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The Washington Farm Bureau, through Dan Fazio, sponsored a couple of two-day foreman training seminars, one in Mt. Vernon, the other in Pasco. Topics covered included:

  • Interpersonal negotiation skills (learning how to confront disagreement without being disagreeable)
  • The importance of supervisory praise (how to give praise without employees thinking that they are ­getting a raise or that they no longer have to work hard)
  • Confronting employee misbehavior (such as approaching employees in a soft, quiet way, but with ­consequences for nonconformance)
  • Dealing with difficult behavior (applying negotiation tactics to the most difficult disciplinary cases)
  • Becoming better listeners, and
  • Understanding the basics of piece-rate design

We played roles to underscore the key messages.

Foremen wanted to receive more praise and gentler reproof from their supervisors, but at first struggled with the concept of doing the same for those they supervised.

Many of the foremen felt they had to put on a harder façade in order to be respected by the crew workers. Yet, many of these same foremen admitted that being overly aggressive with subordinates had caused them to feel badly afterwards. I shared techniques they could use to get compliance without the stress of having offended employees.

In one roleplay, an employee was pruning poorly. When confronted by the foreman, this crew worker complained about the quality of his pruning shears. Instead of permitting the employee to get away with poor performance, the foreman listened to and noted the complaint, agreed to get back and deal with that issue, but then redirected the conversation back to the poor quality pruning job. It was all done without ever offending the crew worker. The need for change and the consequences for not doing so were made absolutely clear.

I encouraged supervisors to give an informal written warning, rather than an oral warning, in order to get into the habit of documenting performance issues. If the worker does not fall into the same poor performance, the informal warning eventually gets discarded. But if not, the foreman explains to the worker that both the informal written warning and the new formal written warning will be shared with top management and go in the employee’s records.

Supervisors tend to be either too lenient or too strict. This approach helps supervisors stand up for the needs of the company. For many of them, who are trying to be liked by the crews, it is difficult. In the long run, supervisors who are desperate to be liked by everyone are likely to be liked by no one. Alternatively, when crew members have valid complaints, supervisors need to clearly present these to top management. And certainly, before assuming the worse, foremen need to permit crew workers to explain the reason behind the poor performance.

The foremen understood, then, that permitting an employee to explain the reason why she was late did not make the supervisor weak. If the reason was not acceptable, the appropriate disciplinary step could be taken. But what if this time the crew worker had a valid excuse? What if she had stopped to help at the scene of an accident? ­Listening permits the supervisor to make an intelligent decision.

One of the highlights of each seminar was a session with farm owners. Participants made and ranked a list of items they wished the owners to know. In return, the growers provided a list explaining what improvements they would like to see supervisors and foremen make. The comments from both seminars are combined.

What foremen want owners to do:

  1. Praise employees for a job done well.
  2. Take a class on supervisory skills.
  3. Give supervisors an opportunity to explain when they have made a mistake.
  4. Take into consideration the opinions of supervisors (regarding general issues as well as discipline of particular employees).
  5. Provide foremen with more training on supervisory skills.
  6. Treat Hispanics the way they treat Caucasian employees.
  7. Reach out to workers in order to determine which foremen are doing a good job.
  8. Conduct meetings with foremen.
  9. Improve the hygienic services such as toilets and drinking water.
  10. Improve farm safety.
  11. Share their vision for the future, and successes, with foremen.
  12. When employees work at night (e.g., to deal with frost prevention), let them have some time off during the day.
  13. When interpreters are used, they should be impartial and not twist the messages.
  14. In the long run, providing quality tools, in sufficient numbers, saves money.
  15. Provide insurance coverage above and beyond the required for job-related accidents.
  16. Provide an end-of-harvest worker celebration.

What owners want foremen to do:

  1. Overcome fear of asking questions.
  2. Don’t say yes when you do not understand.
  3. Pass on owner concerns to the crews.
  4. Learn to delegate and do not attempt to fix all the problems ­yourself.
  5. Take care of equipment and tools.
  6. Do not cover up mistakes (problems with equipment or with ­people).
  7. Loyalty goes both ways. Explain to workers the value of staying with us rather than jumping ship when they find a job that appears to be slightly better paid.
  8. The more you learn about your job, the more valuable you become to us.
  9. Integrity. Don’t ever receive pay from workers for getting them a job or giving them a ride.
  10. Share with workers not only what they have to do, but the reasons behind it.
  11. Share your ideas and decisions, but accept and defend the owner’s decision once it is made.
  12. When the company has supervisor ­meetings, participate.
  13. Make an effort to learn the English language.
  14. Don’t take shortcuts in your job or do anything that is unsafe.
  15. Some decisions we make may look like favoritism because we consider merit, not just seniority.
  16. You are the eyes and ears of the company. Watch out for any illegal practices that may be going on in the operation.
  17. Catch people performing well. Be positive.
  18. If you are struggling with your role as a supervisor, let us know what type of training or support we can provide.
  19. Set goals for the crew and be sure to communicate them to the employees.
For more information, contact Dr. Gregorio ­Billikopf at ­ or call (209) 525-6800.