Parting ways with employees on your farm

It's not always easy to part ways with an employee. These steps will ensure you're prepared.

If you have been employing people long enough you have likely run into the situation where you needed to let an employee go. This could have been for a variety of reasons; unsatisfactory performance, gross misconduct, or a loss of the position. It’s not an enjoyable process, and unfortunately that causes many managers to avoid solving the problem.

When do you know that it’s time to part ways?

If there is gross misconduct (things like violence, especially when somebody is hurt; theft; and drug-related offenses), the decision has likely already been made. The only consideration here is that you might consider suspending the employee until you have had a chance to fully understand what happened and listen to the employee’s side of the story.

In the case of unsatisfactory performance, you should ask yourself “Have I/we tried everything to help this employee succeed?”. Have you provided adequate, on-going and progressive training that provides the employee with the knowledge and skills to succeed? Have you provided adequate documented feedback to allow the employee to correct their performance? How would you rate yourself on your management of employees, and specifically this employee? Are you being fair with all employees, are you holding all employees accountable for their actions and performance? Is your hiring process sufficient to find good employees that are the right fit for your farm?

The point of these questions is to determine your responsibility in this employee not performing satisfactorily. Managers don’t need to take all of the responsibility for employee performance, but they should try to understand their part in the problem and seek to improve upon their employee hiring, training, and management skills.

At Will, but what was your reason?

In Michigan, like many States, we have something called “At Will” employment. Basically it means that an employee can leave for any or no reason and an employer can let an employee go for any or no reason. However, “At Will” employment does not prevent an employee from bringing suit over “wrongful discharge”. Wrongful discharges that have held up in Michigan include the public-policy exception and the implied-contract exception (see reference below). The bottom line is that although you do not have to give a reason to the employee for why you are letting them go (some attorneys suggest that you say nothing of the reason in “at will” states, or that you feel sorry or bad about the discharge), you still should be prepared to defend your decision if challenged with wrongful discharge.

Ongoing documentation should be kept on performance, conduct, and changes in job descriptions that may have caused you to part ways with an employee. If an employee believes that you have let them go based on their age, and you do not have documentation on file showing your reasons for termination, you may be putting yourself at risk. Assurances of a job as long as work is acceptable (in writing or verbally) may put you at risk of an implied contract. If you have an employee handbook you need to follow what is written in it, especially in regards to disciplinary action and firing. Court costs alone should cause employers to make sure that they have their reasons documented and that they are being consistent with all employees.

Don’t put off the decision hoping the problem will go away.

Unfortunately, fear of legal action and conflict avoidance can often cause employers to let a problem employee continue to work on the farm. This can have negative impacts on other employees and overall farm business health and production. Too often I have heard from employers that delayed action with an employee that had a bad attitude and/or was insubordinate. When action was finally taken the employer found out from other employees that things were much worse than previously thought.

Research shows that good employees want employers to hold all employees accountable to set standards. When employees perceive their employer not holding all employees accountable to the same set of standards, teamwork and productivity suffer on the farm. If you are not parting ways with employees that need to leave the farm, you are sending the message to the rest of the employees on what is most important to you.

Additional legal considerations are discussed in the following Michigan State University Extension article.

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