Farms are unique places of employment: they are often family businesses, they are not unionized, the work is often seasonal, they sometimes house their employees, and they are exempt from some provincial employment standards. As grain farms on the Prairies grow, so do their number of employees. While some farms still get by with a workforce made up of family members and neighbours, for many operations, managing employees has become much more complicated.
On top of these complexities, ongoing labour shortages have made it hard to find good people. Some workers move across provinces to take up jobs. A small number of grain farms have started hiring Temporary Foreign Workers. Managing employees can be overwhelming, especially when most farmers’ primary concern is farming and taking care of the land.
To navigate human resources, some operators have turned to consultants. Allam Farms Partnership operates farms east and northeast of Edmonton where they primarily grow wheat and canola. With one to two full time employees through the winter, seven to eight in the spring and eight to nine in the fall, juggling human resource issues can be difficult. Chris Allam, who manages the farm with his parents and brother, says “HR is one of the toughest areas to get a handle on. We need all the help we can get.”
Through their partnership with FamilyFarms Group, Allam Farm Partnership gained a mentor in Dave McLaughlin, an HR/Labour Specialist based in Manitoba. McLaughlin works with farms primarily across the Prairies. He helps them with all matters related to managing employees — including termination.
Firing starts with hiring
For McLaughlin, firing an employee is a last resort. It comes only at the end of a series of steps that starts even before the hire is made. McLaughlin says, “In a way, a job description is part of the termination process.” Most job descriptions are too vague.
Farmers would also do well to use contracts with clear terms of employment including an end date if the position is seasonal, and then, once an employee is in place, provide necessary support, training, and management.
Progressive discipline a must
Progressive discipline is a best practice McLaughlin urges farmers to adopt. It means ongoing negative behaviours are met with increasingly serious responses — from verbal warnings to written warnings to face-to-face meetings to suspension.
The goal is not to punish, rather to correct the behavior. Each step must be clearly documented; if the behavior doesn’t change, then termination may happen in a fair, professional manner.
Many reasons to avoid firing
McLaughlin strongly advises farmers to do (and document) everything they can to save an employee’s job. First of all, a written record of those steps provides protection against possible future complaints. Firing can be costly especially if the employer must pay several weeks worth of pay. Recruiting a new hire is also costly — you have to place the ad, interview candidates, hire, complete paperwork, and train all over again.
Finally, many farms operate within tightly-knit communities. Farmers have to deal with relationships, especially if they are hiring family, friends, or neighbours. McLachlan encourages farmers to be aware of their reputations: “You are creating your own brand. If you are compassionate, then you become an employer of choice. But if you terminate for bad reason, that is going to get around.”
Know the laws
If you must fire someone, know the laws.
Each province sets its own Employment Standards that govern the way that you can fire an employee. An employer needs to know the provincial laws. Each province publishes useful resources online:
- Alberta: Employment Standards: Toolkit for Employers
- Saskatchewan: Rights and Responsibilities: A Guide to Employment Standards
- Manitoba: A Guide to Employment Standards in Agriculture
While farm/agricultural workers are exempt from some employment standards, they are not exempt from those related to termination. There are two exceptions. First, in Manitoba, family members employed on family farms do not require termination notice (those employees who are not family members do). Second, in Saskatchewan, workers in a family business — one that employs ONLY immediate family — are exempt as well.
The most common routes
An employer who terminates an employee is legally bound to give them notice or pay-in-lieu of notice. The number of weeks of notice depends on the amount of time the employee has worked for you and it varies from province to province.
Termination Notice/Pay-in-lieu of Notice is not required in some situations. For instance, seasonal workers do not require termination notice or pay-in-lieu if they knew when hired that the job would end with the season. However, if a seasonal employee is terminated earlier than planned, termination notice or pay-in-lieu must be provided. When calculating the number weeks, consider each season a year for seasonal employees. For clarification on other situations, check your provincial Employment Standards branch.
Firing for just cause
An employee can be fired without termination notice or pay-in-lieu of notice if there is just cause. On farms, McLaughlin says, just cause is usually related to theft or insubordination. Other serious breaches constitute just cause, but the burden of proving it is on the employer. According to McLaughlin, “not a good fit” just doesn’t cut it especially if an employee has moved from another province or country.
If “just cause” is based on a particular event, then the employer has to be able to show that the event was investigated properly, that it was serious enough to warrant firing, and that that the employee was treated fairly in the process.
If “just cause” is the result of an ongoing pattern of negative behaviours, then the employer has to be able show through written documentation that adequate measures were taken to correct it along the way.
Incompetence is also a possible “just cause” but, McLaughlin warns, it is difficult to argue. For instance, if the employee has worked on the farm for some time and the farmer did not take steps to address his or her incompetence during that time, then it could not be used as grounds for termination. This brings us back to the job description: the farmer has to be able to show that the employee knew from the get-go what jobs he or she would have to perform.
Some farms have more than one manager to deal with employees. If, for instance, a husband and wife team runs the farm, then they need to be on the same page.
McLaughlin advises employers, agricultural or otherwise, not to fire an employee on a Friday. Choose a time earlier in the week and preferably earlier in the day. Invite the employee in to sit and talk. The goal is to be clear, neutral, quick, and kind. The privacy and dignity of the employee need to be protected even at a difficult, possibly angry, moment.
The conversation will be familiar to the employee. Firing usually won’t come as a surprise if the employer has taken the necessary steps along the way. Remind the employee of the process you’ve gone through together — the verbal warnings, written warnings, and/or suspensions he or she has received. And be clear that you haven’t seen the necessary changes in attitude or behaviour.
McLaughlin believes the employee should have one more opportunity to speak: “Ask ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’ An employee may open up and tell you something you are unaware of, that might change your opinion. It could be a medical issue, or a family issue.” If not, make sure you have the letter of termination ready. It should outline the process leading up to termination.
Proceed with the termination and don’t keep the employee on the farm. The longer the employee stays, the more disruptive he or she could be. If the employee will be working out the notice period, you’ll need to figure out how to negotiate the weeks ahead. Jessie Radies, Local Food Associate with Edmonton Northlands says, “Throughout my career I’ve fired hundreds of people, and honestly, having a cheque, letter, and Record of Employment ready is the easiest.”
Get your ducks in a row
In order to fire someone the “right” way, farmers need to put human resource policies in place in all areas. McLaughlin feels confident that farmers will get better at it: “They are compassionate people. And they are professional. I tell them, ‘You can terminate with compassion.’”