Rules and Reason for
Managing Farm Personnel
Howard R. Rosenberg

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Part 1: Dealing One-on-One When Things Go Wrong

One day last summer a milker arrived at his job 40 minutes late. Other employees in his parlor crew were well into their work. The herdsman noticed this latecomer but said nothing to him, continuing instead to chat with one of the others and pat the animals as they walked by. On a nearby dairy another milker came about 30 minutes after the scheduled starting time. His supervisor immediately gave him a written warning. At a third operation in the same county that day the herdsman who supervised a similarly late milker approached him and explained why it was important for the whole crew to be punctual.

Somewhere there must be a dairy, crop farm, packing house, factory, bank, or university where managers can set goals, divide work across departments and jobs, hire people into the jobs, direct them to do the work, and bask in sure knowledge that all will go according to plan. But I have yet to encounter it. In every organization that I have ever worked with or visited there are performance and conduct problems to cope with.

Phenomena such as late arrival, absenteeism, intoxication on the job, slow or sloppy work, insubordination, theft, and conflicts among employees raise concerns, tempers, and expenses. Nearly all mistakes and misconduct eat away at the bottom line, and their costs can be particularly large around more capital-intensive and technologically advanced operations. Where equipment is faster, chemicals more powerful, or loads larger, each worker on average affects a greater amount of product. While sloppy picking, pruning, or sorting by a field crew member may mess up a relatively small portion of output, a mistake in mixing chemicals, controlling temperature and humidity, or adjusting machine clearances can damage thousands of plants or animals.

Several decisions affect whether capable people are attracted to work in a farm business, whether they stay, and how well they perform. Skilled personnel management can reduce the incidence of problems but not be counted on to prevent them all. No matter how carefully managers attend to job design, employee selection, orientation and training, performance management, and pay, things do go wrong from time to time. Dealing with problems when they occur is a key function of the first-line supervisor and has great significance for higher level managers.

Responses to Problems

Preventable or not, worker performance shortcomings call for a management response. As exemplified by the three dairy supervisors, there are different ways to respond to lateness--or any other incident of employees not meeting reasonable expectations. Whatever the response, it affects not only the situation at hand but also the longer term relationships between managers and workers, including those not immediately involved. It can generate additional costs or benefits in the short and long run.

Especially because no single type of response is best or worst for all occasions, it is useful to distinguish among several ways of handling a problem incident. Below are definitions and examples of response types I have seen on farms. How many approaches can you have to the milker arriving late, the field man asleep in the supply room, the general laborer refusing a work assignment, the irrigator smelling like a brewery, two co-workers loudly at odds with each other, the forklift operator who thinks she is in a chariot race, the foreman extracting personal favors from crew members, and the feeder moving with all the speed of a brain surgeon? At least these nine.

* Click for video illustrations *

1. Penalty: Imposition of a punishment, typically a loss of status, comfort, or earnings opportunity. Supervisor lays it on the worker.

Ex.: "You are suspended for 3 workdays."

"I'm taking you off of the forklift for good."

(and the ever popular . . .) "You're fired!"

2. Specific Warning: Advance notice that a penalty will be administered if an unacceptable behavior continues or recurs. Written form may itself be construed as a penalty.

Ex.: "Here is a formal notice that I won't put up with your waltzing in late anymore. Next time you don't show up on time without calling ahead and having a good reason, you will be suspended."

"If you can't keep up with the other pruners, I will put you on the rock moving crew."

"If I see you harassing Jose again, I'm going to have you fired."

3. Vague Threat: Expression of intent to inflict penalty of an unspecified nature, usually conditioned on future unacceptable behavior, which also may be described imprecisely.

Ex: "When you butcher the trees like that, I get the feeling you aren't suited to work on a piece-rate pay system."

"If you don't do something about those cartons, I'm going to do something about you."

"If you keep leaving such a mess outside the parlor, I'll assume that you don't like the day shift."

4. Authority Emphasis: Statement of a rule or directive as legitimate and proper. Implication is that failure to obey violates the organization. It often carries an implied warning.

Ex: "I don't care if you don't want to work in the clean-up crew today. I am the boss and I assign the work."

"I am supposed to suspend you for coming back to work in this condition. You know the rules here."

"As you know, our company policy says that theft of tools is cause for immediate discharge and possibly even criminal prosecution."

5. Avoidance: Disconnection from an event so as to be unaffected by it. Common forms include pretending ignorance, seeking distraction, and simply not acting on the obvious.

