Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Ohio State University Fact Sheet

Agricultural Economics

2120 Fyffe Road, Columbus, OH 43201-1066

Performance Appraisal of Farm Employees


Kenneth D. Simeral

Management of labor is one of the least understood management responsibilities in modern-day agriculture. More and more producers hire labor either part-time, full-time or both. Many find it difficult to recruit and hire good labor, and even more difficult to train and retain a productive labor force. Many producers do not view themselves as employers, especially if the labor force consists of family members. Any labor, even if unpaid, means that the producer is the employer and must be able to manage the labor force as employees. One major tool of good labor management is performance evaluation. However, performance evaluation or appraisal of farm employees is not practiced with any regularity, and many times not even attempted.

Performance appraisal in its simplest form is the process in which the producer decides how well the employee is doing in relation to the producer's expectations and the employee's expectations. This goes on whether there is a formal process or not and whether the employee is informed as to how he/she is doing. The producer should formalize the process and use it as a means of improving the performance of the employee. The process also helps the employer and employee address the employee's satisfaction with the job.

A good performance appraisal system can be created by:

  1. Developing a written job description for each employee. Be sure that the employee understands it, and that the job description is kept current.
  2. Helping the employee understand that the job involves more than just getting the work done. The employee should know what level of performance the employer is expecting.
  3. Measuring performance. Records and feedback provided throughout the year are important. A performance evaluation form completed at least once each year can be vital to measuring performance. This becomes more important as the number of employees increases.
  4. Making changes (corrective action) in response to the problems and providing opportunities for improvement. Planning the specific changes that will be made, helping the employee make the changes, and then following up on the changes with recognition and reward are important in this part of performance evaluation.

First Things First--Job Description

The most important part of any performance appraisal system is the job description. All employees need a job description, even if the other aspects of the performance appraisal system are never used. The process of developing job descriptions forces the employer and/or the management team (spouses, partners, etc.) to examine and decide what specifically is expected from the employee. Many producers find that they aren't quite sure what they expect from an employee. What the employee thinks is expected from her/him is often quite different from what is actually expected.

The job description is the tool which helps eliminate the confusion. It should be in writing and must be as specific as possible. Once the job description is developed and agreed to by the management team and the employee, the performance appraisal system can be implemented.

Job descriptions should be updated from time to time as the farming practices change and employees' capabilities change. An outdated job description will be of little help in evaluating performances.

Starting the Performance Appraisal

It is never too soon to start performance appraisal of employees. How it is started and what form of performance appraisal is used depends on many different circumstances. These circumstances can include but are not limited to:

  1. How long the employee has worked for the producer;
  2. Any previous informal performance appraisal that may have been done with the employee;
  3. If the employee has had prior experience with performance appraisal from past employers;
  4. The producer's personality and how he/she interacts with people.

By far, the easiest time to begin the performance appraisal process is when an employee is hired. It then becomes an expected part of the job and is not something that the employee views as new and different or, perhaps, fears. This would be especially true on a farm where there has been a long-standing tradition of providing employees with little or no feedback about their performance.

In such cases, silence has often been taken by the employees to mean that everything is fine. The very act of breaking the silence by talking to an employee about his/ her performance may be misconstrued. The employee may feel the producer is unhappy with him/her and the relationship has changed. In this situation, the utmost care must be taken to ensure the employee does not feel threatened.

Here are some ideas to increase the chances of success in performance appraisal:

Communicate frequently. Speak often with employees about how they are doing. Once a year is not often enough. Discuss things they do well along with those that need improvement. Don't be afraid to tell an employee of the good job he/she has done even if that job was routine in nature. This will make it easier for him/her to accept constructive criticism. Address little problems as they occur.

Provide employees with preparation time. Give employees a chance prior to a formal performance appraisal to think about their performance in relationship to the job description. This will help motivate them to improve. One suggestion would be to allow the employee to fill out the performance appraisal form before he/she meets with the employer. This will give the employer insight as to how the employee views his/her performance and can be a point at which to begin discussion.

Encourage participation. Let the employee feel he/she has some ownership of the appraisal process by showing ideas and comments are welcomed by management. This helps the employee believe the performance appraisal is a constructive activity and not one-sided.

Judge performance, not personality. An employer cannot change an employee's personality. For example, don't focus on a problem such as being grumpy in the morning. By keeping the appraisal job-related with a problem-solving focus, the employee will be more motivated to improve.

Be an active listener. By listening and being interested, the employer conveys a genuine sincerity.

Be specific. Being candid and able to discuss details shows an awareness of the situation.

Set mutually-agreeable goals and continue to assess progress. While it is important to set goals with the employee for future improvement, it does little good if the goals are all one-sided or unattainable. It is important to apprise the employee of his/her progress in attaining these goals.

Make rewards dependent on performance. Little is accomplished if an employee reaches set goals and no reward is received as a result of this achievement. Such a reward can be monetary or symbolic, but it must be of importance to the employee.


The primary objective of performance appraisal is to improve the employee's performance. Occasionally, this alone is not enough, and it becomes necessary either to discipline an employee or to let the person go.

Discipline is used to make it clear to the employee that the employer is serious about the need for corrective action. It should be used to get the employee's attention. It should not be used as a method of punishment or as a means of recouping financial loss caused by the employee.

The discipline should be well thought out and consistent with the degree or frequency of the infraction. Some common forms of discipline include: Oral Warning--a spoken reprimand of what is wrong, indicating what is expected and what might happen next if the situation does not improve; a note of the warning could be placed in the employee's file.

Written Warning--same as oral warning except it is written out and given to the employee with a copy placed in the employee's file.

Probation--a given period of time for the employee to improve performance or risk loss of employment.

Leave without Pay--a given number of days for which the employee cannot work and will not be paid.

When it does become necessary to terminate the employment, it is important the procedure be done properly to minimize the chances of legal liability. Most agricultural employers hire without written contracts. The general rule applied by U.S. courts to this "employment-at-will" is that, without a written contract defining the terms of employment, an employee serves at the will of the employer and may be discharged at any time. This has been the law for over a century. If there is an employment agreement, it should state specifically that the employment is "at will."

In recent years, the Federal government has passed laws that restrict the employer's right to discharge an employee because of:

  1. The employee's race, color, religion, gender, or national origin
  2. The employee's age or handicap
  3. The employee performing a legal duty or exercising a legal right
  4. The employee acting as a "whistle blower"
  5. The employee refusing to violate public law.

For more detailed information as to the legality of dismissing employees, refer to pages 71-72 of the Ohio Farm Labor Handbook.

Informal Performance Appraisal

For employers who want to be informal in their approach to performance appraisal, a simplified format can be used to introduce performance appraisal to employee and employer alike. This appraisal may be conducted by the employer in writing or orally. The following format can be used even if there is no written job description.

  1. Here are three or four things I liked most about your last year's work.
  2. What do you like most about your job?
  3. What do you like least about your job?
  4. How can your job be improved?
  5. Here are two or three things that I suggest we work on to change in the future. (Try to have at least one less negative item than the positive items listed above.)
  6. What would you like to add to the list of things to work on during the next year?
  7. Are there other things you would like to discuss?

Formalized Performance Appraisal

After conducting an informal performance appraisal several times, you might want to formalize the process with a formal, more detailed instrument. A sample of this type of instrument can be obtained from your local Extension office; ask for Extension Fact Sheet HRM-7.


Extension Bulletin 833, Ohio Farm Labor Handbook, The Ohio State University, 1992.

Reviewed by:

Bernard L. Erven, State Specialist, Dairy Farm Management David P. Miller, District Specialist, Farm Management

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181

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