Do Your Homework Before Conducting a Farm Employee Interview

            Keeping yourself from hiring unqualified employees is probably the most important step you can take to protect your farm.  Weeding out the unqualified can take time but doing so early on can prevent problems down the road.  Taking your time can keep you from hiring someone who potentially uses bad livestock handling practices, has issues operating a sprayer, or similar concerns. 

            Not rushing the hiring process potentially gives you the time to find qualified candidates who meet the needs of your operation and will not cause problems later.  Although applicant pools for many jobs on the farm might be small, you should still take the time to develop a process to properly hire qualified employees and weed out the unqualified. A good process will include reviewing the existing needs of your operation, finding qualified applicants, weeding out the unqualified, hiring the right applicant, and training and onboarding that employee to work successfully on your farm.

            One area not covered in this publication but important nonetheless is identifying characteristics which will make you an effective manager of people.  This is not an easy skill to learn and may require additional training on your part to help retain and develop good talent for your farm (Anderson and McCorkle, 2009).

A. Assessing Your Needs

            Before hiring any employee, always consider and assess your operation’s employment needs.  What type and quantity of work are you looking for?  You could be looking for someone with experience handling livestock and farm machinery, or just one of those.  Identifying the needs and type of operation will on what exactly you are looking for in an employee and help narrow the applicant pool down later.

            Determining the needs of the farm allows you to develop a job description for this position.  The job description will include a general description, duties and tasks, working conditions, and compensation.  For example:

             XYZ Farms is looking for a motivated individual to work as a general farmworker on their diversified              grain operation. This position requires a general understanding of agricultural practices and a high school              diploma.  This position will report to Tyler XYZ, the owner of the farm. Typical hours are 40 hours a week              and more during harvest and planting seasons.  This position will be eligible for 2 weeks of vacation              annually.  This position will require:

             1. Using farm equipment, such as a tractor, sprayer, planter, combine, and other general farm equipment.

             2. Recording information related to pesticide and fertilizer applications to maintain compliance with              applicable regulations

             3. Loading agricultural products into trucks, and driving trucks to market or storage facilities.

             4. Setting up and operating irrigation equipment.

             5. Informing farmers or farm managers of crop progress.

             6. All other duties as assigned by supervisor.

Take the time to sit down and think through the tasks you want a new employee to cover; this will help in recruiting new workers on your farm.  For more information on how to develop a job description, please see Melissa O’Rouke, Farm Employee Management: Assembly of Farm Job Descriptions (Iowa State Extension C1-73, 2014).

B. Attracting and Selecting Candidates

            Attracting quality candidates can often be the hardest part of the search process.  How do you go about attracting quality candidates?  This is not just a problem faced by agricultural producers -- it is often a struggle for many employers looking to hire qualified employees.  Offering bonuses to current employees to refer potential qualified applicants who are hired and stay with the farm for a period has been known to work (Fogleman, Anderson, McCorkle, 2009).  This could be one way to improve your chances of success at finding a qualified applicant.

            Other ways to attract qualified applicants would be to recruit through local colleges and universities with agricultural programs.  Consider running ads in newspapers or on the farm’s social media accounts.  At the same time, think about the kind of candidate you are looking for and what that candidate might read.  Would that candidate look at local want ads?  Social media?  Or other methods?  Using a variety of places to advertise can help expand your candidate pool (Fogleman, Anderson, McCorkle, 2009).  At the same time, make sure that your farm is the type of business that people want to work at and has a reputation for being a place where an employee who consistently does a good job is valued (Fogleman, Anderson, McCorkle, 2009).

            The first type of evaluation is a written application, usually the first step of the process. A written application gathers information about applicants and shows their reading and writing skills. It also allows the potential employee to list previous jobs held, which shows their stability, reliability, and work ethic. Written applications are the initial step in determining who an employer should hire and can help eliminate the unqualified. In the written application process, you should steer clear of asking an applicant’s marital status, education dates, disabilities, workers compensation claims, nationality or native language, membership in organizations unrelated to the position, and homeownership. Such questions could be used in claims of discrimination in the hiring process because they are not related to the applicants’ skills and the job.  Have candidates fill out a written application covering, at a minimum, name, address, past work experiences, and references.  You may also want a resume from each applicant covering the necessary skills related to the position.  Compare each application to the job description you put together to determine which applicants have the necessary qualifications.

            From one of the author’s personal experiences, qualified candidates are usually easy to spot based on his/her application; unqualified candidates may be easy to spot, but this might not always be the case for all applicants.  Some may have skills that translate well to what you are looking for, perhaps making it worth taking a chance on an interview.  You may want to check references for the applicants who make the cut at this point.  While this can also be done later in the process, it is a step that should never be skipped.

C. Interviewing Candidates

            Why, might you ask, are we suggesting you interview candidates to work on your farm?  Doing so is a good way to screen out potentially bad candidates and find potential good candidates, even with the limited application pools you might be dealing with. Having a thorough evaluation process for potential employees is important in ensuring that the right person is hired for the job. A thorough process could be a combination of multiple types of evaluations to get a well-rounded understanding of the individual.  This will require thinking carefully about the application and evaluation process to develop one that works to give you a thorough understanding of qualified candidates.