Ex.: "Hmphff."

"Looks like cloudy weather this afternoon, doesn't it?"

". . . . ."

6. Humoring: Coaxing with amusement, flattery, sarcasm, obvious exaggeration or insincerity, or ludicrous talk. Taken literally, it may resemble any of the other types.

Ex.: "Gee, I'm awfully sorry. You never sprayed before today, and I forgot to remind you that we usually measure the stuff before mixing it in the tank. My mistake, buddy."

"Surely an hombre of your good looks and genius can figure out a way to get along with Maria."

"Your eyes are so bloodshot that it would be a miracle if you could tell the difference between humidity gauge readings and the ball scores. Maybe we should let you run the new combine today instead."

7. Explanation: Provision of information that clarifies what the supervisor wants or why. It may consist of facts, reasoning, or know-how. An "irrational" variant can resemble humoring.

Ex.: "If you don't show up on time, it makes life tougher on me and the rest of the crew here. We are faced with either sitting on our hands until you come or going out there one picker short."

"If you use the same towel on different animals, it could easily pass disease from one to the other. That hurts our cows, our production, and our chances of staying in business."

"You have to prune above the second node to optimize vine vigor as well as next year's growth. And if you leave too much, we'll get a lousy crop next year."

8. Appeal to Interests or Values: Justification of desired behavior as consistent with worker's own welfare or beliefs. Offering of a reward--material, social, or spiritual--contingent on future performance constitutes the "quid pro quo" form.

Ex.: "Everybody here has had such high respect for you. It will become a distant memory if you come back from lunch in this condition again."

"The better quality job we do, the more demand there will be for our birds and the more hours of work you will have in the long run."

"By taking on this extra work, you can show that you have unusual ability and commitment. You know, the company is going to need a couple of new supervisors in the spring."

9. Problem Solving: Presentation of an undesirable behavior or condition as a problem to be jointly solved. Usually by opening with a question, supervisor engages worker in discussion of the problem and search for a solution. It often includes or leads to some explanation, in both directions.

Ex.: "If we keep up this pace it will take us 6 days to pack and ship what the boss has budgeted only 4 for. What can we do about it?"

"That spray rig has to get cleaned now, or the work won't get started early enough tomorrow morning. Why is it that you won't give me a hand?"

"I know that it's hot and that you can still pull more than your load with a couple of beers in you. But if I let you drink on break, others would badger me for the same privilege. How can we quench your thirst without inciting a riot around here?"

Variations in Use and Effectiveness

For conceptual clarity, the nine types are outlined above as if they were distinct from one another. In practice, of course, they are often used in combination--explanation with humor, for example, or authority with warning. And this typology is certainly not the only way of sorting out immediate responses to incidents on the farm. Another scheme characterizes leadership by six "styles" -- coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching -- that one can reflected in the range of response types presented here.

Regardless of the classification system used, my essential point is that there are alternatives within it and none of them is the best way to deal with all problems. What works well in one situation may only exacerbate trouble in another. The dismissal of an apparently intoxicated irrigator can lead to increased respect, a lawsuit, both, or anything in between. An explanation about how more careful pruning affects business volume can develop understanding and loyalty or disdain and resentment. Each type of response has its potential advantages, disadvantages, and place in the supervisor's repertoire. Where a few of them are used heavily and others not at all, supervisors may be failing to accurately diagnose and handle incidents that occur.

What are some pros and cons of the respective types?

Penalty imposition makes clear to an offender that certain behavior is frowned upon, and it sends to others a strong message about standards. In strictest form it removes from the workplace a person who caused a problem and could do so again. On the other hand, it may alienate or eliminate an employee whose past and future contributions to the farm outweigh the trouble he generates. Replacing fired workers takes time and expense, and decisions to penalize expose employers to legal challenge.

Specific warnings also clearly express concern about unacceptable behavior. They afford employees time to improve and prepare them for the possibility of penalties. Warnings may antagonize or stigmatize, however, and the worker who has lost face may attempt to regain it at the expense of the supervisor. As a kind of commitment to take further action if stipulated conditions prevail, a warning requires supervisory follow-up if credibility is to be maintained.

Vague threats can inspire fear, a powerful motivator to most people. The more vague the threat, the less necessary is consistent follow-up. But as a conveyer of either technical or administrative information, this type of response does not deliver much. It sometimes leaves the receiver with no clue about what went wrong, what improvement is desired, or what will happen if changes are not achieved.

