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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2005

The Human Factor

Food quality and safety sometimes counts on one thing: People.

by Steve Sayer

Today the challenges that food manufacturers face with regards to human resources (HR) is as diverse as the products they produce. A unique world within its own, human resources is much more than making sure that all of the Ts and Is are properly crossed and dotted on W-4 and I-9 forms.

HR's expansive breadth of responsibilities in the food manufacturing industry involves such issues as bridging language and cultural barriers, developing, implementing and supporting both existing and new company policies and procedures, battling turnover rates, eschewing worker injuries and keeping abreast with labor laws including their amendments. To be truly effective, HR personnel must also understand the wide world of food and employee safety, be preferably bilingual and have a solid grip on all pertinent regulatory agencies.

Human resources are just that. It is finding, focusing and cultivating the resources that are available for the benefit of the company as well as the employees themselves. Regardless if companies are union or non-union, there is a proven pathway for all of these "sources for humans" that will lead to unearthing each person's inherent and unique qualities, aptitudes and ultimate potential.

This antidote's common denominator smoothly glides over geographic borders, language barriers, deep-seated cultural differences and seemingly draconian labor and regulatory laws. It's merely respecting, hearing, listening, training and persistently educating the people that you've elected to employ.

A rather large segment of workers in the food industry is generally regarded as low skilled and has had no experience involving quality control/assurance, including the more intricate systems of HACCP and SSOPs.

Neophyte workers will only do what there are instructed to do, and in some instances, even less. Unless otherwise trained, apprentice employees will quickly adapt and skew to the unfavorable working habits that may already be in existence which will undoubtedly be mimicked by the next wave of newly hired workers.

Depending on the specific food segment involved, newly hired and existing employees are consigned to competently and dexterously manufacture, package and ship a vast kaleidoscope of cooked, frozen, perishable and/or fresh foods and beverages.

Foundation of GMPs: People

It's an established norm in the food processing sector that science-based HACCP and SSOP systems are supported by a melting pot of good manufacturing practices (GMPs). But what foundation do GMPs rely on?

People, not just from the production line, but also those in sanitation, shipping and receiving and maintenance, prepare and ship the product, clean the facility and apply repairs to the equipment on a quotidian basis. If people are the foundation for a company's success, then well planned hiring, training and educating practices need to be in place and working.

Educating workers will help promote self worth. Increased self worth amplifies individual morale that naturally manifests itself into improved productivity and augmented longevity with employers. However, not all companies recognize these basic, timeless and perpetual human principles.

Depending on specific food sectors, high employee turnover rates of 80 to 120 percent continue to plague the food manufacturing industry. Whenever an employee quits, management should ask itself, "why did this employee terminate us?"

Exit interviews should be held and documented for an objective management analysis in order to identify any trends that may warrant correction. There's a general lack of management commitment in the triad areas of hiring practices, training and education, which have resulted in incorrigible problems.

Training is educating employees on how to do assigned jobs properly, efficiently and safely. Proper instructions make employees proficient, qualified and knowledgeable.

How people are treated, how they are trained, how management listens to them and how management recognizes, rewards and values them has more to do with a company's success than any other single facet. Most people innately want to improve themselves. It's up to management to provide the positive environment and the correct resources necessary to guide them through appropriate training, and to help them succeed for the growth of the company as well as for themselves.

Most Neglected Function

Familiarizing employees to their workplace and jobs is one of the most neglected functions in many organizations. An employee handbook and a laminated plant evacuation map are not adequate when it comes to welcoming new employees. The most persistent complaints about new employee orientations are that that they are tedious and the new employee is left to sink or swim. The result is often a confused employee who is not productive and is more predisposed to leaving the organization.

Orientations should demonstrate that the organization values the employee and will provide the necessary tools to succeed. It serves as an important element of the recruitment and retention process. Some key values are:

  • Reduce startup costs: Well-planned orientations can help the employee get up to speed much more quickly, reducing the costs associated with learning the job.
  • Condense anxiety: Most new employees, when put into a new environment, will experience anxiety that can impede their ability to learn the job.
  • Reduce employee turnovers: Employee turnover rates will remain high or increase if employees feel they are not valued.
  • Save supervisor time: The better the initial orientation, the less likely supervisors and co-workers will have to spend time teaching the employee.
  • Develop realistic expectations: It is important that employees learn as soon as possible what is expected of them and what to expect from others in addition to learning about the values and attitudes of the organization.

The foremost reasons new employee orientation programs fail are that is was not well planned or executed; the employee did not understand the job requirements; and the employee did not feel welcome.

All new hiring should be based on "at-will" employment with a 30-day performance probation period closely daisy-chained with the open option of an extension. At minimum, pre-employment criminal checks, Social Security checks along with pre drug testing and physical examinations should be performed during the pre-hiring process. By executing these four prerequisites, companies can condense fears of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) visits and weed out potential rogue employees while concurrently saving bottom line monies.

The Critical Link

Supervisors are key for a productive work force. These critical links make management policies and procedures an integral part of operations. It is an important task of HR to act as a conduit for management to keep supervision up to speed with proper training and the likely harbinger of new policies and procedures. Management policy is not operations with people; rather it's people with operations. It should be the duty of every supervisor to conduct operations under his jurisdiction in such a manner as to afford maximum attention for employees.

Supervisors have day-in day-out contact with employees and their work areas which creates the best opportunity to train, guide and influence them. The supervisor represents management to the employees, and his attitude has an enormous influence on their attitudes. Consequently what is said and done (or not said and done) is often taken as a direct reflection of management's view.

Employee injuries have been traditionally high in the food industry. The costs of workers compensation can swiftly and surreptitiously steal company's hard earned profits if not closely monitored. An ambient safety environment needs to be developed, established and maintained with its foundation based on a proactive safety program that includes well-planned safety incentives. A good starting point for any food and beverage company would be to apply the seven principles of HACCP to employee safety. The initial investment costs of a hands-on injury and illness prevention program will pay back huge dividends for the future.

Prevention tools such as bilingual safety videos and germane literature compounded with many safety meetings will help keep injuries to a minimum. Safety committees should be organized, with quorums established, that include not only middle and upper management but also line workers, who know better than anyone the potential accidents, and, surprisingly, remedies.

A Review and Evaluation System

A review and evaluation system should be developed for each employee following the initial performance probation period and annually thereafter, clearly documenting areas he is doing well in as well as those that need more attention. Well-documented evaluations are a good barometer to measure employee progress. An objective criterion for increments and promotions should be based on acceptable or unacceptable job performances.

The employee evaluation should be tap-rooted in attendance, punctuality, conformity to company policies and procedures, quantity and quality of work performed and following company policies concerning worker safety. If an employee continues to fail in following declared company polices or has unacceptable productivity levels, the only alternative left is to apply discipline through well-documented paper trails of written and verbal warnings. The rouge employee who makes it through the hiring filter process can easily and lawfully be corralled through well defined disciplinary actions taken by management that were initially introduced during orientation. The final termination of any employee should come as no surprise to the employee being terminated because he had been warned (and documented) many times earlier.

Employees, like the employer, hold important responsibilities and should be held accountable to those responsibilities set by management. It should be made clear to all employees on their first day of employment, and reiterated repeatedly thereafter, that they have a responsibility to their assigned jobs while simultaneously being accountable for their actions or inactions.

Steve Sayer is a 25-year veteran of the beef industry and a food safety consultant for S and R Consulting (Aliso Viejo, Calif.) Reach him at steve_sayer_westland @yahoo.com.

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