You’ve hired the right employees, provided job descriptions and meaningful training, offered competitive pay and fringe benefits, clearly defined the rules of conduct, and held staff meetings. So why aren’t your employees happy and productive?

Without ongoing, positive interactions between employer and employee, situations can arise where tempers flare, worker productivity drops and morale suffers. Without the right ingredients, even a well-chosen, well-trained crew can become dysfunctional. The involvement of an employer isn’t static. Developing a productive relationship with employees is ongoing; it takes time and effort, and requires a conscious decision to do so.

Trust and respect

In an ideal situation – the one we should all be striving to achieve – you don’t have to think twice about trusting your employees. It’s not only about trusting them not to steal, slack off, give away trade secrets or be absent for no reason, but also trusting them to get the job done the right way, on time, and without undue complications.

While building trust naturally happens over a period of time, offering an employment environment based upon a foundation of trust and respect begins immediately. An environment where the employee is seen as an integral part of the farm community, rather than just a set of hands to do a job, is one that fosters a sense of responsibility, accomplishment and pride in one’s work.

A big part of building trust is offering it. Employees who are laboring under the expectation that they are going to do wrong, and aren’t to be trusted, will not be dedicated, high-performing individuals. An atmosphere of mutual respect, with the expectation that farm rules will be followed and the recognition that everyone plays a valuable and vital role, is much more likely to promote positive outlooks and produce positive outcomes than a distrustful environment. Employees who feel scrutinized, as if they can’t be trusted to be unsupervised, won’t become productive team players.

Let your growing operation be one where trust and respect are the modus operandi. Having the occasional employee fail to live up to these expectations and dealing with them fairly as per farm disciplinary policy punishes the offender, not the crew. Creating an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, however, punishes everyone.

If your employees can’t trust you, why should you expect them to be trustworthy? Don’t promise things you don’t deliver. Own up to any mistakes you make. Avoid blaming employees for your errors in judgment or failure to communicate clearly, and don’t make your bad mood their burden to bear. Follow your own rules and lead by example.

Positive communication

Communication is an ongoing process. Every day, repeatedly, managers have to communicate to employees the jobs that need to be done. However, not all employees learn in the same way or at the same pace, and they don’t all respond to direction in the same manner.

Employees may learn best by having a task shown to them, via written communication, or through verbal instructions. Some employees may need all three to process an unfamiliar task. Learning which method of communication works best for each employee, and accepting them all as equally valid, can go a long way in increasing job satisfaction.

Ask your employees if they need you to demonstrate a new task, if they’d like a handout on proper procedures for reference, or if they understand your verbal instructions. Give them the opportunity to ask for clarification without feeling belittled. This means providing an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions and encouraging them to assist one another when difficulties arise.

Communication is a two-way street. Allowing your employees access to you each day can help resolve issues before they become a crisis. While you don’t want employees running to you for every minor event, you do want them to feel free to speak to you.

Having an open-door policy, where employees feel comfortable sharing insights, asking questions or raising any concerns without fear of retribution and without being made to feel like they are intruding, generates trust and respect. After all, they are your eyes and ears and can help you do your job more effectively. Being accessible and open to hearing their ideas and concerns, as well as regularly asking them for feedback from the day’s job, opens the channels of communication.

Delegation and motivation

If your farm management system is a one-way street, where the boss tells and the workers deliver, it will likely lead to frustrated, undervalued employees who aren’t motivated to do well. While giving decision-making responsibilities to an unqualified employee isn’t recommended, offering competent, trained employees the ability to make certain decisions on their own can lead to innovation and increased job satisfaction.

Enhance communication by taking the time to regularly explain your decision-making process to your staff and allowing them a chance to offer suggestions or alternatives. Even if you’ve already made up your mind, giving employees the opportunity to understand how and why the decision was made can increase morale.

“Shared decision-making can lead to better decisions, increase communication with employees, bolster worker motivation, and increase acceptance of difficult decisions,” according to “Labor Management in Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity,” by Gregorio Billikopf, University of California. “When and to what extent to involve workers are key management choices.”

Just as some employees prefer one method of learning, others prefer more or less structure and responsibility. Some relish the chance to operate independently, being trusted to get the job done without direct interference or supervision, and can handle several pressing deadlines at once. Others prefer step-by-step instructions in a task-oriented environment, with no conflicting demands. Both can make valuable employees under the proper management structure and with recognition of their skills and limitations.


With open communication and an environment of mutual respect, the need for disciplinary actions should be minimized. However, if an employee isn’t performing up to job standards or breaks a rule, disciplinary action is needed. Importantly, the rules must apply to all employees, no matter their level of experience. Family employees also need to adhere to the rules and be subjected to disciplinary actions.

Having written rules, regulations and disciplinary procedures is recommended for legal reasons, as well as practical ones. Documenting all disciplinary actions is advised. Firing employees, or being fired, is not pleasant. Ongoing communication, daily observation and immediate corrective actions can prevent a situation from escalating to termination.

Serious infractions, such as physical violence, may call for immediate dismissal, while tardiness or leaving a job undone may mean a warning. Ascertaining that the employee understands the problem, as well as the consequences of their behavior, is important. A probationary period with ongoing evaluation and an increase in supervision may be warranted. Repeated violations should result in loss of employment.

Having clear expectations of job performance, as well as clear procedures for disciplinary actions, provides a baseline on which to build a trusting relationship. Take the time to regularly communicate with employees directly, in a manner that’s meaningful to them, and listen to their suggestions, concerns and complaints. Allow employees to have appropriate decision-making responsibilities and acknowledge their skills. Treating your employees as valuable assets is the key ingredient to a successful relationship with them.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.