Retaining great employees: Is it about rules or results?

Before it was know your place, and keep your head down. Now employees want to network, they want to explore the company.

Ann Hess, Content Director

February 14, 2019

7 Min Read
Retaining great employees: Is it about rules or results?
National Hog Farmer/Kevin Schulz

“Who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gosh I really hope I suck at work today and I hope my boss is really mad at me when I leave, and all my coworkers think I suck.’ Does anybody wake up like that? Nobody? Not one person?” asks Erin Wagoner, associate director of human resources for one of the top five pork production companies in the country. “Neither do our people. Keep that in perspective when people do make mistakes or when they put themselves out there to try something, they are probably going to be harder on themselves in the end than we could ever be, so give them a chance.”

Wagoner, who has been with The Maschhoffs for eight years, posed that question this week during her presentation “How to Keep Your People” at the 2019 Missouri Pork Expo in Columbia, Mo.

The former U.S. Air Force Heavy Equipment and Vehicle Technician is based out of the company’s headquarters in Carlyle, Ill., and has focused her human resources position on leadership development and helping her leaders truly get the best out of their people. Often asked “How do you keep people?” Wagoner says it involves three simple ideas: purpose, empowerment and empathy.

“Pig farming isn’t the sexiest thing in the world. It’s dirty, it’s cold, it’s smelly, it’s hard work,” Wagoner says. “There are a lot of things to turn someone off about pig farming, but it’s really noble and all of our businesses have a noble story to tell of what we do for a living.”

It’s that sense of purpose that needs to be driven from Day 1, Wagoner says.

“When you get new people, it is absolutely paramount that we get them started on the right foot. I always call it Day 1 Care for humans,” Wagoner says. “We put all this time and energy to getting our piglets off to a good start and getting them dry, warm, with a full belly and colostrum, but then we sometimes tend to get people in the door, and we are so busy and it’s a wean day or we have a whole bunch of farrowing happening and we are just way too busy so we just shove people in and say ‘go figure it out, follow over here and we’ll teach you and show you what to do.’”

Instead, Wagoner suggests making time for that person. Have something with their name on it. Have the new person start an hour later after all the other employees have punched in, so the hustle and bustle is done and there is time to focus on that person.

“New people will never feel less wanted than if they are just sitting in the front office by themselves waiting for someone to come get them,” Wagoner says.

Many of these new employees have never been in a pig barn before. Explain the biosecurity efforts, the shower process and have clothes all ready for them on the other side.

“Don’t skim over that. Give them all the ins and outs of the shower because it is weird,” Wagoner says. “We are so used to it, but new people freak out about that a lot.”

If you Google “what employees want” the first thing that comes up is:

Without a sense of purpose, it’s difficult for employees to connect with their work and their company. Working with a sense of purpose boosts employee motivation, productivity, morale and overall job satisfaction. ... Let employees know how their job impacts the company and its clients.

Wagoner says that is spot on. Tell your story and make sure people know what they are doing.

“Young people no longer just want to go to work every day and slave away for 10 hours and go home and go to bed,” Wagoner says. “Young people want to have a purpose and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

Next comes empowerment, and it’s something Wagoner says everyone in the industry can work on doing better. With old school mentalities across agriculture she says it can often be hard to delegate and let things go. But younger employees have a new way of thinking. Wagoner offers these examples.

  • Before it was know your place, keep your head down. Now employees want to network, they want to explore the company.

  • Don’t tell employees to focus on the job you were hired to do. Your ideas won’t work. Wagoner says rethink that. Explain to people why they are vital to the business strategy and why we welcome their ideas.

  • Don’t keep peer-to-peer interaction and lack of community low. Employees need to feel bonded and part of a work family.

  • We, as leaders, can no longer get away with a sink-or-swim and figure-it-out-yourself mentality. Employees today want explicit career development conversations. How can they get to the next level, to the farm manager position, to the production manager position?

  • It’s no longer a headcount. Wagoner admits it’s hard to find good people. When you do find them, she suggests putting them with managers who are going to onboard them, who are going to give them opportunity and are going to treat them right.

  • Employees want to make a contribution. For example, The Maschhoffs had recently hired some temporary power washers who were not familiar with pig farming, were struggling to show up on time and getting the job done. After Wagoner approached them at a company barbecue and explained how important it is to clean every inch of the barns and the impact a virus such as porcine epidemic diarrhea could have if it was able to get in, three of the four completely changed their ways. They were now excited to be part of the team, and one even later applied to be a full-time employee.

  • Swear off mistakes. Wagoner says don’t respond “tried that and didn’t work.” If the idea won’t create a huge disturbance, let them try it. One, they will learn better for themselves why it didn’t work and if you tell them no, they will gripe that no one listened to them. Put trust in them and care what they have to say.

Finally, comes empathy, which Wagoner says is the “new black.” Trust can make or break a marriage, a company or a country. High trust organizations outperform low trust organizations on return on investment by more than 280%. A team that doesn’t trust each other is really a group of individuals that work together on tasks.

When Wagoner asked her employees during a recent exercise to write down things they were struggling with at home, the answers ranged from middle of the night feedings, marital struggles and a son with depression to a husband’s death, mammogram results and lack of money.

The phrase used to be “you define work/life balance.”

“I absolutely, violently squash that term and I think it is not even a real thing anymore,” Wagoner says. “It is really about work/life integration. We are no longer a society where people just feel lucky to have a job.”

Society is changing, and Wagoner says the industry needs to change as well. Create a workplace that is inviting and understanding, rather than a place to punch in/punch out. When employees are stressed out, less work gets done and they are opening themselves up to risk and injury. Encourage work-around schedules, rather than all-in, all-out.

“Who says all 14 people need to be there for the wean truck? Do they really need to be there for the wean truck?” Wagoner asks. “Do they need to come there the same time on Wednesday when there is no wean truck?”

Wagoner says when it comes to empowerment she often defies her role in human resources with the “invisible handcuffs” and questions is it really about rules or is it about getting results?

“I always preach that we must keep it between the ditches of moral and legal, but everything else is really up for debate,” Wagoner says. “How are we going to get most results from our people?”

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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