One reason small businesses often experience personnel problems is the assumption that a family operation does not need to use formal hiring practices. But any business operation, no matter what its size, can benefit from developing and implementing a personnel policy that includes a carefully considered set of hiring procedures. Personnel decisions are too important to be left to chance. Good managers, regardless of the size of their operations, use foresight and planning when assigning and hiring personnel.

Certainly this is true for farm businesses. Permanent employees of farm operations, whether full- or part-time, are no less important than land or equipment. They deserve and require attention and care.

A clearly outlined personnel policy that takes into account the needs of the operation as well as the skills of those involved can reduce tension and lay a strong foundation for future growth and changes. Sound farm hiring (and firing) practices can save countless hours of frustration for employers and employees, alike.

Determine your farm business personnel needs
Your first consideration in developing a sound personnel policy is to determine what is actually needed from and expected of your personnel, including family members. Let’s look at a situation where some planning and clear communication before hiring a new employee could have prevented problems.

To begin the assessment of your personnel needs, list all of the tasks performed on the farm. Next, list the individual responsible for each of these tasks. Then, determine what your own strengths and weaknesses are. Ask yourself and the other individuals who work on the farm what they enjoy doing and what they consider their strengths.


As you begin to write down the various tasks, it will become evident that some areas of the farm are working quite well while others need improvement. This is an ideal time to restructure tasks or reorganize workloads. This complete assessment should show you the personnel needs of your farm business.

Write job descriptions
Your next step is to develop a hiring procedure. This begins with writing job descriptions for all positions, which will help work with current employees and will also help you determine your current personnel needs.

Turn again to the list you prepared of all the tasks on your farm. Cluster those tasks that are related, and begin to categorize specific job skills needed to perform each group of tasks. Be certain to include those tasks performed by family members even if they are not officially on the payroll.

When writing current job descriptions, it is wise to match present employees with tentative job descriptions. Evaluate your present employees’ skills, including their past experience. Next consider their personalities, needs and desires.

Once the tasks of matching current employees with job descriptions is completed and all changes are satisfactorily in place, the next step is to formalize job descriptions for new personnel. When preparing them, it’s a good idea to consider wage structure, which is discussed in the next section.

Customize your employment package
Before beginning your search for a new employee, you should have an employment package ready. This package of information does not have to be a professionally produced personnel manual, but it does need to include certain key sections of information.

Wages are often thought of as the prime motivational tool in personnel matters. Care must be taken in establishing wage rates. First, the rate of pay should reflect the difficulty of the job, for example, unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled, supervisory, etc. Compensation may include wages, fringe benefits and other incentives and should be competitive with or better than the going rates in the area.

The employment package should also contain clearly defined information about the benefits offered to the employee. Even if the only benefit you offer is “all the beef your immediate family uses,” make certain it is written and discussed so that the employee will understand what that means. The starting wage and opportunity for advancement should also be spelled out. Again, a simple statement may be sufficient, but these issues should be addressed.

Fringe benefits are an integral part of the compensation package and may be just as important to some potential employee as the wage/salary offer. These may include training; housing; farm produce; health, life, and retirement insurance; use of a farm vehicle and farm tools; fuel for personal car; garden plot; sick leave and family emergency leave; paid or unpaid vacations; financial assistance for educational programs and farm meetings; uniforms, etc.

Since employees are apt to compare their benefit packages with what their friends are receiving in non-farm employment. Viewing the benefits provided from both your viewpoint and your employee’s is important. Is a house provided as a benefit to the employee or because you could not easily rent it? “Beef for your family” may not be an important benefit to an unmarried employee who prefers chicken and fish.

Any important rules or considerations need to be written for prospective employees to accompany their job descriptions if hired. It is perfectly legitimate to consider your own personal preferences when preparing your employment package. And it is only fair to the employee that these preferences be in writing. If you are a non-smoker, for example, and feel that employees should not smoke while on your property, then specify that. As an employer you have the right to specify rules; realize, however, that if you become too rigid, you may lose potentially good employees.

You should also formulate annual evaluation plans and describe the process fully. (Don’t forget to mark your calendar and follow through on your employee’s review.)

Other materials you should prepare for your employment package are an application for employment form and an employee interview form. You will also want a written agreement for both you and your new employee to sign when an offer of employment has been made and accepted.

Recruit candidates for job openings
Success in hiring employees to match job descriptions may depend on how you recruit or advertise your available position. If you talk to neighbors, which can be a very effective way to announce open positions, be certain to mention the qualifications that you are seeking. For example, if previous farm experience is a necessary priority rather than just a plus, make certain to present the information that way. On the other hand, if you would rather train a recent high school graduate, then specify that to neighbors.

