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How to build employee accountability

Bernie Erven for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 December 2016

Are your employees content just being responsible for doing their assigned tasks? Have they moved on to feeling accountable for the outcomes their efforts generate? Many producers would likely respond “No” to these questions, even while thinking, “How nice that would be.”

Every dairy has the potential for a high level of employee accountability. Accountability’s importance can become as deeply embedded in employees as the love of dairy animals, hard work, healthy animals and commitment to producing quality milk. Building accountability takes time, patience, commitment and creative leadership.

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No one has easy short cuts. Answering these two questions is a good start to making accountability a genuine business strength. What is employee accountability? How can I build it in my employees?

What is employee accountability?

Employee accountability is employees being answerable for their actions, productivity and decisions. It goes beyond them simply doing their work. Producers who do not build accountability in employees leave them free to escape responsibility.

Thus, an owner, supervisor or another worker becomes liable for employee actions or lack of action and is answerable for the employees’ actions or is considered liable. Accountability requires the measuring of results against clear expectations. Responsibility cannot be expected without clear expectations and measurement of performance against these expectations.

Genuine accountability in a farm business requires both family and non-family employees to have specific responsibilities. Being family never justifies performance that fails to meet the business’ standards.

Similarly, managers and workers who use their family standing to blame others for their own shortcomings are guilty of undermining the very accountability that is needed.

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Here are two actual farm examples to illustrate the sharp differences accountability can make:

  • On the coldest morning a dairy had experienced in 20 years, a non-family employee on his own was up at 3 a.m. checking for frozen pipes. The farm owner, with the same worry about frozen pipes, discovered the employee in the milking parlor.

    He asked, “What are you doing?” The employee replied, “I couldn’t sleep worrying about the pipes. Everything is OK. You can go back to bed.” No one had ever suggested to the employee that he ought to check for frozen pipes. This is accountability.

  • An employee on another farm said to me, “I enjoy watching my boss struggle with his people problems. He deserves every bit of his frustration with employees because he causes it.” No employee accountability here.

We turn now to the question, “How can I build accountability in my employees?” There are three steps: hiring, training and follow-up.

Hiring

Hiring is more than just keeping all positions filled. It is bringing on board people who have a good chance of succeeding in their new positions. Furthermore, if accountability is an important expectation for each employee, then an important consideration in hiring should be an applicant’s history and understanding of accountability.

To illustrate, imagine that Josephina and Josie are 20-year-old applicants for an entry-level position on a dairy. They have the same dairy experience, schooling and training. Josephina is asked, “Did you have responsibility for any household chores growing up?”

She responds, “No, my chores were feeding calves and milking cows with Dad always watching over my shoulder.”

In contrast, Josie answers, “Oh yes. In addition to my barn chores, it was my job to empty all the waste baskets in the house once a week, clean the bathroom and deliver my dirty clothes to the washing machine by 9 p.m. Sunday night.”

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“Did anyone check to see if you had done your chores?”

“Mom checked up on me every Sunday night.”

“What happened if you didn’t have your jobs done on time?”

“I had to do them immediately and then she added another chore for the following week.”

Which applicant is most appealing to a producer who highly values employee accountability? Which one is most likely to understand why she was asked about household chores? Which one is most likely to respond positively to the opportunity to earn more responsibilities over time?

It is pretty easy to see that Josie’s mom helped her build an understanding of accountability, while Josephina’s dad taught her to do what she was told to do.

The producer asking about childhood responsibilities sends a signal to Josie that she would have opportunity to take ownership of the outcomes her efforts generate. Failure to ask questions about accountability leaves the producer guessing about this important qualification.

Training

No matter how carefully a producer hires, even experienced new employees will never come with all the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities. Training is essential if employees are to master their new tasks and then move on to a high level of accountability.

Training should help employees appreciate that they are being given a chance to create better opportunities for themselves, succeed in their own careers and at the same time help the business succeed. Training is an investment in people, not a mere cost of getting things done right.

Trainers (teachers) are challenged to understand what employees (learners) know from previous training and experience. Trainers need to see jobs through the eyes of untrained employees. Good training will eventually make complicated and complex tasks seem simple.

Note how complicated riding a bicycle, swimming across a pool or bringing life to a dead engine seems until one knows how to do it. Finding pneumonia in the dictionary happens only after one knows that it begins with a “p” rather than an “n.”

These examples make the importance of training seem obvious, yet many workers suffer in frustration from criticism after doing something wrong even though they had never been well trained to do it right. The need for even the best employees to learn new skills and gain knowledge never ends.

Incorporating the following guidelines into a training program helps both trainers design effective training programs and new employees appreciate their learning opportunities:

  • All employees can learn.

  • Learning should be an active rather than passive process.

  • Employees need and want guidance and direction.

  • Learning should be sequential.

  • Learners need practice supervised by their trainers.

  • Learning should be varied to avoid boredom.

  • Employees can have fun and gain satisfaction from their learning.

  • Trainers should compliment and reinforce employees for doing new things right.

  • Glitches in what the learner is doing should be corrected immediately.

  • The rate at which employees learn will vary employee to employee.

Follow-up

After success in hiring the right people and training them well, the long-term process of building accountability requires follow-up. This third step might also be called employee communication, feedback, encouragement or further development. It includes fair compensation, creating a sense of inclusion in the business and building an excellent relationship with the management team.

The challenge is to build on the hiring and training foundation. No house without windows and a roof is considered a construction masterpiece, no matter how good the foundation. No new hire with huge potential and superb training can reach his or her potential without follow-up.

This need for follow-up never ends. Your best employee can be better. An exceptional employee in 2016 is not yet ready for 2020. There is still much to learn, to experience and to master before being fully ready for 2020.

Don’t be fooled by the easy trap of believing that your very best employees will resist more training and opportunities to learn. Your best employees are most likely to welcome change, new challenges, more training and additional knowledge.

A final point about follow-up is important. An employer or supervisor who fails to include follow-up is cheating excellent employees out of something they have earned. We can accurately call it cheating because it is failure to give them something they have earned and want.

Hopefully, this article causes you to want your employees to be accountable for the outcomes their efforts generate. Remember, there are just three steps involved: hire the right people, train them well and follow up regularly. end mark

Bernie Erven is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University.

Bernie Erven
  • Bernie Erven

  • Owner/Consultant
  • Erven HR Services LLC
  • Email Bernie Erven

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