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Top tips for recruiting and retaining staff

Hiring staff can be a headache for dairy managers and producers. So what is the best approach to find and recruit the best employees, and build a good team environment?


Long hours, a shortage of skilled labour and a gap in recruitment are causing a ‘triple whammy’ and making it difficult for dairy businesses to recruit staff.

And, as a result, producers often recruit in haste and regret at their leisure because they tend to panic. So says Paul Harris, founder of people consultancy business Real Success. “Producers may suddenly need to find somebody, and can feel desperate because they tend to run their herds and businesses without spare labour.” Mr Harris says this rushed approach often leads to the wrong candidates being recruited.

“One of the reasons producers find it difficult is because they don’t know how to recruit or how to interview potential candidates effectively.”

He stresses that dairy managers and producers must put more thought into the recruitment and retention of staff, not least because it’s a significant investment. “If the business pays someone £25,000 per year and they stay in their role for five years, that’s a £125,000 investment without taking into account any accommodation or council tax,” he explains. So what advice does he have for producers on how to recruit staff and ensure the team remains aligned and engaged.

“Start with the member of staff who is leaving – whose position you have to fill. And carry out an exit interview,” he says. “The single biggest reason people leave a job is other people, such as managers or colleagues. So find out if there are issues and then steps can be taken to address them. This also prevents a ‘revolving door’ from developing, with staff continuing to leave the business.”

Job description

His second piece of advice is to produce a clear job description. “Establish your staffing requirement and write a detailed job description, not least because this will help when advertising for staff,” says Mr Harris. “And advertise as widely as possible to attract as many candidates as possible. Use social media and recruitment websites, such as Indeed.”

The advertisement should include: a job title; give a description of the dairy unit, including location, herd size and management system; details on the role the person will be required to fulfil, including the skills required; and, importantly, what support the business will provide for prospective employees.

“Make sure you sell it. If the unit is based in a beautiful village or close to a tourist spot – say so. And avoid ‘negatives’,” he stresses. “If there’s no accommodation with the position then avoid stating that. You can discuss that with prospective candidates at a later stage.”

Mr Harris adds that the number of applications will increase significantly, by at least five times, if a starting salary is included in the advertisement. “Most people understand that salary will be based on experience, so include a range.”

Screen applications

Once those applications are in, it’s time to screen them. He recommends a Zoom or telephone call to select applicants for face-to-face interviews. “This ensures that they’ve not over sold themselves and that they fully understand the role they will be taking on. This saves time – and travel and expenses – for both parties.”

Questions to ask during the screening interview include: why are you leaving your current job? “Also, don’t be shy about asking them what their current salary is. If the position on offer pays less than their current job, they will be unlikely to want to take the job. And if accommodation is on offer, be sure to ask about their domestic situation to ensure it is suitable.

“This is basic, practical stuff that can mean that the candidate is a non-starter. It cuts to the chase and saves time.”

Once prospective candidates have been short-listed, arrange face-to-face interviews. “Start with a formal and structured interview, which should take at least one hour, and have pre-prepared questions,” says Mr Harris. “Then, if the interview goes well, show them around the herd and unit.”

He stresses that, to show the farm in the best light, make the effort to carry out some maintenance before interview day. “And think about where the interview will be carried out and what the place looks like. If it’s in the farm office, is it ‘chaotic’ or clean and tidy? Remember, you have to make a good impression too.”

There are some key questions to ask during the interview and the trick is too keep them open ended – let the interviewee do the talking. “A great question to ask is ‘what irritates you?’ because this will reveal a lot about their personality and how they’ll fit into the existing team.

“Dig deeper about their skills and experience, and avoid questions that require simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. For example, instead of asking ‘can you AI?, ask: ‘how were you involved in herd fertility work in your previous role?’.

“Ask about what motivates them and find out about their ambitions. During their tour of the unit, ask what they think of the cows and if they can suggest any improvements. And also be honest about improvements you believe need to be made.”

Once you’ve chosen a successful candidate – strike. A formal offer should be made in writing within 24 hours.

“Candidates, particularly the good ones, have plenty of choice about where they can work. So producers must convince them that theirs is the best unit to work on. And speed is important. Waiting for four or five days before making an offer could mean that they’ve moved on, or have been snapped up by another business,” warns Mr Harris, adding that producers can make an offer subject to references and a trial or probationary period. “The moment they accept that offer, you have a contract.”

Staff skills; offering training makes employees feel valued

Retaining staff

Once you’ve recruited, how do you retain staff?

“Spending time with employees is key to keeping the team engaged and aligned with what you are trying to achieve,” says Mr Harris.

“Most employers give staff ‘feedback’ rather than recognising that what employees actually want is positive attention. This provides balance – recognising what an employee is doing well and explaining what they need to improve. In comparison, feedback is fundamentally things a person has done wrong.”

He says that team meetings are a great way to facilitate these conversations. “Organise monthly breakfast butties to sit and discuss what’s going on, or pizzas one lunchtime or evening if you’ve had a particularly successful period and want say ‘thank you’.

“Celebrating the wins and highlighting areas where things are working well is just as important as discussing aspects of herd and business management that could be better – and coming up with solutions as a team.”

Training should also be offered to allow staff to develop their skills. “Producers often ask me, what’s the point in investing in staff training if they then leave? I say it is far better for your reputation to invest in people. If and when they move on, they talk positively about you and your business.”

Staff-management podcast

Paul Harris spoke to Rhian Price for Farming Connect’s Ear to the Ground podcast, as part of a four-part series on staff management. To listen, go to: https:// ear-ground-podcast.

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