Other good sources are local teachers of agricultural science and business. Asking current employees with whom you are satisfied may be a good way to find additional workers. It is likely that people will recommend others that they like and think would make good workers, so ask for referrals from people you respect.

When advertising in the local or area newspapers, include a basic description of the kind of applicant you are seeking, along with a brief description of your farm operation. If you feel a particular benefit is especially enticing to applicants, then mention it in the ad. Since newspaper advertising can be expensive, be as concise as possible in your descriptions. At the same time, remember that the more information provided, the fewer unqualified applicants will apply.

Once you have identified or attracted job applicants, make certain to use a screening process that keeps the number of applicants interviewed to a reasonable level. One way to help screen the applicants is to ask a few key questions by telephone before setting up an appointment.

Take the time during this initial telephone interview to mention pertinent facts about the job, including the important benefits and at least the major duties. Also ask applicants a few questions about their background to get a feel for their experience and qualifications. Since a good interview should take more than an hour, preliminary screening of the applicant’s skills will prevent wasted time.

Interview the candidates
Organize the interview before it begins. Make notes so that you will not forget anything. If you are interviewing more than one person, ask the same questions of all applicants to get a more objective basis for judgment. Time spent in an interview asking the right questions and giving job information could be the most important time you ever spend with an employee.

During the interview, try to make the applicant feel comfortable. Explain the job as accurately and as positively as you can. If the applicant’s family will be involved in the job, then they should be involved in the interview. If you are offering housing, then the family should be able to see not only the farm, but also the housing arrangements. If your family plays a large part in the farm business, they should meet the applicant at the time of the interview. Remember that if you mention a wage range, the applicant will immediately identify with the high end.

Even when an interview goes extremely well, it is best not to make on-the-spot hiring decisions. It is usually not a good idea to make wage commitments or an actual job offer during an interview. You will want to allow yourself some time to reflect on the employee’s skills and situation before deciding. The applicant, too, needs time for reflection. And, no matter how positive your impressions of the job applicant may be, never fail to check references!

When closing the interview, specify a date for making a final decision. Let the applicant know that there will be plenty of time for more detailed discussion if you decide to make a job offer. Being enthusiastic and ending the interview on a positive note is a good idea because it lets the applicant know that you feel positive about your business and are looking forward to welcoming new employees.

Hire the best applicant for the job
It is important to separate emotion from logic when hiring. You will want to select the candidate who best fits the job description. For example, when looking for someone to help with the dairy operation, concentrate on the qualifications and skills that applicants have relating to dairy experience. You may find someone you really like whose personality would fit with yours perfectly in a work situation – but not if they lack needed skills. After you have considered all factors and discussed a decision with your family, make a selection. Remember you must feel comfortable and confident about the candidate you have chosen.

When you have made an offer of employment to the selected candidate and it has been accepted, then schedule a time to sign the previously prepared written agreement. Wage, incentive, and benefit information must be included. Make certain that all legal requirements are met. Ignorance is no defense when it comes to labor laws, so be certain that you have a current copy of your state’s rules and regulations. If you need assistance, your county extension agent will help you obtain information concerning competent legal advice.

After your new employee has been hired and a written agreement signed, then notify the other candidates you interviewed. This not only gives you the opportunity to let them know another candidate has been chosen, but allows you the opportunity to thank them for their interest. Keep a file with their credentials and any notes taken during their interviews. If you have job openings again, this “possible employment file” can serve as a starting place in the recruitment process.

A description of the hiring process would not be complete without mentioning the firing process. If you have been careful in making the hiring decision, it is less likely you will need to fire an employee. Sometimes, however, it is inevitable that new employees do not work out.

The more open communication that is established in the hiring process, the less uncomfortable the firing decision will be. Sometimes employees who find themselves in a job that is mismatched with their skills are relieved when the employer talks with them about it. Ending a person’s employment does not have to be an unpleasant affair. If the selection and hiring process have been handled carefully and thoroughly, the way will be paved for correcting the mistake smoothly and without bad feelings.

As with so many other areas in farming, the more experience you gain in the hiring process, the easier it will become. A good employee is one of the most valuable assets a farming operation can have. PD

Excerpts from Purdue University Extension website

Suzanne Karberg
Instructional Design
Purdue University

PHOTO : Success in hiring employees to match job descriptions may depend on how you recruit or advertise your available position. Photo by Walt Cooley.