Finding good employees often ranks as one of the most challenging tasks for ranch owners and managers, but with some human resource management know-how, employees can become a ranch operation's greatest asset.

“The overarching goal of any business should be to make people a management strength,” says Bob Milligan, a Cornell University emeritus professor and a consultant to agriculture on human resource management issues.

Milligan and Bernie Erven, an Ohio State University emeritus professor who has also devoted his career to human resource management issues in agricultural operations and now works as a consultant, have collaborated on producing a workbook designed to help ranch entities enhance their human resource management skills. Developed through the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management (KRIRM) under the guidance of KRIRM director Barry Dunn, the workbook is entitled “Human Resource Management on Modern Ranches.”

This month, we'll highlight the steps Milligan and Erven emphasize in the workbook to find productive employees. Next month, the steps for motivating and retaining employees will be shared.

It starts with you

  1. Build a reputation as a great employer.

    Often, there is a tendency to blame a cycle of high turnover rates and a workplace with a poor reputation on employees — suggesting they weren't competent or reliable.

    But in reality, a workplace's bad reputation is not a reflection of the employees; it's more accurately an indication of a lack of effective human resource management by the “boss,” say Erven and Milligan.

    Thus, attracting and retaining productive employees begins with building a positive reputation as an employer — becoming a workplace where people feel valued and want to work.

    “This requires a shift in a business's organizational culture and vision toward viewing a manager or supervisor as a ‘coach’ for employees instead of as a ‘boss,’” Milligan explains.

    In such an atmosphere, employees benefit from training, coaching and feedback. “This inspires and motivates them to perform their jobs well, which in turn contributes to the success of the ranch business and the employee's job satisfaction,” Milligan says.

  2. Inventory your ranch labor needs and develop job descriptions.

    Many ranchers tend to write a help-wanted ad without taking time to consider what exactly they want their new hire to do. This often sets up a formula for failure, as it's unclear what the job responsibilities are for the new employee, Erven points out.

    Instead, before advertising an open position, an inventory of the ranch's labor needs should be conducted, along with identifying which employees are responsible for current tasks and what job responsibilities exist for one or more new employees.

    From this list, a job description can be developed for every employee on the ranch, including family members.

    “Job descriptions are an effective way of facilitating communication between employer and job applicants and between employer and current employees. They clarify what the employer is thinking, expecting and rewarding,” Erven says.

    He adds, “Written job descriptions then become a useful tool for evaluating employees, ensuring that all assigned tasks are being performed and modifying responsibilities to reflect employee success and growth.”

  3. Recruit and evaluate potential employees.

    Once labor needs for the ranch have been identified and a job description developed for the opening, a position announcement should be developed that emphasizes the knowledge, skills, experience and behavior to succeed in the position.

    Then be creative in advertising the job opportunity, suggest Milligan and Erven. Word-of-mouth and help-wanted ads remain important components of an excellent recruitment plan, but alternative methods might include posting the position announcement on ranch-related websites, using a placement service or temp agency, working with a local university or community college to offer student internships, or even offering “recruitment bonuses” to current employees who recruit potential employees.

    Erven emphasizes that several different recruitment methods will likely be needed. “Experiment with different methods to find which works best for you in attracting qualified candidates,” he says.

    Once application forms and/or resumes have been received, select 3-4 individuals who best match the competencies required for the position to be invited for the formal interview process. Milligan and Erven also suggest a pre-interview via the telephone to help narrow down the number of applicants or to gain insight about the potential applicant prior to a face-to-face meeting.

    At this stage, Erven also says, “Be willing to return to the recruitment process if no leads were generated for a potentially acceptable employee.”

  4. Conduct an effective interview and check references.

    When conducting interviews, keep in mind the goal is to identify the best potential employee who will fulfill the labor needs of your ranch. Erven and Milligan say this means that emphasis must be placed on finding the person who best “fits” your ranch.

    As an example, if your ranch culture uses minimal new technology — and has no plans to incorporate technological advances — a qualified applicant who is committed to implementing electronic ID may not be the best fit for your ranch. Similarly, if an applicant has great horsemanship and cowboy skills, but has no interest in technology — and the position you are looking to fill requires use of computers, genetic markers and the like — the individual isn't the right fit for your current ranch labor needs.

Erven and Milligan say being prepared with a list of appropriate questions can help the interview process go more smoothly and provide the insight needed to select the best candidate for the job. Some interview tips:

  • Ask questions related to the individual's skills and competencies.

  • Use open-ended and behavioral questions that encourage applicants to explain experiences, characteristics and ideas in their own words. For instance, instead of asking, “What would you do if…?” Specifically ask: “Tell me about the steps you took the last time you helped a cow deliver a breech calf…?”

  • For legal purposes, ask only about those things that are unquestionably related to the job and any applicant's ability to do the job.

Checking references after the interview is also essential, especially in assessing specific strengths and weaknesses of the applicant, Erven says. Be aware that some employers have a policy of not providing comments on past employees. In these instances, ask the applicant to provide references who have agreed to speak with a potential employer.

Once you've made your hiring decision, make the offer in person or by phone and follow up with a written offer summarizing the key conditions of employment.

Editor's note: Milligan and Erven's step-by-step manual on hiring, motivating and retaining productive ranch employees is available through KRIRM for a nominal fee. Contact Barry Dunn at 361-593-5401 or e-mail krirm@tamuk.edu to request a copy.

Next month: Steps for motivating and retaining productive ranch employees.

Kindra Gordon is a Whitewood, SD-based freelance writer.

Hiring the wrong person is costly

Hiring an individual lacking the experience, skills, and/or attitude necessary to succeed in a position is costly.

In fact, an industry rule-of-thumb suggests hiring the wrong person costs a business three times that individual's annual salary due to the cost of hiring, compensation while in the job, severance and the cost of disruption. Thus, hiring the wrong $50,000 employee can actually cost the ranch $150,000 to replace.

Moreover, excessive employee turnover creates lost opportunity, lost productivity and time, and supervisor frustration — as well as lost business momentum and a loss of potential customers.