Every business with more than a handful of employees likely has a few underperformers mixed in with high achievers. A dairy farm is no different. Though they may provide extra hands to get some jobs done, low performers are probably not adding much to your business.

“Low and average performer turnover was not related to negative firm performance,” described Richard Stup in detailing a study of employee performance published in 2013. “On the other hand, when you lose those high performers, that’s a huge hole to fill.”

Of course, there are fewer high performers and more average or low performers, although not all “low performers” are created equally. “You could be a low performer because you’re new and learning,” said Stup during the Northeast Dairy Management Conference. “Or you could be a problem.”

The agricultural workforce specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension shared more data which found that high-performing employees can be three to 10 times more productive than average performers. So, Stup encouraged focusing efforts to retain employees on those high performers in the top 20% in productivity. However, this doesn’t mean we let low performers “get away with” poor behavior, he added.

Performance and potential

To illustrate this approach, Stup outlined four categories of employees:

  • “Stars:” high present performance with high future potential
  • “Workhorses:” high present performance but low future potential
  • “Question marks:” low present performance but high future potential
  • “Deadwood:” low present performance and low future potential

He explained that assessing future potential can be done by asking how the employee’s abilities match with opportunities in their role and higher roles, if they have shown interest in further learning and how committed they are to the farm, and what their career goals are.

The “question marks” are often just inexperienced, so Stup advised providing coaching to develop them into stars. Conversely, if “deadwood” can’t be motivated into workhorses, they may need to be terminated. The current high performers — stars and workhorses — are where you want to focus retention efforts.

Stup said to retain “stars” by taking steps to accelerate their development. Expand their role, provide cross training, encourage outside professional development, and facilitate coaching by higher level managers. Compensate them appropriately for added responsibilities, and work to develop their management and leadership abilities. Still, he recognized that burnout can happen. Make sure employees take time off, and work with them to identify if tasks away from their main priorities have creeped onto their plate.

“Workhorses” can sometimes get ignored in a business because they are good at getting the job done, Stup noted. Keep them motivated and productive, providing some new tasks and outside training. Positive feedback can go a long way, and they should also be fairly compensated for the value they bring to the team.

Build trusting relationships with both stars and workhorses by staying connected and discussing strategy. Make it a point to talk to these people every week so they know you see them, Stup said. Maintain engagement by providing more responsibility, scheduling their own work if possible, and involving them in continuous improvement. “Any time they feel like they have more control over their own work, they’re going to be more committed,” Stup explained.

No matter what the personality, you can also work to retain good employees by attracting and hiring the right people then effectively onboarding, training, and developing them. Compensate competitively, improve relationships, and engage employees with choice and participation, Stup added.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2022
April 7, 2022
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