Authority emphasis is helpful reality therapy to some workers. While clarifying the legitimate expectations of an employing organization, though, it is often faulted for ignoring the human level. Rules that have no reason tend to inspire disrespect for other official standards, and the "I'm the boss" variant of emphasizing authority is a direct invitation to ego battles and subterfuge.

Avoidance is the easiest response to execute and is probably the most often used. Some people like to rationalize that it allows mild offenses to go by without turning into a big unproductive deal. Workers who appreciate the break that is given when they misstep or get away with something may develop intense loyalty to their calculating or laid-back supervisors. But when questionable conduct is ignored, the employee displaying it as well as others who know of it are left to assume that it is acceptable. Avoidance foregoes the opportunity to communicate about problem behaviors and results.

Humoring usually comes off as friendly, gentle communication. It can diffuse tension about a situation and put events into broader perspective, thus paving the way for more constructive discussion. Sometimes, however, it implies supervisory weakness, frivolity, or lack of seriousness, and it is difficult to follow with formal warning or penalty for repeated violations. Particularly if used without sensitivity and finesse in emotionally charged situations, or across cultures, humor may be quite inappropriate and unwelcome, even offensive.

Explanation, rationally provided, usually expresses respect and opens discussion. It can be a simple fix for problems caused by workers not knowing what, why, or how. If lack of information or understanding is not the issue, however, explanation is not a good remedy. Explanations that are not needed are often taken as condescending. If needed but ineffectively provided, they frustrate both giver and receiver.

Appeal to values speaks to an employee's interests and is usually experienced as helpful and supportive. It can clarify for workers how to achieve rewards that are important to them. Supervisors who do not understand well what employees really value, however, are less apt to strike the right nerve with their appeals. Workers with different values or cultural frames of reference may see an appeal to values as so much management hokum.

Problem solving generally shows respect for the employee and initiates conversation likely to yield ideas, commitment, or both. It puts the supervisor and worker on the same side of things. This approach can lead to time-consuming discussion, however. It is a waste of effort where relationships are already too sour or either party is incapable of constructive dialogue.

One dimension on which the responses can be readily compared is the amount and nature of communication they initiate. The first four (penalty, warning, threat, authority) are typically one-way interactions. By content and delivery they tend to maintain or increase distance felt between supervisor and worker. They often provoke defensiveness, anger, and alienation. Such reactions from employees are sometimes but not usually sought.

The latter four types (humor, explanation, appeal, problem solving), on the other hand, tend to invite two-way communication and constructive reciprocation. By using them the supervisor is more likely not only to get the intended message across but also to end up with some useful information back from the worker--and maybe even greater respect.

Responses to performance problems touch business owners, workers, and public officials for more than the moment. They have cumulative and long-lasting effects on relationships.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3


Part 2: Policies To Guide Disciplinary Action

Pat Munyon was enraged. Not since his promotion from Mechanic to Shop Supervisor had he faced a situation quite like this, and he was not about to let it endanger his hard-earned reputation. "All right, Beauty," shouted Munyon at a startled Harry Mason, "Get up and out--for good. I should have figured you were into bad habits back here just by looking at how little work you've been getting done out front. You'll have plenty of time to sleep now."

A most practical question about the nine types of response (discussed in Part 1) is when to use which. Appropriateness in a given situation depends partly on nature of the problem but also on supervisory standards and objectives. While farm managers usually consider sleeping on the job more offensive than showing up late, they differ more on what penalty it warrants. Suppose you want to achieve and maintain a high level of employee performance and conduct on the farm. Should you impose penalties freely to make it clear that no less will be tolerated?

There are still a few growers who rely heavily on a classic method for handling problems and the people responsible for them. When they pay good money to employees and do not get good performance value in return, they figure, like Pat, that it is time to utter those two famous words: "You're fired." Most agricultural employers, however, tend to use alternative methods, because they know that workers can also utter two famous words: "I'll sue." Or maybe worse, that they could be thinking three other chilling words: "I'll get even."

Firing an employee who wants to stay is fraught with behavioral and legal challenges. Despite the doctrine of employment "at-will," several bases from which to contest dismissal can be found in both statutory and case law. Farmers incur sizable costs to defend against charges of former employees, and few of even those who ultimately prevail in litigation feel that they have won anything. Court decisions in "wrongful termination" cases have led employers in all industries to reexamine their policies on discipline and discharge.

