to see how it’s going.

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