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Labor Matters

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

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May 09, 2011

When good employees have to leave your dairy.

GregCofftaPhoto webBy Greg Coffta, Cornell University’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops team
There are many reasons why employees and employers part ways, and in most cases it is a situation that is difficult to communicate. When an employee is fired, the meeting can be rather uncomfortable for both parties, and could stifle communication. Nonetheless, these interactions are relatively straightforward in purpose. 
Perhaps a more difficult situation is when an excellent employee leaves under good terms, such as deciding to return home.
Any manager enjoys working with a team of competent, experienced employees. The dairy manager is no different. In most cases, the most experienced and competent Spanish-speaking employees are those who have been working on the farm for the longest time, often more than six or seven years. At this point in the average career of the Spanish-speaking employee, there is a strong desire to return home. Some simply leave for a few months, others go home to return for good. In either case, the dairy manager is going to have to confront the inevitable loss of a good employee and friend.
To be prepared, there are a few simple actions that the dairy manager can take. First, have a staff meeting with your Spanish-speaking employees to discuss “going home.” Let them know that you understand their situation and that there will be no hard feelings or consequences for planning to leave.
Make sure they feel comfortable coming to you with the news as soon as possible, even if they are early in the planning stages. These veteran employees usually value the relationship they have with their employer and seek to preserve a positive interpersonal reality. This makes it difficult to bring up in conversation, and easy to put off for another day. Along the same lines, don’t underestimate how much the employee values your relationship and hopes that you value it, too.
After you have determined the employees who are planning to go and when, you can make the second move. Identify a current employee (who’s planning to stay awhile) who is interested in taking over the position of the person who is leaving. Make time for that employee to cross-train and work side-by-side with the person who is leaving. Provide opportunities for on-the-job training and preparation so that when employee A leaves, employee B is reading to hit the ground running.
So, that solves the problem of filling the higher skilled position, but what about the milker/pusher position that employee B left? Unavoidably, you will have to make a new hire at some point. Chances are your group of Spanish-speaking employees has already discussed the opening. Have a meeting with them and ask who (if anyone) would like to move into that position. Day positions are more coveted than the night shift, and it’s likely that someone is eager to work on the day shift. 
Next, ask if they know of someone looking for work: a brother, cousin, etc. Tell them that you don’t want just anybody to fill the position. Remind them that they will have to be working with that person and it’s best to choose someone who is responsible and team-oriented. Working with your existing employees to make a new hire is an effective way to earn employee respect and confidence, build a strong team of employees and build a sense of team.
If your employees don’t offer a good option for a new hire, you may have to look to outside sources. Talk to other area farmers. They may know of someone, and their Spanish-speaking employees surely do. Ensure that the potential hire is a responsible employee (that he or she didn’t get fired from the previous job for something grossly indecent), and try to include some of your trusted employees in the interview process.
Especially if you are operating with a lean team of essential employees, you can’t afford to lose any of them without an adequate replacement. Preparation will help you work through staffing changes with less wasted time and less frustration.
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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