The author and her husband are custom operators in a third-generation family business in Green Bay, Wis.

Kathy Vander Kinter
Cabin fever has set in for most anyone in the agriculture community by this time of the year. For most of us, we have at least a month until the wheels can again be put into motion. The contracts are signed with the custom operator and clients alike, the forage harvesters are ready to chop, and the planters are ready to roll. What can we do now?

This is an opportune time to check in with the office staff to make sure all of the lines of communication are open and proper procedures are in place for the upcoming season. Sometimes we get good results when we do things “off the cuff” or on a whim; however, the most successful outcomes usually occur after strategic planning and with a written protocol.

If your custom operating business is on a smaller scale and just starting out, decide who will oversee your human resources. Though it sounds a bit technical, you will essentially need someone or multiple people to hire and fire employees. Only if it were that simple!

Coming up with an application for prospective employees to fill out and prepare all the necessary federal and state paperwork are only small portions of the task. During the interview process, there needs to be consistency from one interview to the next.

A standard protocol of questions to ask and job expectations should be in place and presented to the potential employee at the time of their interview. Also, by communicating your business’s mission and goals to a potential candidate, you are giving them a handle on whether your job is a good fit for them.

Test your SOPs

Long before the potential employment interview even takes place, develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) handbook. An SOP is a written set of instructions agreed upon by a company to help employees understand how to carry out routine jobs. An SOP can be as simple or as specific as you want it to be.

Keep in mind there are multiple ways to successfully accomplish a task. Consider reaching out to others who are performing the jobs on a regular basis for their input on best operating practices because, in the end, a poorly written or inaccurate SOP can set your business up for reduced productivity, adverse environmental impacts, and jeopardize employee safety.

The whole purpose of the SOP is to ensure that you are providing a safe work and living environment for everyone while preventing equipment failure in the field (maximum operational efficiency) and can be used as a training guide for all new hires. Lastly, after you have a draft completed, test it out. Ask someone who performs the job regularly to follow the procedure to see if the outcome is what you are expecting. Then test it out on someone who has never performed the job and see if the outcomes are consistent between the two individuals. If both individuals can come up with the same result, you are on your way to a successful SOP. Use the SOP as a training guide and tool for your business.

Document expectations

A more commonly known manual is an employee handbook where company values, policies, benefits, and procedures are compiled into an easy-to-read and comprehensible format. Again, this can be as simple or as extensive as you wish. I would suggest that after drafting a handbook to seek legal counsel to ensure all legal provisions are included and have not been misstated.

Finally, the employee handbook should always be readily available to all employees and be reviewed on an annual basis. Employment laws are everchanging, and new obligations are being implemented regularly. By following these couple of steps, you could save your company from financial devastation while providing your employees with a valuable resource.

The employee handbook will serve as your company’s set of expectations and standards relating to job performance. You can choose what works best for your individual business when it comes to training employees. Whether you choose to do a computer-generated slideshow, a one-on-one training lecture, or a hands-on approach, by following exactly what is written in the SOPs and employee handbook, all employees should be performing each job exactly the same to your own company’s
standard of excellence.

Following through after implementing your employee handbook and SOPs might be the most difficult part of this entire process. It is easy to give an employee doing a satisfactory job a raise in pay. The difficult job is disciplining an employee for subpar performance. If you followed the steps up to this point, the process can be a lot less stressful. You will have a written set of disciplinary measures that you will follow if an issue arises; you will also have a protocol to determine if the employee’s performance is meeting your standards for a pay raise.

Employee reviews can be done as often as your company chooses, with an annual review being the usual standard protocol. Reviews serve as the company’s way to give constructive feedback and guidance to the employee and open the door for discussion into the future growth of the employee. Again, an employee review does not have to be a painful process if all the expectations and procedures are documented from the beginning. Share in your employees’ accomplishments, and happy harvesting!

This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 24.

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