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"Good Horsemanship is Built on Solid Basics...So is Good Business!"

Why Can't I Keep Good Employees?
By Lisa Derby Oden

Does this sound familiar: "I have a small stable. Originally I did all the
work myself, but now that I have two small kids I've hired instructors to
help. I'm having a problem with turnover with the instructors I've hired.
Pay is not the problem, as I pay quite well. One of the instructors decided
on another line of work, and another's husband was transferred in his job.
The parents of the children that ride here want the consistency of one
instructor for their child. They've been getting upset with this turnover.
Why can't I keep good help?"

There are several issues raised in this scenario, and no one quick fix
solution will do the trick here. Changes in operational policy, employee
relations, and customer service are at issue. Employee relations are a
multi-faceted topic in any scenario. An examination of management basics
sheds light on this issue however.

Let's begin by walking in the employee's shoes. Abraham Maslow was a
psychologist that proposed the "Needs Hierarchy" theory of management, one
of several widely recognized theories. This concept is based on the idea
that employees are motivated to satisfy certain needs. The theory further
holds that money can satisfy only some of these needs directly or

Simply stated Maslow's theory is that people start by needing to satisfy the
lowest level needs first, and then move up through the hierarchy a level at
a time. When one level is satisfied, new needs emerge.

Maslow's hierarchy assigns five levels of need:
1) Physical - these are the basic needs for sustaining life, i.e. food,
water, shelter, clothing, exercise and sleep.
2) Safety - these needs center on protection from danger, threat, and
deprivation or lack. Security and sustained economic well-being factor here.
3) Social - these center on one's relationship to another and include love,
affection, and belonging. This translates also into group membership and
4) Esteem - these include both self-esteem and the esteem of others. Maslow
holds that all people have the need for the high regard and respect of
others as well as a solid and high evaluation of themselves. Qualities such
as recognition, confidence, leadership, competence, success, intelligence
come into play here.
5) Self-actualization - this is when an individual reaches their fullest
potential in areas of abilities and interests. These needs are never
completely satisfied but include such things as doing something for the
challenge of accomplishment, intellectual curiosity, creative endeavors,
aesthetic appreciation, and a solid grasp on reality.

As an employer, recognize that if a need is satisfied, it is not a motivator
for the employee. Also bear in mind that variations can occur due to
individual learning experiences and cultural and social background.

What are the components of a job that an employee considers most important?
The 1998 Business Work-Life Study conducted by the Families and Work
Institute indicate that the top three components (all of about equal
importance) are:
1) Having a job that allows them to spend time with their family;
2) Good relationships with co-workers;
3) Doing something that challenges them to use their skills and abilities.
Next in line in this order are:
4) High level of job security;
5) Work that helps society or the community;
6) Earning high income;
7) High job prestige.
Note that earning high income is not one of the key components to a good

In the opening scenario, the instructor that went with her husband when he
was transferred in his job is satisfying all three lower levels of Maslow's
hierarchy, and most likely many aspects of the top two levels also. Clearly
spending time with her family was also a key component for her. The
instructor that decided to change lines of work completely may have been
responding to Maslow's levels two and three - she may not have felt this was
a good long-term job choice, and may not have really identified with this
cohort group. This is echoed by the key components above.

So how can you as an employer minimize turnover? How can you cope with it
when it occurs?

John Trafton is a farrier, and owns and operates Sable Oaks Equestrian
Center and Track-Rite Enterprises with his wife Sherrye Johnson Trafton in
Brunswick, ME. John says, "This work is hard work! Maybe not on a beautiful
sunny day. But it's not so fun when it's 34 degrees, slushy, and windy. As
an employer I need to give my employees a reason to show up. And its always
easier to retain an employee than generate a new on. Turnover costs time and
money - there is a lot of training that goes into a new employee.
As far as pay goes, paying well in comparison to industry standards is
important, but I don't feel that overpaying is effective. We often pay per
job instead of by the hour. For example, we pay so much per stall for stall
cleaning. We believe that paying by the hour for this job cheats someone,
either the employee or the employer. Paying piecemeal offers more of an
incentive to do a good job consistently.
We also provide health insurance. This helps our employees feel safe.
Employees need a sense of security in their job, and that is partly provided
by workers compensation, and health insurance. Another measure we take is to
provide a weeks paid vacation. Additionally, we don't replace our regular
workers with seasonal working students labor. We give the working students
other work to do, so our regular employees don't feel threatened.
Respect is a big part in minimizing turnover. It's really important to
treat people like you care about them, and to let them know you have a
positive attitude about them. Listen to them. Always say "please" and
"thank-you." Set high standards so your employees can take pride in their
work, and will want to work harder. Compliment them and make them feel good
about themselves when warranted.
Make your employees feel a part of your team. We give them some
freebies, like farm polo shirts. They know that these items are usually for
sale, so this is a benefit for them and they feel more a part of our team.
Beyond the team aspect, treat them like your family. We unconditionally
grant our employees personal time when needed for things like a sick child
and doctor appointments. This creates employer/employee loyalty. This
loyalty pays off, as other employees will also then pitch in to help cover.
Along these lines, the employee also needs to see the employer working, and
sometimes doing hard work too.
We have great staff. The employee that has been with us the shortest
amount of time has been here for four years. Having great staff means we
can go away for two weeks on vacation and relax and not worry. We also
sleep well at night. You loose a lot of sleep dealing with turnover."
Tanya Rennie, instructor/trainer at Vienna Farm, Gorham, ME, and owner
with husband Jim Jaeger, shares her methods. "We have one full-time employee
who's been with us for years, a couple part-timers, and working students. We
offer varying incentive levels. For the working students, who are local
residents, we provide credit in Vienna Dollars for work done. They usually
feed once or twice a week, and can clean up to 5 stalls, but not more than
that. That is one way we try to minimize burnout. For our part-time help, we
try to spread the workload out enough so that if one quits or is sick for a
prolonged period, that the others can pick it up at least for the
short-term. Our full-timer is offered incentives of lessons with me and with
other clinicians as well. We also take her to shows and give her bonuses.
We can't pay a lot, so we try to do everything else that we can. We
provide flexible scheduling and a nice environment. I never ask someone to
do something I wouldn't do. We try to communicate often with our help.
Sometimes people perceive that I am busy - too busy to talk to. But that is
never true. I will always make time if my employees want to talk. I also try
to set up the facility systems to make the work as easy as possible. By this
I mean turn-put that has easy access, equipment in good repair (forks etc.)
and easy access to manure disposal.
Most importantly, I feel that honest up-front relationships are needed
between employer and employee. I have conversations with work prospects
about the reality of the job and the burnout factor. And it's also important
for the employee to know that I can often restructure their job or their
work to accommodate for other life's circumstances and transitions. But I
can't if they can't talk about it and aren't open and honest with me. "
Summarizing theory, surveys, and those in the industry, here's the best ways
to keep good help:
1) Interview honestly. Listen. Establish open communication channels.
2) Provide security. Make the work as enjoyable as possible. Pay at industry
standard or slightly better.
3) Stimulate teamwork and build a work "family." Respect others for their
role in your horse business.
4) Recognize and reward good work. Set standards that are worth working for,
and that foster esteem and self-esteem.
5) Encourage creativity and continuing education. This has a value-added
bonus for the employee and the employer.
6) Inspire loyalty. Stop and ask yourself - are you buying labor or
inspiring loyalty?

(Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development, marketing, and association consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. She is the 1999 AHC Van Ness Award recipient for outstanding service to the horse industry.
She can be reached at: (603)878-1694; email at; or visit her website at

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