Retain and Gain

Leadership and communication can help you keep reliable workers, who are often the key to maintaining a profitable operation.
Retain and Gain
Worker turnover is costly, requiring employers to spend time and money finding and training new employees. That's one important reason why retaining good workers is a top priority for most agribusinesses and farm operations.

"There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for employee retention," says Mary Barefoot, human resources services manager at "Making sure employees are happy with their jobs is a complex mix of both tangible and intangible factors, and it's different for each employee." Compensation, training, professional development, incentives and flexibility are a few factors an employer should consider when looking for the combination that keeps employees engaged and committed.

The Compensation Question

When a person feels underpaid, compensation can cause dissatisfaction, but that doesn't mean more money is the entire answer to retention. "Compensation is important as a part of retaining employees, but increases in salaries will not guarantee employees won't leave," says Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies in Saint Paul, Minn. In short: You don't have to pay the most, but you can't pay the least.

"There will always be someone who beats your salary, but people have to feel like they're being treated fairly," says Kathleen Schindler, head of talent acquisition and talent management at Syngenta. Transparency is important. Communicate that you know what's happening in your market, and show that what you're offering is competitive.

Being competitive is the starting point for Mike Tobe, agronomy manager at Blanchard Valley Farmers Cooperative in Findlay, Ohio. "The other pieces then make the difference. Incentives based on their responsibilities are where the real reward comes." He's learned that flexibility in benefits is also crucial. "Employees have to have ways to accommodate their needs. You can't do something different for every employee, but you can provide flexibility and be accommodating."

Good People, Good Environment

Not surprisingly, competent and satisfied people create a positive work environment, Schindler says. "People find it fulfilling to be surrounded by others who love what they're doing and who do it well, so look at whom you're hiring into the company." And don't overlook your own influence. The relationship with their manager is a key motivator for people to stay in the job - and often a significant factor as to why they leave, Schindler says. "Is the manager helping in their development? Do they have an open dialogue, and is the employee receiving valuable feedback? Is the manager energetic and a good role model; is he or she an effective leader?"

Research supports this conclusion. According to's 2013 Total Rewards Survey, a friendly and amiable work environment is important to 90 percent of agriculture employees, who agreed at some level that the relationships they have developed with their coworkers greatly impacts their satisfaction with their employer.

"This also speaks to company culture; and as a manager, you greatly influence culture," Barefoot says. "You want to foster an environment that is productive and positive. You have to personally commit to making more connections with your employees and provide them with support."

Tobe has followed that advice. "We've gone back to one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversations with individuals," he says. "We try to stay close to them. We try to have four to six conversations in their first year, monthly at first, then spreading them out."

Here are more ways to keep employees engaged:

  • Learn about leadership best practices, Milligan says. "You wouldn't hire a crop specialist who didn't know a lot about crops, so why would you think you'll be a good leader and supervisor if you know nothing about it?"
  • Ask employees what works. "I recently learned about ‘stay interviews,' a different approach from employee satisfaction or exit interviews," Barefoot says. These surveys target committed employees who have chosen to stay with an organization and help the company learn what it's doing right.
  • Make sure all employees know their jobs. "Ninety percent of employees don't really understand what's expected of them at work. Even if they do, they don't know why," Milligan says. "How motivated can you be to do something if you don't know why you're doing it?"
  • Provide direction. Have processes in place to give feedback - and not in an annual performance appraisal. "If it's January, do you want someone to tell you they didn't like what you did back in June?" Milligan asks. A monthly appraisal is more helpful; an annual event is better suited to looking ahead.
  • Offer opportunities for development. "At Syngenta, that's part of our purpose. We have to provide an environment where employee development is a priority and employees have opportunities available to them that meet their development needs," Schindler says.
  • Hire the right people to start with. "Farmers spend a lot of time choosing what to plant, but there's much more difference in productivity across people than across varieties of seed," Milligan says. "It doesn't mean you hire all Ph.D.s, but find people who are able to fit the requirements of a job."

All of these steps take time, and it's an ongoing undertaking. But motivated employees who stay with you can make all the difference to a thriving workplace - and its bottom line.