Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Ask these 5 questions to build employee loyalty and boost performance

Shaun Hardtke for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 September 2021

They say the most valuable, yet free, investment is to recognize and show appreciation to your employees. This cannot be truer now with our struggles to retain good people, let alone find anyone to fill our positions on our dairies.

In my travels around the country, I see the labor challenge everywhere. Years ago, our largest concern was our mailbox price on our milk checks; today, the greatest pain point is labor.  There is nothing that I am going to say here that is going to fix all our problems, but you may be surprised by the way investing time daily in getting to know employees can boost their job performance, morale and, ultimately, keep them coming back to work on your dairy.



My previous experience as a dairy manager where we tripled cows and people within one year was probably the most eye-opening experience of my life, from both the cow perspective and people perspective. In the beginning, at 2,000 cows, it was so easy to be fully immersed in every department of the day-to-day operations of the dairy and be fully connected to each person who was working on my team. It was easy to have casual conversation with my people as we were working on taking care of a newborn calf that was struggling right after birth, walking down the breezeway on our way to give vaccines, working the fresh pen together or even just to quickly start a conversation with one of my cow movers while waiting for my next pen of cows to return. I took those conversations and interaction as just something to pass the time for the day and had no clue how much value those “free” conversations and “buildups” really were to the organization.

Fast forward to a workforce that doubled and a herd that tripled in size on two sites, and one can imagine the tailspin that was going on. The entire day consisted of going from spot to spot, putting out fires and trying to get out in front of the ball on training. It was a losing battle; the management structure was unclear. The culture was undefined. The result: People were turning over like flies.

This motivated me to make changes in how I went about my day.  Long story short, I am going to say what everyone says but with a touch of real-life experience behind it: recognition and appreciation are the most valuable, free investments you can make. The element of direct human interaction between employer, supervisor and every employee can never be beat with systems, structures, automation or protocols.

When you truly get to know someone for who they are and what motivates them and makes them tick, that is when and where true relationships are built within any organization. Even if it is only 15 seconds “in passing” per day, per employee, the return on that time is worth it. People need to know that they matter to you as a person and not just a body to do the dirty work.

I’ve provided here (Figure 1) some simple, yet effective, conversation starters. Take this list, cut it out and post it in your office as a daily reminder so that no matter how busy your schedule gets, these simple relationship-building questions are on the top of your mind. Use these key statements to build a conversation, then follow with words of appreciation. What if there’s a language barrier, some may ask. In today’s age, with translation at your fingertips, that’s no excuse.


The small things that seem insignificant to us as we are dealing with big-picture things mean the world to our people. It’s not just small talk; it equates to an investment and success with our teams.  Challenge yourself to do it, even if you had a terrible day and things are not going well. Put your game face on; perhaps it will boost your morale and performance as a manager too.  end mark

Shaun Hardtke
  • Shaun Hardtke

  • Director of Milk Quality and Safety Training
  • FutureCow
  • Email Shaun Hardtke