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What to do when an employee is not working out

Gregorio Billikopf Published on 12 April 2010

Editor’s note: The following is an actual conversation the author had with a Missouri dairy producer about how to deal with employees not meeting the standards of the dairy.

Missouri Dairyman: I have an employee who is not working out, what can I do?

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Gregorio Billikopf: There are many reasons why employees do not perform well. One of them is that they cannot do the job; the other, that they are not motivated to. We often assume that the people we hire have the necessary skills, but unless we tested them, we cannot be sure. Did you test this employee?

Dairyman: No, I did not.

BILLIKOPF: How long has the employee been working for you?

Dairyman: A little less than six months.

BILLIKOPF: You have a number of options. But, in the end, it is my opinion that every employee “should be guaranteed or your money back” so to speak. In other words, every one of your employees should be fantastic, in my opinion, or important steps need to be taken to either help the employee improve or terminate that employee.

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Dairyman: What can I do to help an employee improve?

BILLIKOPF: One of the best tools is to conduct a negotiated performance appraisal. The employee fills out three lists: 1) what he does well; 2) where he has improved recently; and 3) where he can still improve. You would also do the same, filling out the three lists from your perspective, regarding that employee’s performance. There is a fourth list, and this one is only filled out by the employee: 4) what can I, your supervisor, do differently, so that you can excel in your job? This is a very powerful technique, and especially so when you use a third-party facilitator to help prepare you and the employee (in separate pre-caucuses) before the joint meeting.

The facilitator helps the employee prepare for the joint session and fill out his lists. For instance, regarding the third list, it is not enough for the employee to say that he will try to reduce calf loss. If this is a weakness, the facilitator prepares the employee to come to the joint session with some very specific suggestions on what, exactly, he will do differently so that we will begin to see a difference in three weeks, three months and a year. And not just improve, but turn this weakness into a strength.

Dairyman: Who could facilitate this meeting?

BILLIKOPF: Well, this could be your veterinarian, nutritionist, local county agent or a labor management specialist. I have both a book to help the facilitator, Party-Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences, as well as videotapes online that the potential facilitator can review to get a better idea of his or her role.

Dairyman: What if the person still does not improve?

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BILLIKOPF: Once again, this brings us back to something we said earlier. Is the poor performance based on the fact that someone cannot do the work, or does not want to do it? That is why I believe in testing all employees before hiring them.

Would I be correct in saying, that it is not that you are worried about hiring someone who is experienced, but rather, someone who does not follow the protocols you wish them to follow?

Dairyman: Yes, you are correct.

BILLIKOPF: Well, you can test employees who are experienced or not experienced. The test is not some sort of trick to see who has a greater intellectual understanding. The test, instead, helps you answer the question: “Can this applicant follow my instructions?” So, you may take half an hour or more, and show the potential applicants (all together to save time) what it is you would like them to do and how you would like them to do it. Tell all the applicants that this is a type of test where you want them to do well.

Dairyman: What sort of test?

BILLIKOPF: If you are going to hire a calf feeder, have them do some very specific things around the calves. Likewise, have very practical, hands-on sorts of tests for other work around the dairy. Can they drive a feed wagon and back it up? Can they move cows from one pen to another? Can they follow a detailed milking procedure? Each of these tests may take five to 10 minutes, and you can set up several stations which applicants go through.

It is quite an investment the first time, you are right. But once you have conducted a test like this, the next time it takes very little effort. Also, my research shows that if you take any 20 employees with the same job title, the best will be potentially four to eight times better than the worst. So you may have two calf feeders at your operation, and in order to get 20, you would begin to enlarge an area until you have 20 of them, from a number of adjoining dairies.

Dairyman: I can believe that! What about my present employee? What if it turns out he can’t do the work?

BILLIKOPF: You said he had worked for you for less than six months. That is good, because the longer someone has worked for you, it is as if you had been saying all along that this person’s work was good enough. That is why I believe in probationary periods, and the importance of extending these probationary periods if you are not sure about a person. So, if a person had worked for you for several years, there is a need to be even more careful, which is not to say that you cannot terminate that individual.

I believe that whenever we hire someone without a test, we are in part to blame for poor performance. One dairyman hired such a person and was then telling me that the individual must have been the slowest person on the planet. He noticed this the day after he hired the milker. A short test would have shown that to be the case and would have saved him untold headaches. I am a strong proponent of using a termination agreement where it is legal.

Dairyman: How does that work?

BILLIKOPF: The idea is that the employee agrees to quit. You agree not to contest their unemployment claim if they file one. Also, depending on how long they have worked for you, you give them a check. You know how we expect employees to give us a two-week notice before quitting? It is something similar to that. We can say something like: “I am giving you a month’s notice, so to speak, but instead of you having to work and really worry about your next job, I want you to concentrate on getting your next job. In other words, I will give you the equivalent of one month’s pay, but you will be free to consider that you have quit as of today.”

Dairyman: Do I need an attorney to draw up the agreement?

BILLIKOPF: Absolutely, no matter which approach you use to terminate an employee, you would need to have a labor attorney give it his or her stamp of approval. An attorney will ask you a lot of important questions before giving you advice on the matter. For instance, has the person been recently injured on the job? How old are they? These and other questions will help the attorney recommend the best possible avenue.

Dairyman: Well, we are going through a very difficult period and so I may do this in a couple of months.

BILLIKOPF: It is my experience that once a dairyman decides to terminate an employee – and I am not sure if you are at that point – in the time they eventually get around to terminating that person, this employee may well cost you thousands of dollars. I am not saying the employee does it on purpose, but it’s typical that they will crash a tractor, milk cows with antibiotics into the milk tank, you get the idea. PD

Gregorio writes about more in-depth management in his book Labor Management for Agriculture. It is also available in Spanish. It costs $12.50 plus sales tax (only in California) and shipping (about $10 when ordering one book). Ask your labor management question by e-mailing him at

Gregorio Billikopf
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