If you find and hire motivated employees, you'll have fewer employment problems, says Dennis Cooper, extension dairy specialist with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Cooper, who has managed personnel for much of his career, offered employee management tips at the recent annual meeting of Wisconsin Custom Operators, Inc.

“A motivated employee wants to do a good job and expresses this desire through behavior and action,” he said.

But people come with varying degrees of motivation; employers must figure out how those motivations may or may not fit an operation.

“You can choose people, for example, who like operating machinery and working outside,” he said.

Small businesses can't afford to hire the wrong people. “When you hire somebody new, think of that as an opportunity to upgrade your business by hiring someone really good.”

The consequences of unwisely choosing workers are costly.

“How many of you spend most of your time supervising or working with that one bad employee?” he asked custom operators. Besides being a drain on management time and energy and causing a loss in productivity, poor workers don't last long in the job.

“One Wisconsin farmer estimates that it costs him 25% of the person's annual salary to replace that person.

I've heard higher numbers than that,” Cooper said.

To hire right, look for signs of achievement by potential employees. Check for career stability in their work records. Ask for specifics of what they did on previous jobs. To find out how hard a worker the candidate can be, talk with references.

“If a person talks about ambitions, that's an indication that he has motivation. How interested the applicant is in your business or company is another indicator,” Cooper said.

He suggested a few statements or questions to discuss with potential employees:

“Tell me of your proudest achievement on the job.

“Give me an example of when you sought or took additional responsibilities at work.

“What would previous employers say was your biggest accomplishment while working there?”

Hiring right is the first step; keeping good employees is the next.

“You want to stay at a competitive wage. Competitive benefits, reasonable hours, time off, and safe and comfortable physical and psychological environments can help an employer hold on to good help.”

Racial, ethnic and sexual harassments could be “time bombs” in the agricultural industry, Cooper said. He suggested having a written policy that you will not permit discrimination or harassment on the job. Include harassment awareness training as part of your hiring process and be sure to address any harassment complaints yourself.

“If you do those three things you've got a legal defense. If you don't, you're offering to give away the business to the first person who files a complaint.”

Also make safety a priority and minimize employee discomfort, stress, drudgery and boredom. “Good employers will try to spread the crummy jobs around,” he said.

The best way to know if you'll keep good workers is to informally survey your competition.

“Ask others what the going rate is, or what people are getting for vacations and time off. Are people offering health insurance? Retirement plans? What kinds of hours are people expected to work? You can survey continuously and also have your association conduct formal surveys if you wish,” Cooper suggested.

Motivated people, according to Cooper, seek involvement in the business, responsibility, achievement, recognition and growth.

“They don't want to stay static. If your job can help them grow, that's going to be a motivating factor.”

Communicate assertively with employees. Give positive and negative feedback. Praise in public — in front of other workers — and in private. Criticize constructively and in private. Don't belittle an employee.

Misconduct should be handled in stages. “The common example is the employee who comes in late, maybe habitually. You might want to start with a verbal warning. It might be as informal as, ‘I know you're late.’”

The next step would be a written warning, then suspension and, finally, termination of employment.

But that dreaded task should happen less often if you find the right people in the first place — and do a good job of keeping them satisfied.

“Managing people can be a tough challenge,” he said. “It takes time, energy, discipline, persistence and emotional maturity to be a good boss. These things are learnable.”