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Labor Matters

RSS By: Dairy Today: Labor Matters, Dairy Today

Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Great Employees through Great Management

Mar 21, 2011

Misunderstandings and mistakes have led to good employees leaving the job, and also good managers being taken advantage of by employees.

 
GregCofftaPhoto webBy Greg Coffta
Bilingual Dairy Support Specialist
Cornell University, Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops team
 
For many dairy farm managers, personnel management job duties are often avoided, relegated or overlooked completely. When there is a language and culture barrier, the responsibility can be even more daunting.
 
Of course, this had led to some caustic situations on the farm, both for getting the job done and for interpersonal relationships. Misunderstandings and mistakes have led to good employees leaving the job, and also good managers being taken advantage of by employees. Misunderstandings and mistakes are unavoidable and are a necessary part of the learning process.
 
Consider the following examples of mistakes that have been observed on dairies and see if we can take a lesson from them.
 
Ignorance is bliss -- but not for long
 
A common phrase stated by the especially aloof manager goes something like, “Well, Juan is one of our best milkers and he has trained the others.” Busy managers can sometimes assume that training of new employees is taking place according to protocol and procedure, especially when a trusted and proven employee is doing the training.
 
Hoping without ensuring that adequate training is being provided leads to devolution of the milking routine and consequent herd health and milk quality issues. It can also lead to an employee becoming frustrated due to lack of direction or a manager becoming frustrated due to lack of productivity. Most dairy farm owners, managers or operators can probably tell you story of an employee that started off really well, was promoted to work outside the milking parlor, but then became disgruntled and eventually left the farm or was fired.
 
Don’t assume that if an employee is good in the milking parlor that he/she will automatically be good outside in the barns. An employee who is used to a rote milking procedure will need time to transition to the more independent and variable job of assistant herdsman. Without good direction from the manager, this transition can be very frustrating.
 
Aside from job readiness, a manager should be keen to some basic employee quality of life issues. Spanish-speaking employees in such rural settings rarely have adequate transportation, so trips to the store and access to other essential services are a challenge. Sure, there may be a third party that provides transportation, but it may be irregular and it may be costly to the employee. Ensure, don’t assume, that the employee is able to access transportation.
 
Information about life in the community and services (health care, managing utilities, housekeeping, grounds keeping, etc.) are also commonly assumed to be known by employees that come from another language and culture. When managing Spanish-speaking employees, it’s important not to make these assumptions. Ensure that adequate training is taking place and that employees’ needs are being met.
 
Milking the cows or milking the clock?
 
Many dairy owners, operators and managers take pride in the team of employees that they have. So proud, in fact, that their pride becomes hubris, and they assume that employees comport themselves as they should when the boss is not around. The manager may also become inattentive to the time clock and to employee job performance.
 
The problems that arise from this often manifest in the night shifts, when there are few, if any, managers on the farm. Many dairies have taken a closer look at employee performance during these times and have found that milking routines are completely out of order. While some cows go unmilked, the time clock does indeed get milked.
 
On one farm, the manager discovered that he was paying six employees each an extra of eight hours per week because the employees colluded on punching each other in and out at the shift changes. Records showed this happened for half a year for sure, possibly more. It started out with just two employees, but soon involved others across the second and third shifts. 
 
Naturally, this unethical behavior is unacceptable from any employee and should be reprimanded. Of course, this problem has been around as long as there has been a time clock. This problem is not endemic to Spanish-speaking employees. However, the owner/manager admitted that he had not been on the farm between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. for at least a year, nor had any other manager for that matter. 
 
Visiting the farm vigilantly and micromanaging are two practices that are reactive and detracting to productivity, and that’s not what’s being suggested here. What is being suggested is that the manager monitors employees more effectively. Periodic review of the timecards along with a random visit to the farm during off hours would have prevented this situation. Note: It is not time-effective to visit every night, or even once a week. Once a month should do it to start, but the key here is a random visit.
 
Remember, Spanish-speaking employees have been excellent employees for New York’s dairy industry but nonetheless are still employees. Some are aces and some are jokers, many are jacks. Without proper management -- including training, follow-up and monitoring -- you’ll end up losing more hands than you win.
 
In his role as Bilingual Dairy Support Specialist for Cornell University’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops team, Coffta provides training, translations and meeting facilitation as well as management consulting in English to New York dairy farms. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from SUNY College in Brockport with a double major in Spanish and communications. He earned a master’s degree in education from the University at Buffalo. Contact Coffta at gjc53@cornell.edu.
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