by Emily Enger
Labor issues continue to dominate farm-based businesses. Our work takes hands-on education and training, it’s often seasonal, and it doesn’t fit well in a typical family’s 9-to-5 schedule. Truthfully, not everyone is cut out to work for us. But as we debate how to best retain employees, it is important to first look at the issue from an employee’s perspective.
Whatever you choose to do when it comes to boosting productivity or morale, remember your employees two imperative needs, money and respect.

Rewards programs have become a common workplace trend. The idea is to reward employees with small gifts when they perform to a certain level. Though usually well-intentioned, this concept ignores those two fundamental employee needs. There’s no extra money for a job well done, and employees often feel patronized, not respected. Bribing people to do what they’ve been told is something one may do with children, but adults at work feel more like monkeys being coaxed through a hoop. Those of you who have tried this before may have noticed a trend in rewards program results: the only employees doing well are the ones who never had problems to begin with. These programs just don’t have the right incentives to convince troublemakers to improve.
In his essay “Another Look at Workplace Incentives,” prominent author and lecturer Alfie Kohn says, “What matters about the idea of carrot-and-stick control is how it feels to the people to whom it’s done…These people, in my experience, rarely choose to return to a place in which employees receive patronizing pats on the head or other goodies for pleasing the boss. They want to be paid, not incentivized; encouraged, not praised; offered respect, not reinforcements.” In another of his articles, published by the Harvard Business Review, Kohn notes that rewards programs may actually discourage risk-taking. Since employees are trained to do precisely what the reward requires, it can cap productivity and discourage employees from thinking outside the box.
As bosses, what alternative options do we have for encouraging performance? First look at the money. There’s no excuse for lack of performance, but if you aren’t paying employees enough to get excited, it should be no surprise if their attitude is lackluster. Your employees have very real monetary concerns — every person does. If they are thinking about school loans or their kid’s braces or the engagement ring they want to buy, that stress is consuming them and is very likely related to the lack of bounce in their step. They don’t need an occasional Friday afternoon off or discounts on merchandise or their name added to a monthly drawing for a prize. They need a raise.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can afford to give them one. This is where the second need comes in handy: respect costs you nothing. In fact, a recent two year study by Discovery Surveys, Inc. found that, while pay satisfaction was still important to people, it ranked #3 in importance — behind Work/Life Balance (#2) and Enjoyment of the Work (#1). If you can give employees a bit more control over their schedule and job requirements, it goes a long way. But there are other ways of showing respect, as well  — such as employee safety. Are you keeping your facilities updated? Do employees feel comfortable not coming in to work when sick or during dangerous weather conditions? What about tools or technology: are you providing them what they need to make it possible for them to go above and beyond? And lastly, are you acting on your employees’ concerns or complaints? Don’t just listen — no one is fooled when his or her boss is simply pretending to care. Make tangible changes per your employees’ requests and do so in a timely manner. All these things build trust, they help employees respect you, and they lead to workers feeling like proud contributors to your business.
Obviously, these ideas are suggestions that should be taken with discernment. As previously stated, farm businesses are unique and each of you knows what is and is not possible for your particular business. Sometimes late night shifts are unavoidable. And let’s be honest, there are employee complaints that probably deserve to be ignored. But don’t start off with an assumption that your employees are wrong or that they know nothing. That attitude leads to bosses attempting rewards programs, with employees eager to leave a workplace where they feel treated like junior high students.
The above column is written for educational purposes and should not take the place of legal business advice. To respond to these ideas or pitch future column topics, e-mail the writer at