Ag's HR Coach

How to Handle Underperforming Employees

Lori Culler
By  Lori Culler , DTN Farm Business Adviser
It's never easy to let go of an employee, but it's important to know where to draw the line when it comes to job performance. (DTN File Photo)

The farming industry has been evolving for centuries, and staffing requirements have changed along with it. The expectations of employees should match the needs of the farm at any given time. What should you do if an employee isn't living up to the expectations set before them? How long should an employee be on payroll if production requirements aren't being met?

It is much easier to let someone go from the company when he or she has violated an ethical boundary. It's a far more difficult challenge to decide based on low or mediocre performance. Understanding where the final line is for an employee that tends to stir the pot, has a negative attitude or just can't get the job done right can be challenging.

It's never easy to let go of an employee. There are typically two reasons that cause the most hesitation: emotions and fear of not being able to replace the employee. Terminations can be uncomfortable, and the situation can get downright awkward especially on a small team where all the families know one another and the relationship is deeper than it would be in a corporate environment.

As the owner, or member of the management team, if you're constantly focused on or frustrated with an employee, it is time to make a change. You run the risk of losing your high performers if you are settling for a culture where underperformance is acceptable.


When time, money and training are poured into an employee, it is hard to let them go. A progressive farm needs to do everything it can to keep the investment it made in an individual. When an employee is underperforming, consider the position the individual is in. Is it the right one? Has there been adequate training? Are there personal problems interfering with performance?

Verbal counseling is the first step, which can often turn that complacent employee back into a producer. It's important that he or she knows they are being monitored and held accountable for the efforts they put in at the farm. Verbal counseling shouldn't be an isolated event, it should occur regularly since it shows you are an ally in the improvement process.


Aside from the legal requirements of terminating someone from a job, it is important to notice the warning signs of a staff member who may no longer be a good fit for the position. Take note if peers begin having common complaints, if the person has trouble fitting into the culture at the farm, if the frequency of excuses grows and if the employee's effort begins to slack. Before terminating an employee, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that they've done everything possible to help the employee succeed.


If a termination is going to happen, there are things you should do to protect the farm from liability.

1. Performance issues need to be clearly communicated on multiple occasions, preferably with a paper trail.

2. Let the individual go early in the week and first thing in the morning.

3. You should have a script of what you need to cover in advance and take as much emotion out of the conversation as possible. If I had to put a time limit on the conversation, it shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes. Cover items like when health insurance coverage ends and how earned vacation time will be handled.

4. Logistically, consider how to handle the employee collecting their personal belongs, such as their tool box.

5. Communicate with the rest of the team. Use the turnover as a learning experience for everyone. Use this new opening as an opportunity to look at the structure of your organization and decide if there needs to be any changes of job roles. Before your next hire, outline what you're really looking for in terms of skill, personality and experience that will align with your farm.

Editor's note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (…), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email and find other labor management tips under Resources at


Lori Culler