A supervisor trains agricultural workers in the field
Photo credit: Hector Amezcua for College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis

Effective Farm Labor Supervisors: An Investment in Success

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Farm labor supervisors play a critical role in managing and directing the workforce. They include crew leaders, mayordomos/as, supervisors, forepersons, and managers. The combination of individual leadership qualities with ongoing support from employers can help to ensure the success of the company and its employees.

Be a Leader, Not Just a Boss

Supervisors are the connection between the company and the workers. They must communicate company expectations to the workforce, understand and promote safety procedures, and motivate their workers, all while fostering a positive and respectful work environment. Effective supervisors are not just “the boss”, they are true leaders who can help the company enhance safety and productivity, increase employee satisfaction and regulatory compliance, and reduce injuries.

Supervisory Characteristics

When selecting a supervisor, simply promoting or hiring based on length of service, reliability, an ability to recruit workers, and/or work skills does not necessarily predict the skills needed for an effective leader. The knowledge, aptitude, and skill sets are significantly different for supervisors than for laborers. 

For example, while it’s important for a supervisor to know the types of work they are supervising, they must also possess strong communication skills to guide and motivate the workforce. Not everybody has the patience and skill to be a good teacher, or the diplomacy to correct others who fall short of expectations. 

Basic leadership skills should include:
  • Personnel management and communication skills
  • Expertise in the job tasks which they will supervise
  • Knowledge of the regulations for which they will have compliance responsibilities
  • Certain licensing and certifications
  • Additional technical skills

Additionally, there are a range of legal and practical reasons for thinking outside the box and keeping an open mind when hiring or promoting a supervisor. A 2017 study from BCG found that companies with diverse management teams have a 19% higher revenue due to innovation. Therefore, it is critical to consider candidates of all genders from diverse backgrounds. 

Ongoing Employer Support

There are different ways to develop and support supervisors to be effective in their critical roles. Learning to manage people, regulations, safety, and so much more is an ongoing process. With greater preparation and support from employers, supervisors can more successfully maneuver the challenges of labor management.  

Job Shadowing

For new supervisors, a period of job-shadowing—working alongside a trusted, high-performing supervisor—helps in learning key aspects of the job. This period allows the new supervisor to ask questions about what is expected of them and how to deal with the challenges ahead.

Orientation to Company Policies and Procedures

More formal training and orientation to review company policies and procedures and how to complete and submit required paperwork is also critical. This could include a thorough review of the company’s employee handbook and safety programs, such as the Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP), Heat Illness Prevention Program, and the supervisor’s roles in implementing these programs. Often, the IIPP includes a summary of supervisor responsibilities for implementation of the safety program. Supervisors are typically the first person workers go to with questions on a number of issues, and the supervisor should be prepared to respond.  

Performance Evaluations

After an introductory period (about 30–90 days), employers can provide valuable feedback to new supervisors. This is a good time to evaluate performance by soliciting input from coworkers and assessing completed paperwork, such as timecards, production and safety reports, and any personnel notes kept by the person to whom the supervisor reports. 

This is an opportunity to provide positive reinforcement and recognition for what is going well, and to identify opportunities for improvement. An open dialogue is important to reinforce what the supervisor is doing well and to keep them on the right track.  

Management Meetings

Supervisors are part of the company’s management team. Teams are more effective when there are opportunities to meet with other team members for updates, problem-solving, and to share challenges and opportunities. Establish a time for periodic meetings to allow individuals to share their experiences and help each other solve issues.  

New supervisors benefit greatly from structured opportunities for advice and guidance from others, while more experienced supervisors demonstrate their value by sharing experiences of what works and what doesn’t with challenging situations.  

Ongoing Training

Changes in seasonal work requirements, labor and safety regulations, company policies, and workforce trends provide opportunities to conduct training to keep supervisors up to speed. These training programs can be conducted by management staff or through third party instruction. Your workers’ compensation insurance broker or carrier can often provide instruction on safety management. A wide range of agricultural organizations, universities, and even government agencies have specialized training resources available for download, and sometimes staff to provide different types of training programs.

Investing in the Workforce

With the right combination of leadership qualities and ongoing support from employers, supervisors can be a powerful asset in increasing productivity, efficiency, and employee satisfaction and retention. Remember, employees don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses. The return on investment for an engaged workforce is priceless. 

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