The feedyard employee used to haul cattle, but not anymore. He had been stopped for speeding a couple of times; in fact, his infractions were rather extreme. One time, he was cited for going 104 miles per hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone.

When Don Tyler heard about this, he brought it up to the feedyard owners. He wondered why the employee was still there, given his egregious driving record. The owners explained that the employee was basically a good guy, but acknowledged that he did have a speeding problem

Tyler, who was visiting the feedyard as a management consultant, still couldn’t understand why the employee had kept his job. Not only had the employee driven a semi-trailer truck with 80,000 pounds of livestock in an unsafe manner, but the truck had the farm’s name written on the side, which sent a wrong message to the community. And, the other feedyard employees probably wondered why they should follow the rules when this particular employee had bent the rules to such an extent.

“It’s one thing to drive 55 (miles per hour) in a 45 (mile-per-hour zone), but 100 in a 35-mile-per-hour zone goes from a breach of policy to a breach of ethics,” says Tyler, employee-management specialist from Clarks Hill, Ind. 

The days of family members providing all of the labor for the dairy are gone. And that means you can no longer assume that your employees know what you consider right from wrong unless you tell them. You need to inform them what you consider proper behavior.  

Cost of bad behavior

Of course, this requires judgment on the employer’s part. The employer walks a fine line between being prudent on one hand, intrusive on the other.

Does an employer have to tell his employees not to get into bar fights or bounce checks?

Certainly, if one of your employees establishes a pattern of bad behavior, it can affect his job performance. If you don’t intervene and try to correct that behavior, it is a poor reflection on you as an employer.

Look at the current substance-abuse crisis in Major League Baseball. It might have been avoided if Major League Baseball had adopted a strong steroids policy years ago rather than waiting until the problem got out of hand. 

In early January, there were press reports that former minor-league baseball players may sue Major League Baseball, claiming that they were denied a fair shot of making the majors because of steroids in the game. With this kind of ongoing fallout, it should be obvious that a strong steroids policy is in the owners’ best interest from a financial standpoint — and it’s not a matter of them simply trying to be dictatorial and control their players’ private lives.    

When a professional athlete spirals out of control, it can cost the entire team. With quarterback Michael Vick out of the lineup this past year, as a result of dog-fighting and federal conspiracy charges, the Atlanta Falcons became one of the worst teams in the National Football League.

Already used by some

Some farms have found it necessary to spell out which forms of behavior are acceptable and which are not.

Jon-De Farms, a 1,500-cow operation in Baldwin, Wis., has made it clear to employees that physical violence will not be tolerated — both on farm and out in the community. Fortunately, none of its employees has ever been in a bar fight, but if that were to occur, the employees know that their employment might be terminated, depending on the circumstances.

Rules are also in place for driving company vehicles. For instance, if a Jon-De Farms employee sees another employee driving too fast around the farm or in the community, he is supposed to bring it up immediately to a supervisor. “We don’t even allow trucks to swing into McDonald’s (restaurant),” says co-owner Liz Doornink, because driving into a congested area with a large vehicle, like a silage truck, could create a problem.

Safety comes first — not only at the farm but in the community, Doornink adds.

At Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Ore., a code of conduct is built into the union contract that the farm has with its employees. The code spells out which violations will receive a written warning and which violations will result in immediate termination. Insubordination — refusing to do a job or walking off a job — falls into the latter category, as does hitting or kicking an animal or altering another employee’s time card.

Threemile Canyon Farms has approximately 300 employees. (They milk 16,000 cows and farm 30,000 acres of irrigated cropland.) Having a code of conduct helps ensure that employees in a large organization such as this are treated in a fair and consistent manner, says General Manager Marty Myers.

“It sets the level of expectations, so everybody understands what’s accepable behavior and what’s not,” Myers says.

“We want to be an employer of choice and recruit highly qualified people,” he adds. Meanwhile, the recruits want to know that they are coming to work at a place with a high standard of behavior.

Owner’s reputation at stake

Ultimately, the farm owner will have to decide what constitutes acceptable behavior.

For instance, he may decide that he doesn’t want company vehicles driven to places that serve alcohol. If company vehicles are sitting outside a bar, the public may perceive that the company allows its employees to drink and drive — even if the employees are not actually drinking at the time.

Word gets around. How employees behave in the community or how fast they drive through town becomes public knowledge, Tyler says. And, it does reflect back on the farm — and, ultimately, the owner’s reputation.

Perhaps if that feedyard (mentioned earlier) had had a strong policy in place, one of its employees wouldn’t have been caught speeding 104 miles an hour in a 35-mile-an-hour zone.

Inform employees

Don Tyler, employee-management specialist in Clarks Hill, Ind., recommends that a farm have a policy in place regarding employee behavior. He says it needs to be general in nature, but specific enough to uphold the rights of the company.

It might go something like this, “We appreciate our employees’ private lives and the time they spend away from the business, but we also recognize the image they portray has a reflection back on the business, and that is the reason our company won’t tolerate any behavior that is a poor reflection on the business, and we can and will take corrective action up to and including termination.”

Then, it is up to the owner to outline which behaviors are unacceptable — and make those known to employees.

At Jon-De Farm in Baldwin, Wis., conduct policies are explained to employees throughout the year, says co-owner Liz Doornink. “It’s a continuous item of conversation within our (staff) meetings,” she adds. Policies are also spelled out in the employee handbook, along with specialized rules for living in farm-owned housing and abiding by the farm’s environmental-management system.

These rules are developed with the guidance of the barn managers. “It’s not just us, the owners (making these policies),” she says. “A lot of our key employees are part of it.”