Possible legal action is not the only reason for employers to think more than twice before firing and imposing other penalties, and policies are tools for that kind of thinking. Discipline policies in particular can contribute to effective personnel management by both clarifying standards in advance and structuring corrective action once problems occur. Since farm objectives are more often served by living better with employees than by simply getting rid of them, it is more beneficial to correct unsatisfactory behavior than to punish it. Discipline means not always having to say, "You're fired."

Shoot from the Hip or Apply Policy?

In the example above, Pat's reaction to the sight of his man down and out in the supply room is understandable. But is it reasonable? Defensible? More important, is it in the best interest of the firm? To answer these questions, we first have to ask others. What is Mason's record with the company? Is this the first time that he has stepped, or slept, out of line? Has anybody else in the company ever been caught napping, and what happened to that person? Is there an explicit policy that specifies rules and penalties for violation? Most arbitrators and judges dealing with a case like this would want to know.

While Munyon intended to rid himself of a problem employee, his troubles may have been only beginning. The summary dismissal of Mason may prompt (1) Mason himself to file a legal complaint against the firm, (2) other shop workers to retaliate in subtle ways on Mason's behalf, or (3) the General Manager to doubt Munyon's judgment. Pat's position would be far less tenuous, however, if his decision in this incident were based on disciplinary guidelines that had been clearly communicated and consistently applied in the past.

Policies are among the basic tools that management has for reducing uncertainties and increasing the likelihood of operations going as planned. Like other personnel policies, a disciplinary plan can make both supervisors' and workers' lives easier. It typically saves the supervisor time and relieves pressure of having to make many difficult, otherwise questionable decisions as though they were novel. Telling a crew foreman to maintain discipline without an explicit policy is akin to telling a mechanic to tune a truck engine with only his bare hands. He can do it, but it will take more time than it should, and some equipment may get damaged along the way.

Applied consistently, discipline policies provide a sense of fairness that color the entire work climate and help employees know what to expect from management. The employee complaints that are most typically formalized as grievances and lawsuits are those contesting discipline and discharge. In addition, nothing poisons employment relationships over the long run quite as much as the perception that punishments and rewards are distributed capriciously or inequitably.

Although "discipline" is often associated with blame and punishment, among its literal meanings are "a branch of knowledge," "self-control," and "orderly conduct." A discipline policy may contemplate the use of penalties, but its main purpose is to inform and encourage sensible, effective behavior on the job. That purpose is best served if policies are clearly and considerately communicated to employees. Disclosure by spoken word during employee orientation or meetings can be confirmed by written word on a bulletin board or in the employee handbook.

Policy Principles

Discipline policies are in widespread use today, and they are not all equally effective. They vary widely with respect to length, precision, and content. Rational discipline systems generally have two major components: (1) a list of standards, rules, or prohibitions that indicate what performance is expected and what behaviors trigger sanctions; and (2) a set of measures that are taken when standards are violated.

The list of standards informs employees ahead of time as to what is and is not acceptable. Of course, expectations should fall within the bounds of lawfulness and reasonableness. An abiding source of discontent among employees is the existence and enforcement of rules which serve no useful purpose. Many a rule made for a long-forgotten reason unnecessarily irritates workers and burdens supervisors. Consultation with other employers, an attorney, and current employees (especially supervisors) can help managers from making rules that violate local norms, state or federal regulations, and workforce sensibilities. As with decision making on other issues, employees who participate in designing rules of discipline are more likely to understand how the system works, feel responsible for its success, and help explain it to newcomers.

One manager I know conducts yearly reviews of all the personnel do's and don'ts on his ranch, testing each against the question, "What does this rule contribute to my objectives?" The rule lives on if it helps to prevent plant disease, maintain workplace safety, avoid equipment breakdowns, control expenses, prevent disruption of work flow, or serve a similar function. Answers that fail his test include, "We've always done it that way," "It's our policy," "The last guy thought it was important," and "That's just how I want it." Regardless of exactly how exercised, the habit of periodically eliminating rules that have outlived their usefulness is a good one to develop.

The second part of a good discipline system, its action component, is a set of guidelines for what happens when a rule appears to have been broken. If followed, these guidelines protect the employer and supervisors against the complexities associated with shooting from the hip, as they also protect the employee from arbitrary treatment. Prescribed responses typically include simple discussion (sometimes referred to as "counseling"), oral warning, written warning, suspension without pay, and discharge.