            Review the applications to determine who meets the position’s needs.  Invite those candidates in for the next step in the process.  Those candidates making it past the application stage could be brought in initially for written exams to see if they have the skills necessary to work on your farm.  Such written exams could be in the form of multiple-choice, short answer, or essay exam formats if this kind of writing will be part of the job. An exam could also be in the format of a computer-based test if that is a relevant tool.  This kind of exam can be especially useful for testing technical knowledge. Employers can choose to have the tests open book so that the applicant can use materials which would be available in the actual job, or closed note. The written exam could include a possible scenario on the farm such as how to properly handle the sprayer or combine.  With livestock, you could ask about common scenarios to determine the ability to handle poultry or other livestock.

            Employers could also consider an oral test to determine a candidate’s skills.  Oral tests can allow the candidate to demonstrate communication and technical skills when working with others. Employers may ask hypothetical questions to gauge what the candidate would do in a typical work situation. The candidate could be asked, for example, how to mix certain chemicals when using a sprayer to control weeds. Such questions would be helpful to not only test a candidate’s knowledge but also how he or she communicates.

            Whether or not the farm uses a written or oral test, the employer should use an interview stage for all possible candidates for the position.   Interviews are an important part of any job application process, allowing the candidate and employer to get to know one another. Interviews can be serious or laid-back, depending on the employer and type of job. Similar to oral tests, employers can ask open-ended questions. The questions can be aimed, however, at behavioral or situational-based responses. Interviews are most useful when combined with a written test to determine knowledge and communication skills.

            When it comes to criminal records, you should be very careful asking about an applicant’s past criminal convictions, a practice discouraged and even banned in some states. Asking about the candidate’s prior criminal record does not give the applicant a fair chance.  Maryland law currently allows for an applicant to be asked about possible past criminal convictions in the second in-person interview (Md. Code Ann., Lab. and Empl. § 3-1503).  Any such question before that second in-person interview is illegal under the current law.  While this law applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, smaller employers should consider following it as well (Md. Code Ann., Lab. and Empl. §3-1501(c)).  Delaware has no comparable law preventing private employers from asking early on about past criminal convictions.  And note, if you do ask about past criminal convictions at the appropriate time according to the state’s law, you must ask this question of all applicants.

            Conducting an interview in combination with another form of evaluation is important because a qualified candidate could be nervous and miss his/her opportunity to perform well during an interview.  At the same time, the interview may help expose the candidate who is an excellent talker but falls short on technical skills. Some examples of useful interview questions are: “Tell me about your biggest weakness,” “Tell me about a time when you failed at something,” or “What do people most criticize you for?” This allows the candidate to express his/her previous experience and gives the employer an opportunity to get to know the person.

D. Selecting the Candidate

            After going through the interview process, now it is time to determine who to hire.  Do any candidates meet your criteria?  If none do, then you should consider reopening the search process.  You might also consider hiring someone temporarily to see how that person does on the job with the thought of making it permanent down the road.  Just remember to discuss this with the potential employee beforehand to ensure that both the prospective employee and you are on the same page.  If a candidate rises and meets your criteria, start the process of hiring this candidate.

E. Onboarding and Training

            Employee turnover can be costly to your operation from the costs associated with searching for new employees to existing employees taking on additional roles which might take time away from their existing duties.  Onboarding or training the new employee allows you to convey any expectations you might have.  Starting the new employee with the appropriate training will enable you to make sure the new employee knows how to do the job safely.  This training also allows the new employee to understand how the operation runs and their own role in the operation.  Finally, training enables the new employee to become engaged in the operation and understand expectations of the position. 

            Staying positive during the training of the new hire is important, and might be your first opportunity to make a real impression.  Determine who will do the onboarding or training: is it you or another trusted employee?  Whoever it is, stay focused and engaged during the process.  Turn off or mute the cell phone and set aside dedicated time for a training session.  Walk the new employee through safety practices on the operation.  Develop a glossary of terms for the operation, including common names for equipment, etc.  Remember, every operation has a jargon, and this person is walking in fresh and might not understand your lingo.  Bring in any additional employees who the new employee might be working with and do introductions.  Take the time to explain to the new employee your expectations of the position and how you evaluate employees.

            Proper training and onboarding can help lead to a safer workplace. Adequate training and onboarding can also reduce potential legal claims down the road.  Improper training and onboarding could lead to a claim of negligent entrustment, when the owner of equipment allows a second party to use the equipment. Under this scenario, the owner should have known or did know that the second party’s youth, inexperience, recklessness, or other reason would result in injury when the second party used the equipment.  In this case, the owner could be sued along with the second party.  For example, Charlie hires Stephanie to operate a combine.  Charlie knows that Stephanie has never operated this type of combine before but does not have time to train her.  While moving the combine to a new field, Stephanie loses control and crashes the combine into an oncoming car.  In this example, Charlie could potentially be sued along with Stephanie under a theory of negligent entrustment.

            The authors recognize that proper onboarding and training takes time to do properly, and you may hire new employees during busy times of the year.  But taking the time early on to get the employee up to speed on how the business operates could save you problems down the road.