Businesses who find good employees and spend time and resources to train them often find it tough to keep those employees on the payroll long-term. In a webinar by AmericanHort, representatives from four successful horticultural business discussed their training programs that incentivize long-term employment.

Monique Allen of the Garden Continuum in Massachusetts said the training process involves trial and error – keeping and refining what works and eliminating what doesn’t work.

“It’s one thing to be in your own head with your thoughts and ideas about what should happen but there is nothing more illuminating than hearing from someone who has been with you for 30 days what you’re doing wrong,” she said. “Opening yourself up to critiques and asking open-ended questions allows someone to safely critique their experience.”

As an employer, Allen is looking for growth, performance and engagement, and employees have clout. “We give the expectations and let them work on those,” said Allen. “We’re seeing engagement because [employees] feel seen and heard.”

Allen suggested using a variety of sources to develop unique training programs for each aspect of the business and emphasized the importance of coaching and mentoring. For training, she came up with 12 key performance indicators (KPIs): Timeliness, dress code, demeanor, attendance, safety and PPE, equipment proficiency, work pace, learning initiative, team player, productivity, engagement and contribution. During evaluations, trainers make sure employees knew what they are being observed for, then discussed what worked and what didn’t.

“When people don’t understand what their impact is, they don’t have a buy-in to their purpose,” said Allen. “Some may not want to manage a team but they do want to grow and have purpose and impact. Every manager and operations manager goes through the program to learn to train within their department.”

Jennifer Moss of Moss Greenhouses in Idaho found many safety training videos boring and possibly not reaching employees. To solve this problem, an in-house team created interactive videos to make some of the training easier and fun, and it all comes back to core values.

“We know what our core values are and we want that translated through everything we communicate,” said Moss. “One of our core values is having fun at work. We want to make sure people show up and know what’s expected of them and at the same time, have a good time.”

She described the videos as engaging, interactive and cover all the basics. “Employees don’t have to read the 22-page employee manual,” she said. “We want them to be engaged through the process and to have a good time.”

The training process takes about two hours. “We’re translating our culture through videos,” said Moss. “Everyone who is a part of upper end management has a piece in the video, so [employees] are seeing faces and hear them communicate the message of Moss Greenhouses.”

The other important factor is relatability. The new generations of employees are accustomed to TikTok and YouTube, so it’s important to relate to them through videos and humor during orientation. “We play with plants,” Moss said. “Make it fun.”

Moss Greenhouses sells annuals, perennials and hanging baskets, and developed a system through which employees can earn flower credits to purchase plants at wholesale cost.

Employees earn credits in several ways, including attending meetings or company events. This plan helps engage employees and encourages them to learn more about the products – and become good ambassadors for the company.

If employees do an exceptional job in their own yard, Moss Greenhouses will sponsor a meal and invite other employees to visit that employee’s home garden. “We also have container competitions,” said Moss. “We’re really trying to get buy-in.”

Heather Ruiz of Natura, with branches in Texas and Florida, focuses on new hires learning the company’s core values combined with fun. “When you’re creating an emotional connection to core values of an organization, you get buy-in and connection to who we are as a company,” she said.

“We want to give them an understanding of who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going so they become emotionally invested,” said Ruiz. “The first day they are introduced to the team, have a tour, meet department heads and the admin team at our corporate office. We also give a tour of the greenhouse and introduce the workflow.”

New employees shadow someone who is working directly with plants and shadow others to see what is done in every department. This process helps minimize questions about who’s responsible for what.

Liz Lark-Riley of Mahoney’s Garden Centers in Massachusetts (and formerly of Rockledge Gardens) said small operations have an advantage with training simply because it’s easier to communicate to smaller groups.

“See that as a strength if you are a smaller organization,” said Lark-Riley. “One thing we did at Rockledge Gardens for onboarding was our ‘first day experience.’ On someone’s first day, they come in for the morning huddle, which happens daily 15 minutes prior to opening. They’re introduced to the team, we get their lunch order, provide basic training materials, issue tools they need. We don’t do the new hire paperwork on the first day.”

She then took new hires to each department, introduced them to others working that day and provided an overview of the department. Lunch was with the owners and the new hire’s direct supervisor, which provided an opportunity for them to learn more about each other. New hires watched videos on planting, learning the differences between annuals and perennial the basics of watering, and then participated in an actual planting.

“If we give people a good first day where they don’t feel like they’re totally at sea and have had an opportunity to meet everyone, they’ve been given a true orientation.” said Lark-Riley. “That sets us on the right foot for a great relationship.”

The second day covered safety, pesticide training, paperwork and shadowing someone in the department where they would work.

Lark-Riley believes it’s important to have one-on-one meetings so employees can ask questions, express what’s getting in their way and explain what they need from her. They also have a chance to criticize her performance as a manager.

“If employees know you’re going to ask them each week to tell you something good, they start to look for the good,” she said. “If you have people looking for the good all week, it creates a positive outlook and a fun and positive workplace.”

by Sally Colby