"Progressive discipline" is a standard and decent practice in organizational justice. In essence, it entails administering corrective and punitive measures of increasing severity until an employee's infractions cease. For some offenses, such as felonious assault, major theft, and deliberate damage to company property, the first incident is reasonable cause for immediate discharge. Most behavior worthy of disciplinary action, however, is not serious enough to warrant firing on the spot. First instances of tardiness, carelessness, gambling, indiscretion, or the like are usually considered cause for discussion or warning. More punitive responses, up to and including dismissal, follow repeated occurrences of even minor offenses. At each progressive stage the goal is behavior change.

The most common first step in discipline systems is counseling (or equivalent term), during which supervisors informally discuss minor infractions or performance shortcomings with employees. A straightforward, non-antagonistic discussion can often reveal that the employee was never informed of a rule that he may have broken, that temporary circumstances beyond worker control interfered with normal work, that the supervisor misinterpreted what he saw or heard, or that the employee may not yet have been instructed in requisite techniques, so that training or reassignment rather than punitive action is warranted.

It is a good idea to document any disciplinary step taken for subsequent reference. Written records have better memories than people do, and they are invaluable when it comes to defending actions taken. In cases of supervisory counseling a brief note of the date and issue discussed is sufficient. A respectable record of more advanced disciplinary actions--warnings, suspensions, dismissals--and the incidents that prompt them would contain the following:

1. Basic circumstances: names, dates, times, places, and people associated with the incident.

2. Violation: specification of the offense or the rule broken.

3. Expected improvement: behavior that the action is intended to elicit or extinguish.

4. Review period: time by which the employee will be reassessed to see if correction has been achieved.

5. Employee signature: acknowledgment that the discipline has been administered with the employee's knowledge (not agreement with the action, simply awareness of it).

A Sample Guide and Its Limits

Figure 1, Guide for Disciplinary Action, is a diagram that suggests the steps of a system and the types of offense that would trigger various disciplinary actions on first occurrence. It thus includes lists of both standards and measures, and it embodies the principle of progressive discipline. More serious offenses are met with stronger measures. Repeated offenses of any type lead ultimately to discharge. A farmer could easily modify this sample by redefining or regrouping offenses into different categories, adding or eliminating a step in the progressive series, or linking offense categories with different steps for first-time occurrences.

So is one of these charts in the employee handbook or on the bulletin board all you need to establish effective discipline? Not hardly, for at least three reasons. First, a manager cannot anticipate everything for which disciplinary action is appropriate. No matter how detailed and exhaustive a policy may be, incidents that it does not cover precisely are bound to arise. Labeling offenses as "examples of unacceptable performance," as in the sample policy presented in figure 2, implies that others may also trigger sanctions. Disputes are more likely over the applicability of a policy to offenses not on the stated list.

Second, most managers want room to vary responses in accord with contextual and individual circumstances. Right or wrong, managers tend toward more lenient treatment of workers who possess excellent or scarce skills, have longer records of satisfactory service, are known to be currently coping with personal problems, might have somehow been influenced or provoked into the unacceptable behavior by management, and pose no threat to managerial authority. Flexibility to vary disciplinary action with respect to these considerations can be built in by leaving unspecified the normal step to take on a first occurrence of a given offense.

For this reason if no other, I suggest using the figure 1 (or any similarly specific) chart only as a guide to help farm managers and supervisors think about discipline, but to not advertise it to employees, unless you are prepared to consistently follow its rules to the letter. The more cautious move is to distribute generally to workers a policy statement of the type shown in figure 2, which preserves more room for case-by-case determination. Greater detail on topics of specific concern or regulatory consequence--such as security inspections, intoxication, and sexual harassment--can be provided in additional policies.


Figure 2. Sample Discipline Policy

Employee Conduct and Work Rules

To assure orderly operations and provide the best possible work environment, the management of this farm expects employees to conduct themselves in a manner that protects the interests and safety of all persons here as well as the farm in general.

It is not possible to list all the forms of behavior that would violate this general standard and be considered unacceptable in our operation. The following are examples of conduct that may result in disciplinary action, including formal warning, suspension, and termination of employment:

Theft or inappropriate removal or use of company property;

Falsification of time or production records;

Working under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs;

Possession, distribution, sale, transfer, or use of alcohol or illegal drugs in the workplace, while on duty, or while operating employer-owned vehicles or equipment;

Fighting or threatening violence in the workplace;

Negligence or improper conduct leading to damage of employer-owned property;

Insubordination or other disrespectful conduct;

Violation of safety or health rules;

Sexual or other unlawful harassment;

Unauthorized absence from ranch during the workday;

Unsatisfactory performance or work output.



