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0809 PD: Attracting high-quality employees

Robert A. Milligan Published on 18 May 2009

“I can’t find good help!”

This is an exclamation I hear all too often from dairy farmers and other managers. I recognize that hiring is often both difficult and frustrating. Before talking directly about hiring, let’s introduce a contrast I thought of recently.

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In the thirty years I have worked with dairy farmers, I have never heard a dairy farmer exclaim, “I can’t produce milk!” It certainly is not because producing milk is easy; you and I recognize the difficulties. Then why? Dairy farmers produce milk because it is their job; they work every day in planning and producing milk.

Similarly, hiring is an integral part of your position as dairy farm owner/leader/manager. Those who succeed at hiring great employees have a hiring plan. They work at it year-round. Successful hiring also makes producing milk easier. In this article we outline a hiring plan – preparation, recruitment, selection – and illustrate its application to hiring a milker.

Be a preferred employer
Think about how your industry – the dairy industry – works to increase consumption of milk and dairy products. Your industry advertises! The effectiveness of this advertising, however, is dependent upon a positive image/reputation of milk and dairy products. A good product or service is infinitely easier to market than a crummy one!

What is the image of your farm and the dairy industry as a place to work?

Just like advertising a product or service, hiring is infinitely easier with a great image/reputation as a place to work. We call an employer with a positive image as a place to work a preferred employer.

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So how does a dairy farm business become a preferred employer? First, you must have a good product – you must provide a great place to work. Contrary to general thinking, this does not mean excessively high compensation or just being nice to employees. It does mean that you have to be competitive in compensation. Most importantly, you must be a great employer:

• Treat employees with respect.

• Be relentlessly fair to employees.

• Provide clear expectations and great feedback.

• Provide opportunities to grow and advance.

• Develop a team atmosphere that is attractive to join.

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Just as the dairy industry promotes milk and dairy products, you have to promote your farm as a great place to work. A key place to start in promoting your farm as a great place to work is the workforce of the business and the trusted advisers, consultants or input providers of the farm business.

A recruitment plan and recruiting
On farms and other small businesses, hiring is an infrequent occurrence. It is, however, a critical occurrence when it is necessary. The choices made go a long way to determine the level of stress owners will face and the success of the farm.

What then is included in a reliable hiring procedure?

Begin by identifying what you are looking for. We have all heard the adage: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” The direct recruiting analogy of: “If you don’t know what you are looking for, any candidate will meet the job requirements” is a bit strong. However, the probability of successfully choosing the correct candidate – including especially the difficult decision to start the process over because no candidate fits the position – is greatly enhanced by knowing exactly what you are looking for. Knowing what you are looking for should be expressed in two forms:

Prepare a job description including the job title, a summary of the position including who supervises the position, typical duties and responsibilities including supervisory and management expectations if any, and the knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes required to succeed in the position.

From the job description, especially the final item, carefully identify and articulate the three to five most important “competencies” to succeed in the position. A formal definition of competencies is, “The combination of observable and measurable skills, knowledge, experience, performance behaviors and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and personal success.” Selection of three to five competencies most critical to success in the position will greatly assist you in recruitment and later in selection.

Another key to a recruitment plan is identifying the labor pools that are most likely to contain excellent candidates for your positions. Effective recruiting targets specific, identified labor pools rather than the general labor market. No one pool fits all farms. The challenge for you is to develop a recruitment plan complete with the “right” labor pools and then earn and create an image as a preferred employer within that pool.

Only now are we ready to begin recruiting. The goal of actual recruiting is to reach and persuade a large number of qualified candidates to apply for the position we have open. In recruiting we promote the positive attributes of our farm and the open position. In recruiting we additionally provide more detailed information about what will enable a potential candidate to succeed in the position – the competencies.

Recruitment is defined as the process of attracting individuals on a timely basis, in sufficient numbers and with appropriate qualifications to apply for a job. Note that the focus in this definition is on attracting a pool of applicants – not just one qualified applicant. This focus on the one candidate instead of a pool is the most common mistake made by managers. The goal of recruiting is to attract a quality pool from which there is a high probability of hiring a great candidate. Without a pool of candidates the probability of hiring a great candidate is very low.

Your recruitment plan to reach great candidates and entice them to apply for your position can include informal word-of-mouth communications, want ads, job announcements, internet job announcements and formal job services.

