Everybody has bad moods and personal problems from time to time. As a manager you need to know how your employees’ moods affect the bottomline, and know when to step in and take action.

Jan van Niekerk, unit manager of the 2,500-sow  Lone Tree Farms in Harrisonville, Mo., documents all arguments, incidents or times when an employee is dealing with personal problems; he then compares it to that employees’ production. This gives him a better handle on his employees’ lives, and he can make adjustments that are often better for the people and the operation’s productivity.

“Nine out of 10 times we can relate production problems to personal issues,” says van Niekerk. “For example, one team member usually farrows 9.7 pigs per litter, but he became unfocused due to personal issues and the number dropped to 8.3 pigs per litter.”

Recording vacation time, personnel conflicts and personal issues can provide managers with a helpful barometer, but like any information it’s only useful if you can find a way to identify and correct the problems.

“You need to be aware of problems and address them early. We get to know our employees’ individual personalities and get involved in their personal lives,” says van Niekerk.

Having a positive existing relationship with your employees is a prerequisite to starting a similar “personnel recording system,” warns Sarah Fogleman, Kansas State University agricultural economist and labor specialist. Fogleman says employees could be upset by having their moves so closely tracked, and such things may be better left to researchers.

In any event, if you’re interested in trying this system in your operation, you should discuss the concept with your employees. Remember to reinforce the farm’s productivity as the reason for the recordkeeping and reassure them that it’s not about bringing their personal lives into their job evaluations. Of course as an employer, you do have the right to note on-the-job conflicts, and tracking vacation time is a given.

One potential advantage of keeping records is to show employees the effect that their moods and attitudes have on job performance. They may not have given it much thought, and likely wouldn’t be aware of the impact.

“Workers probably don’t know the amount that their mood or personal life can affect their job performance, because for the most part you don’t realize how much room for human error there is in the pork industry,” says Fogleman. “It’s easy to say the sows do all the work, but little things that employees do can make a big difference.”

van  Niekerk says that while employees at other farms may not be aware of how their moods affect production, his employees are very aware. He emphasizes that fact to his employees. Also, he talks about everyone’s farrowing rate publicly in staff meetings, so they can compare their work to each other and discuss possible solutions.

While keeping better tabs on your employees may cause more work for you initially, it’s not work that comes without rewards.

“Our profit margins are as competitive as anyone in the area,” says van Niekerk. “I believe it’s partly because we care about our people, and let them know if they have a problem they can come and talk about it.”

Sometimes the adjustments may mean pulling an employee out of breeding or farrowing barns and having them do less vital tasks, or sending them home for the day.  van Niekerk says Lone Tree cross-trains everyone, so that when situations like this arise, other employees can do the job. In some cases you may just need to talk with the employee in question to correct the issue.

“The first thing you have to do is be sensitive and be aware of what is going on. For example if you know an employee has a sick child you should cut them more slack than usual,” says Fogleman. “Second, if you know you have two employees that are having problems with each other, you should adjust schedules so you don’t place them in head-to-head situations.”

She says producers need to realize that communicating doesn’t mean they have to be Dr. Phil. They just need to keep their eyes and ears open and be in-tune with what impacts production. Then managers need to address any issues so the employee knows that management cares about them as a person.

Hopefully, any conflicts or personal problems will improve if handled carefully, and things can get back to normal. But that may not always be the case.

“It depends a lot on what’s going on,” says Fogleman. “Some conflicts present the appearance that they’re over, but they have never really been resolved. Personal problems depend on the individual. If the personal challenge is still in the back of an employee’s mind, the impact will last as long as the challenge exists.”

To reduce the incidence of bad moods and other issues that affect job performance, van Niekerk looks to his team leaders in both the breeding and farrowing barns to help him create a positive atmosphere on the job.

“The team leaders must have ambition and drive, but equal to that they must be able to communicate with the staff,” says van Niekerk. “Even if we need to address an issue concerning unacceptable performance, we try to do it in a training perspective.”

It may not be groundbreaking news that keeping employee morale positive is wise, but it’s easy to overlook the possible herd-performance impact. It appears that it may affect productivity more than you think. The Lone Tree Farms example shows the need to pay attention to employees’ moods and the bottomline.