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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.

To Bonus or Not to Bonus

Aug 15, 2011

Does the extra money motivate employees, or do they just come to expect it?

GregCofftaPhoto webBy Greg Coffta, Cornell University’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops team


When it comes to managing milk quality and the team of employees that harvest milk, there is an ongoing debate over whether or not to give milk quality bonuses to milkers. 

On one side of the debate, there is the notion that the employee is motivated first and foremost by money; therefore, supplying a quality bonus for high quality milk is the best way to motivate a team of milkers to be clean, efficient and attentive to milk quality. Many employees on our dairy farms are immigrants who plan to stay here for five to six years maximum -- just enough to build up a life in their home country -- and then return. Money is the reason they have made the long journey north to milk cows, so why shouldn’t milk quality bonuses motivate them?

On the other side of the debate, the view is that an employee gets an hourly rate, and they are already paid to do their job well. Why pay a milk quality bonus? Some of the aforementioned employees would agree with that sentiment, saying something like, “I do the best job because that is what is ethically necessary to truly earn a paycheck.” Another argument on this side of the debate is that when a bonus is given, the employee begins to expect it and eventually just counts it as part of the regular paycheck, thus stifling motivation.
So what is the dairy manager to do? Some have tried the bonus system and then left it because of the frustration of not getting results. Some dairy managers have paid out the same monthly bonus for a long period of time. If the farm gets a premium, the milking/pushing crew shares half of it, regardless of their performance or incremental improvement. Other managers seem to motivate their employees well without the use of a bonus system. Ultimately, the bonus system is one of many tools that can be used by the dairy manager to manage, teach and improve the milking/pushing crew.
A few things can and should be said about the bonus system. Among them: that purpose, communication and clarity are crucial to its success, especially when managing across differences in language. A bonus system should be drawn up and explained clearly to employees so that they truly understand its purpose. A bonus system should use somatic cell counts and bacteria counts only as a part of the bonus equation -- individual employee actions should count as well.
Periodic progress updates must be communicated to employees so that they know when their work is worthy of a bonus, and when it isn’t. Set a standard to be met in order to achieve a bonus. Once the employees achieve the bonus, let them receive it for three to four months, and then reset the standard. 
The bonus should be about continual improvement, and it works best when the bonus is not always given.

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 Bu

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