Selection and the interview

Selection involves choosing from the pool of candidates the individual or individuals who best match the competencies needed to succeed in the position. Remember that you are determining the “fit” of this candidate for the position and promoting the position and your farm so the candidate is likely to accept should you decide to offer him/her the position. I often say “selection is like dating.” Either party can end the process at any time.

The selection process involves many steps, typically the following:

• Review of resumes and application forms

• One or more employment interviews

• Testing, assessments and simulations

• Reference checks and recommendations

• Hiring

The heart of selection is the interview. Keep three key interviewing issues in mind:

Preparation by the farm manager for the interview is crucial.

Thoughtful, structured interview questions are necessary.

Be aware of legality issues when interviewing.

Here are some ideas to ensure you are prepared for the interview: •

Recognize that this is an important, stressful event and that significant formality is needed.

• Construct a schedule for the interview including time to establish rapport, sell the position and the farm, ask interview questions, respond to the candidate’s questions, tour the facility and the farm and meet other farm personnel.

• Make certain that the candidate fully understands in advance what to expect – anything he/she should bring or prepare, interview time (start and end), interview location, interview schedule and format, appropriate dress.

• Greet the candidate upon his or her arrival and make certain that you devote your undivided attention for the duration of the interview. Remember that you only have one chance to make a first impression. Make a great impression! You do not want the candidate you choose to turn you down.

• Make certain the candidate knows exactly what to expect when he or she leaves the interview. What and when is the next step?

A prepared set of questions to be asked of all candidates is a unanimous recommendation by all interviewing experts and practitioners. How do we write good interview questions? You should begin by writing a series of questions for each of the competencies.

Many of us have a tendency to ask questions that begin with “what would you do if...?” Research and interviewing experience has shown that a better question begins with “tell me about the last time this happened...?” Several questions of this type – called behavioral questions – are included above.

Equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws bar any business or organization from making human resource decisions on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, physical and mental handicap (disabilities – must make reasonable accommodations), pregnancy, age or veteran status. Three points to guide you:

• A general guideline is to ask only about those things that are unquestionably related to the job and the applicant’s ability to succeed in the job.
If the interview questions concern work experience, knowledge and skills required for the position, and attitudes and behaviors required to succeed in the position, illegal questions will be neither needed nor useful.

• Avoiding illegal questions is most difficult in writing questions concerning attitudes.
The key is to identify the desired attitude rather than attributes that are positively correlated with the attribute. For example, many managers believe married employees are more reliable than single employees. Asking about marital status is illegal; it is also undesirable because not all married applicants are reliable (we call this stereotype bias). Asking questions that directly address reliability are both legal and superior interviewing.

• The emphasis of the discussion on equal opportunity in interviewing typically focuses on formal interview questions.
In my experience the likelihood of slipping and asking an illegal question is much greater during the informal discussion times of an interview. Every interview requires time to relax and build rapport with the applicant, but no part of the interview can include completely informal talk.

The following are some questions that are or could be illegal with explanatory discussion.

• What organizations, clubs, or societies do you belong to?
Since many answers would identify religious or other affiliations, they are usually considered illegal questions. If you are looking for a specific skill important to succeed in the position, ask about the skill. For example if leadership is a needed skill, ask about leadership experience.

• Can you provide a photograph of yourself?
This is illegal as it identifies race and potentially national origin.

• What arrangements have you made for childcare?
This is also illegal. If you are concerned about an applicant being able to arrive on time especially with your early-starting positions, the appropriate question is: Can you meet all of the requirements (early start time) of the position?

• Have you been arrested?
This is illegal due to our presumption of innocent until proven guilty. You can ask if a candidate has been convicted.

• Are you available for work on weekends?
This is considered an illegal question if there is a presumption that the position is a week-day job. It could then identify religious affiliation. There is no issue as long as your recruitment material clearly identifies that the position includes weekend work. It would still be better to ask: Can you meet all of the requirements (weekend work) of the position?”

A concluding remark
Recently I coached a manager, much like most reading this article, through the above procedures. He had previously essentially hired the first candidate. I asked him how he felt after he hired an outstanding candidate. His answer was “It was easier!” Although it seems difficult and time-consuming, hiring outstanding candidates produces rewards far greater than the cost. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from 2008 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar Proceedings Robert Milligan Senior Consultant Dairy Strategies, LLC

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