Punitive Action vs. Other Responses

The third reason why no diagram or written policy is enough to ensure effective responses is kind of a reverse of the second. Even explicit, detailed policies cannot provide complete guidance to the supervisor. They do tend to prescribe when to invoke warnings and penalties, two of the nine types discussed above in Part I of this article, but the bulk of everyday problems call for informal discussion or counseling. Though it may be helpful for workers to be aware of the full extent of disciplinary action possible, for most employees most of the time correction is built on informal discussion, not warnings and penalties.

Foremen have far more occasion to counsel workers than to mete out cautionary notices and pink slips. Since there are many ways to conduct the informal discussion that typically constitutes the first disciplinary step, explicit policies still leave much to the judgment and art of the supervisor. Seven of the response types in Part I are variations on this step. In choosing from among them, supervisors have to rely on upper managerial example as well as their own instincts and understanding of people. And it matters which they choose.

Appeals and Tests for Justice

Not shown in the diagrammatic guide but essential to a good discipline system is an appeals process for employees who feel unjustly treated. The separation of critical roles within our civil justice system does not prevail automatically at the workplace. Instead, the supervisor or manager is often policeman, judge, and trial jury all wrapped into one. Most managers try hard to be fair, and in most cases this aggregation of roles works fine. But there is always a chance of a bad decision, and it is important for an employee to have a way of calling for a less involved person (typically a personnel officer, general manager, or other supervisor) to review any disciplinary action.

While all employees do have appeal rights in courts of law, internal processes can both reduce an employer's exposure to legal action and help in correcting misapplications of policy. Means for challenging disciplinary action can be incorporated in the discipline policy or created as a separate grievance procedure. Two major variables differentiating appeals procedures are (1) level of ultimate appeal (e.g., to personnel manager, general manager, employee-management committee, outside arbitration), and (2) time limits for appeal submittal and management response. Where an equitable review procedure is provided and followed by the employer, courts are reluctant to even consider employee charges of wrongful discipline or discharge.

Arbitrators and judges reviewing charges of unjust discipline use much the same criteria that employees consider in assessing the fairness of management. Whether the disciplined worker has in fact committed some offense is only one issue examined. Others involve the procedures followed by management and the nature of penalties imposed. Though managers do not always have to establish that disciplinary action has been for "just cause," the following questions are typical of those used to test the justice of measures taken:

1. Was the employee adequately warned of the consequences of his conduct?

2. Was the company's rule or order reasonably related to efficient, safe operations?

3. Was a fair, objective investigation of facts conducted before the discipline was administered?

4. Did the investigation produce substantial (not necessarily conclusive) evidence of fault?

5. Have the rules, orders, and penalties actually been applied consistently and without discrimination by the employer in other instances?

6. Was the penalty reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense and the employee's record?

Clearly, no policy fully substitutes for supervisory judgment in responding to performance problems, and discipline does not have to be a five-letter word. For most performance and conduct problems, discharge ought to be held as a last-ditch measure. Discussion, verbal warning, and suspension, applied progressively, may correct and develop employees before their skills, loyalty, and enthusiasm are thrown out with the bath water. Hastily applied discipline may make waste of employee talent, supervisory time and reputation, and other business assets.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3


Part 3: Problems as Management Information

When a drought hits an unirrigated region, orchards there yield fewer and smaller apples. Is the tree or the weather to blame? Personal beliefs and philosophies affect attributions of the causality. In my view, the yield is determined by a combination of tree characteristics and environmental conditions, including some over which the farmer has no control. If fruit trees did not require water, then droughts would not reduce production.

Similarly, human behavior comes about as the product of personal characteristics (like abilities, knowledge, attitudes) and social or organizational circumstances. Poor performance by an employee, then, has to be understood within its context. The same person who brings about problems in a particular workplace may be a consistently valuable contributor in the family, social, or church setting -- or in another job.

Worker performance problems have been treated in Parts I and II of this discussion as events to which managers respond. From another perspective they are also results of factors that managers and supervisors may influence. What we see as personnel problems when they occur have roots in worker private life, in management practices, and in conditions of work. Some are employee manifestations of discontent which they have no more suitable means of expressing.

