Managing farm teams – setting the scene

Two farmers having a discussion about human resources

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Hi there! My name is Sally Murfet, Chief Inspiration Officer of Inspire AG. I work with farmers and agribusinesses around Australia to move from the tick-and-flick approach to human resource (HR) management and help them develop teams that perform well together.

Over the next two months, I will be sharing a series of articles to help you better understand the human part of a successful farm team. These articles are designed to provide a basic awareness and, where appropriate, lead you to additional resources to help develop your HR systems and processes. 

In this initial article, I want to talk about getting the basics right by understanding the legal framework and best practice in HR. 

Whatever we talk about in farming – soil, pasture, livestock etc. – we require people!

Humans are the ‘mess’ and the ‘magic’ of any successful business. Advances in science and technology have altered the way we farm. Naturally, this has changed the skills and knowledge required of our workforces.  

Businesses of all sizes benefit from robust HR systems and processes – not only is it good business practice, but it also takes the mental load out of leading a team. Whether your team is two, ten or 50 people, HR is more than just hiring and firing.

I want to stress that good human resource management is not a set-and-forget process. It doesn’t matter if you operate a small farm or a multi-million-dollar operation, aligning your business objectives with people strategy is essential for keeping high-performing and committed people employed within your business.

Australia has an employment system designed to protect both the employee and employer in the employment relationship. 

Let’s start by taking a look at the five instruments (human resource terminology) that govern an employment relationship (see figure 1).

Graphic explaining HR laws

Figure 1: Human resource laws – key instruments governing employment arrangements. Source: Australian Human Resource Institute.

1. National Employment Standards 

The central element of the human resource system is the National Employment Standards (NES). The NES is a set of 11 minimum entitlements provided to all employees in Australia irrespective of the award, registered agreement or employment contract that they are employed under. The standards are:

  1. Maximum weekly hours 
  2. Requests for flexible working arrangements
  3. Offers and requests to convert from casual to permanent employment
  4. Parental leave and related entitlements
  5. Annual leave
  6. Personal/carer’s leave, compassionate leave and unpaid family and domestic violence leave
  7. Community service leave
  8. Long service leave
  9. Public holidays
  10. Notice of termination and redundancy pay
  11. Fair Work Information Statement and Casual Employment Information Statement
Tip: Work through the National Employment Standards to see if there are any deficiencies or gaps in your current HR systems.

2. Modern Awards 

In Australia, there are more than 100 awards that set out the minimum conditions of workers. These conditions include: work classifications, wage rates, allowances, penalties, loadings, working hours, rostering, consultation, superannuation and other matters. Awards are legal documents that override other employment documentation – for example, if an employment contract contradicts the award, the award takes priority.  

The three modern awards used in agriculture are:

  1. Pastoral Award 2020
  2. Horticulture Award 2020 
  3. Cotton Ginning Award 2020 
Tip: Section 4 of each award will tell you what that award covers. Job classifications are in the pay clause or a schedule.

3. Enterprise Agreements 

An employer can have an enterprise agreement with some (or all) of its employees. To establish this type of agreement, employers need to go through a bargaining process to agree on conditions of employment with their employees. Enterprise agreements then need to be approved by the Fair Work Commission and, once accepted, the agreement operates to the exclusion of any modern award.

4. Employment Contracts

Contemporary employment relationships go beyond the exchange of time and money. A healthy employment relationship has three contracts – employment, social and psychological. 

  1. Employment contracts are written agreements between an employee and employer documenting the terms of the employment relationship.
  2. Social contracts are the mutual expectations and obligations, i.e. doing the right thing by everyone.
  3. Psychological contracts are the unwritten set of expectations that govern the relationship between an employee and employer.

I find that psychological contracts are often undervalued in agriculture. Some employers think it’s a soft and fluffy topic – but they are certainly not. In fact, work health and safety law requires employers to provide a working environment that is safe and without health risks. That includes risks to mental health. 

5. Policies and Procedures

Written policies and procedures help employers establish boundaries, guidelines, clear expectations and best practices for acceptable behaviour of both the employer and the employees. This leads to consistency in decision-making. During disciplinary and termination processes, well-written documents that are executed well will minimise the risk of an employee claiming they were mistreated.

Employers of Choice (EoC) also use written policies and procedures to demonstrate their professionalism to potential employees. EoC see these documents as an opportunity to improve communication and build better, stronger and more profitable businesses. 

Tip: Employers need to be able to provide evidence that employees are aware of the existence of relevant policies and understand them. Ensure that all employment documentation is seen, read, understood and signed by the employee.

Growing a business culture 

The workplace culture you develop can either engage your employees to perform at  their best or give them excuses for falling short of the mark. So, in recent years, it’s been encouraging to see farmers become more familiar with the term ‘culture’. 

Culture sets the tone for what a team believes, how it behaves and how decisions are made – or, put another way, it’s “how we do things around here.” I describe culture as the bailing twine that holds a business together. 

When leaders take the time to develop a culture that communicates and engages well with their employees, the natural outcome is a business that grows to its full potential. Positive cultures create teams that perform well together and that are safe, productive and profitable.

Tip: Without a team of individuals who trust, respect and support each other, you’re just a group of individuals that happen to work for the same business!

Building your team

You simply cannot build a business that generates success and achieves your goals without the right people. Over the coming weeks, we will provide a series of articles on the employee lifecycle that will help you: 

  1. Design an effective attraction strategy
  2. Conduct and manage the interview process
  3. Deliver a values-based recruitment strategy
  4. Set new employees up for success through onboarding 
  5. Manage performance and develop employee engagement 
  6. Retain employees and look after their wellbeing 
  7. Remove a person from the business due to performance, resignation or retirement. 

You’ve most likely heard of the 80:20 rule – managing staff is no different. You will spend 80% of your time with 20% of your team (and it’s never the best performing 20%). These are the ones who do just enough to stay off the boss’ radar or the ones who are underperforming and costing the business in productivity and therefore profit. 

Not only does this take a significant amount of mental energy – thinking, procrastinating, cursing etc – it’s draining when you have to wade through the muck! 

Getting the HR foundations right is important, and not only for legal compliance. It can make your life easier and relieve some of the mental burden, and it helps you build a workforce that performs well as a team to achieve business outcomes. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me: [email protected]

Further Information

Fair Work Information Statement

Casual Employment Information Statement

National Employment Standards

Pastoral Award 2020

Horticulture Award 2020

Cotton Ginning Award 2020

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