Farmers constantly seek to improve the production of their herd and crops, but it’s important to pay attention to the productivity of the workers as well.

Between 40 percent and 70 percent of farm costs go towards labor, so efficiently managing the farm workforce will ultimately benefit the business. A conference about agriculture workforce management featured a talk on “underperformers” on the farm.

What is an underperformer? This term refers to an employee who just gets the job done – one who doesn’t thrive, but also doesn’t perform badly enough for termination. An underperformer has a history of years of this behavior, and does not refer to a worker who is having a bad day or a bad few weeks.

Why should I care about underperformers if they are getting the job done? An employee’s underperformance will eventually hurt the bottom line of your business. Nobody wants to be labeled mediocre – this characterization will not help the person or the business. And underperformers cause frustration for both employees and supervisors.

In order to properly address the underperformance issue, it’s important to understand the problem first. Table 1* identifies fourteen likely causes of underperformance, how it may affect the business and suggests a move in the right direction.


What doesn’t work? Managers are likely to try some easy or instinctive solutions; these responses are usually spontaneous, take up little of the supervisor’s time and unfortunately, probably will not work. For example, patience just gives the employee more time to follow the same path, rather than identifying and fixing the root of the behavior. Getting angry, making threats, pep talks and offering more money, are similar intuitive responses that may get a short-term response, but do not address the problem.

What does work? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to helping an underperformer thrive in their position. The take-home message is to “do something” – the situation will not resolve itself. When approaching the employee, do not generalize – each employee has their individual challenges. Accept that some employees are just not the proper fit for the position or company.

Focus your efforts on finding the cause of underperformance – the 14 causes provided in Table 1* is a good place to start. Look for deficiencies in both leader and worker – avoid blaming the worker. And use performance evaluation and feedback to assure that the worker is involved in the resolution process. A successful resolution will probably include input from both the worker and supervisor. PD

*References and tables omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from Miner Institute Farm Report, December 2008

Rachel Butzle
William H. Miner Agricultural