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In a competitive labor environment, what would make a person want to come work for your –business, and stay there?

Jorge Estrada of Leadership Coaching International in Graham, Washington, asked growers to consider the question during the annual Cherry Institute meeting in Yakima, Washington, in January.

Retaining employees begins with recruiting the right person for the job, he said. "We can talk all day about the right varieties, the right soil, the right temperatures, but if we don’t have the right people, what are we going to do?"

Employers of any size should have a plan for recruiting and selecting personnel, he suggested, rather than hire the first person who comes along. Finding the right people is likely to become even more difficult because of immigration issues and competition for labor with other industries.

Recruitment

First of all, evaluate what you are hiring for, and know what your needs are. Write down a list of responsibilities that the person you are hiring would have, even for those in front-line positions.

Then, build an applicant pool. "I know you’re going to say it’s hard— ‘I have ten applicants, and when I call them back, they all have jobs now,’" Estrada acknowledged. "When you have somebody who leaves this afternoon, or tells you they’re going to leave next week, you probably think you don’t have any options. The place you want to get to is having options. That means go look for applicants."

Estrada said he has clients who look for potential employees everywhere they go, whether at church, the gas station, or wherever. They ask people if they’re interested in working for their company.

"Always wear the recruiter hat, and have your managers and supervisors wear their recruiter hats. That’s what it takes nowadays," he said. "It’s an advantage to have that human capital. Businesses in agriculture that are successful are always looking. They don’t look just when they need people."

After initial phone interviews with the pool of applicants, bring in several applicants to talk in person, Estrada suggested. Have one or two other employees who are going to be working with the person interview them also. Try to find out not only what kind of technical or basic skills they have, but evaluate "softer" skills, such as the ability to work with other people and to fit into your business.

"Those factors that are beyond the technical abilities play an important role," he said. "Sometimes we overlook how important they are in the success of your business."

It’s important to make the best possible match between the position and the skills and knowledge the person brings. Sometimes, the business owner might see potential in people that they don’t even see themselves.

Once the person is hired, train them, Estrada recommended. Explain the business and the work they will be doing. Tell them not only what to do, but why.

"More and more, especially in agriculture, we need to teach people why they’re doing what they’re doing," he said. "If we get a chance to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, we might take more interest in the work."

Retention

Several factors, in addition to pay and benefits, are important in retaining people, he said. Employees want to work at a place where they feel respected, cared for, and valued. They like to feel that the work they do makes a difference and that they can be proud of it.

They want to feel that their employers are investing in them, and enabling them to expand their skills and knowledge, he said. "I’m sure many of you have people who’ve been with you for five, ten, or fifteen years. What are you doing to care for and develop them?"

Although money is rarely the number-one factor in retaining employees, they do want to be compensated fairly. Any incentives offered, beyond pay, should be tied to specific goals and results that are measurable—–something the employees can understand.

Bosses are the single greatest reason people leave their jobs, Estrada said. "Sometimes we have to look in the mirror to look out the window and make an assessment of what’s happening with the revolving door."

Managers and supervisors need to monitor how people are doing their jobs, not to catch them doing it wrong, but so they can tell people how well they are doing, Estrada said. Feedback is a reward. A person who receives no feedback tends not to care about their work.

"People need to understand how the work they’re doing plays a part in the big picture, in helping the business be a success, and how that success can come back to them," he emphasized.

A high turnover of employees can affect the performance of the entire company, he warned. If people are working in teams, and some keep leaving, it can affect the morale of those who stay and are left wondering if there are better places to work.

The cost of employee turnover is huge, he added, partly because of the time it takes to hire and train new employees and because of costly mistakes made by people who are new to the job. The cost of replacing an employee ranges from 30 to 50 percent of the person’s annual salary, and can reach as much as 150 percent for a management position, he said.

Studies show that many companies have no strategy for addressing retention, yet the ability to keep good employees is rapidly becoming a critical part of being competitive, he warned. "Organizations are realizing that people are their most important asset and they need to spend time on that."

However, it’s not in a company’s interest to have zero turnover, he said, because unhappy people need to leave. A company is better off without employees who only care about how much they’re paid, have a poor attitude, and won’t do the work that needs to be done, or are the "rotten apple in the basket" that affects the rest of the team. New blood is good.