Surely good managerial response to problems helps to avoid future ones, but so does skillful management further upstream. Lateness, shoddy work, conflicts within crews, insubordination, and the like are often symptoms of conditions that managers largely determine. They should prompt us to look for underlying causes. Assessing problem incidents as symptoms can begin the process of diagnosing what basic management tools and practices need attention.

Beyond the Laziness Diagnosis

Some workers seem intent on creating difficulties no matter what. Most, however, want to do a good job. When they perform poorly, it can be traced to past experience and current conditions that portend inequity, fatigue, failure, or mixed messages. It is hard for any person to change another. But growers, packing house managers, and other agricultural employers can certainly draw out more or less desirable behavior through control of organizational structure, supervisory processes, and other conditions of work.

Effective adjustments in personnel management are aided by understanding of how the overall work environment, immediate job context, and job content are affecting workers. Before concluding that a worker is a rotten apple, I would want to consider a few questions.

Did anyone ever tell him what he is expected, or even allowed, to do?

Does she understand enough of the "big picture" on a job to contribute as much as she can?

Does he have the skill, physical energy, and time to handle his workload?

In general, what difference does she think it will ultimately make to her if she does what is expected and refrains from what is prohibited?

Do management's policies or past practices indicate that good work would improve his job security? Current pay? Next year's pay? Future work assignments? Chances for layoff, rehire, or promotion?

Does her work performance affect whether immediate supervisors treat her with more or less respect?

Do co-workers appreciate or resent his working well according to management's standard?

Will he be expected by either a supervisor or co-workers to compensate for others' inadequacies?

Performance that violates rules or otherwise fails to meet expectations can be sorted into three classes of cause: (1) "don't know," (2) "can't do," and (3) "won't do." The first is a matter of understanding. If workers are unsure about what is expected of them or do not know enough about the overall operation to do more than the minimum in their own jobs, the manager ought to find ways of delivering the missing information. I would look for opportunities in employee orientation, job descriptions, an employee handbook or written notices, rotation of job assignments, crew or staff meetings, and ongoing, informal communications.

If employees understand expectations but do not have the ability to work effectively and reliably, other strategies are more appropriate. The manager might consider restructuring employee recruitment and selection processes or providing better training for the marginally qualified (after hiring) and for people whose jobs have changed. Different tools or equipment can help solve ability problems by reducing skill or stamina requirements, sometimes as part of reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities.

When workers know what to do and can contribute up to par but nevertheless do not, the issue is rightfully seen as one of motivation or effort. Some people regard it as an "attitude problem." The effort that people put out depends to a large extent on what they expect to reap from it. Most agricultural employees would do more to obtain higher pay, greater job security, co-worker esteem, appreciation, or a kind word. On the other hand, a blank stare, disrespect from the foreman, resentment from co-workers, and more work without compensation are hardly likely to motivate great effort.

Farmers can use their pay systems, performance appraisals, job allocation policies, and related supervisory practices to persuade workers that it really matters if they perform up to and above expectations. Analyzing what the employee stands to gain and lose from working well is a good step toward uncovering conditions that lead people to work below capacity.

Concluding Remarks

Performance and conduct problems occur in all organizations. Supervisors deal with them every day in various ways. Different responses would lead to different outcomes from a given situation, and the effectiveness of any type of approach varies across situations. In virtually every case, some types of response would not only fail to resolve a problem but also exacerbate it and set up more behavioral or legal trouble for the future. Well crafted disciplinary policies applied by skillful supervisors increase the odds of avoiding such results.

Responding well to problems that have already happened is important but generally not as valuable as preventing them in the first place. Among the many factors that may contribute to employee performance problems and thus put a drag on agricultural business results, most are subject to management influence. Policies and practices in all aspects of personnel management affect these factors. Problems that stem from insufficient understanding, ability, and effort indicate needs for attention to respectively different sets of managerial tools, so it is helpful to distinguish among them.

Finally, let the focus on problems in this discussion by no means be mistaken as a plea for managers and supervisors to obsess on errors, faults, and misdeeds. Correction, counseling, and punishment are only part of managing people in agricultural work. Most often things go right. There are several ways to deal with good performance, excellence, and the employees who make miracles in agriculture with plants, animals, soil, machines, chemicals, and other inputs day in and day out. They too merit our recognition and use.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

[1] Grievance Guide, 10th Edition, Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2000.


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