Whether you're operating a Fortune 500 company or a family farm, communication remains critical. So how can communication be enhanced between employer and employees?

Sarah Fogleman, an Extension agricultural economist for the southeast area of Kansas, believes one way is through written job descriptions.

“I especially advise them with family workforces because it helps define zones, and each individual knows what is expected of them,” says Fogleman, who has researched human resource management in ag operations.

To illustrate the importance of written job descriptions, she poses the question: “Who contributes to your business?” The answer — particularly with family farms — is that it isn't just one person. There are often spouses, children, hired hands, in-laws and sometimes other relatives.

“Therefore, owners and/or employers need to note that everyone comes to the operation from different backgrounds and often wanting different things,” says Fogleman, and she adds that without communication those different viewpoints can often lead to conflict.

Thus, to minimize misunderstandings, Fogleman advocates that written job descriptions are essential for all employees involved. She adds, “Whenever I find a family in conflict, writing job descriptions is the first thing I have them do. It helps them recognize that often each person has two roles: business and family. And the more we can separate business conflict from family the better the situation will be.”

In addition, Fogleman believes that the process of developing written job descriptions teaches many families to talk to each other. She says, “People confuse proximity for communication. Just because you ate breakfast at the same table in the morning doesn't mean you discussed the day's work. But people can't read minds and putting job descriptions in writing helps bring clarification.”

Most importantly, she says, “It's not the piece of paper that is important. It's the conversation that leads to what's on the paper. You may find out someone is good at something, or wants to be responsible for some area.”

Emeritus Ohio State University professor Bernie Erven is also a fan of putting job descriptions in writing. He strongly encouraged all of his students who were returning to the family farm to develop a job description with their “employer” before they could graduate. Why did he believe it was so important?

Erven says, “Written job descriptions help clarify specific responsibilities and expectations, especially in small businesses and family business where job descriptions are often vague, informal and continuously changing.”

He adds, “Putting the job description in writing clarifies what the employer has in mind. The job description facilitates communication. In turn, the employee has a much better chance of understanding what the employer is thinking, expecting and rewarding.”

Erven found that asking for a written job description from parents also gives the student some candid insights into whether Dad and Mom are thinking of the student in a professional manner. He says, “A parent's lack of interest in clear communication about job responsibilities suggests that there will be communication difficulties with other issues.”

Equally important, Fogleman says she's seen that written job descriptions can be a beneficial tool with employee selection. “With the description in writing, employer and employee both understand the position and the role that is expected to be filled. This is important because not every person is well-suited for every position.”

Fogleman and Erven recommend guidelines for writing effective job descriptions to be used with small and family businesses.

Foremost, Erven says, is that the description need not be a long, detailed document. Instead, one page is usually sufficient.

Second, the job description should include at least a job title, a one- or two-sentence overview of the job, a list of duties, percentage of time devoted to each duty, who the supervisor is and qualifications for a person to successfully do the job.

To assist in this process, Erven suggests getting copies of job descriptions from other farmers and from non-farm employers in the community to use as examples. Other tips he offers:

  • Write the duties first and then add a title and summary that fit the duties. Erven emphasizes that it's important to describe the job as it is, and avoid adding glamorous but unreal duties.

  • Limit the number of major duties to eight or fewer. He suggests listing four or five major duties with sub-duties listed below each. Also, begin each duty with an action verb, such as drive, check, change, clean, move or repair. And be sure to state one duty as an elastic clause, for example, “assist with other duties for the good of co-workers and the business.”

  • Keep job descriptions current and accurate, and recognize that they can change and evolve with the employee's experience, says Fogelman. Make updating job descriptions part of annual performance reviews. Also, take advantage of vacancies as a time to write new job descriptions.

  • Lastly, Erven says, when feasible involve experienced employees in writing job descriptions because they best understand what they're now doing.

Most importantly, he adds, “Accept that writing job descriptions is time consuming in the short run and time saving in the long run.”

Why Traditional Bonuses Don't Work

On the subject of motivating employees, Kansas' Sarah Fogleman isn't a big proponent of bosses giving employees a lump-sum bonus at Christmas or other special events. She says they aren't a good idea because they typically don't result in employees' long-term satisfaction.

Instead, Fogleman says, “If you don't give a bonus every year, your employees aren't happy and it takes a higher bonus amount each time to get the same satisfaction level from the employee.”

She suggests employers should never give the “I'm a nice guy” Christmas bonus.

Does that mean you should never give a bonus? Fogleman says no. Instead, she recommends the bonus be tied to performance of the farm or ranch operation. For instance, tie the bonus to reaching a certain bushel-per-acre goal or link the goal to safety. And she says the reward doesn't always have to be money. It may be a special BBQ or event.

“Bonuses should reward people for exceptional performance. That's why it's important to tie it to something everyone can work toward. And in some years bonuses may not be earned, but I think it's OK to let employees feel the ups and downs of years due to weather and markets. That's real life,” she says.

Fogleman adds that if you are paying employees a fair wage, their livelihood — and job satisfaction — shouldn't hinge on whether or not they receive a bonus.