Conflict and Disagreement at the Farm
Gregorio Billikopf Encina
This report (data collected in 1995, and published in 2001) focused on the types of issues that cause conflicts for both farm workers and supervisors, as well as approaches taken to solve these. Farm workers tended to report more conflicts with supervisors than co-workers. In terms of conflicts discussed by farm supervisors, the use of power was a key challenge. As individuals can improve their ability to speak about disagreements and come to mutual solutions, rather than have conflicts escalate into contention, challenges can be resolved in a mutual gains fashion.
This report looks at the types of situations that led to conflict between farm employees, as well as between employees and their farm supervisors. Perhaps even more importantly, conflicts were analyzed in terms of how they were handled after they became apparent.
For most of us conflict can be a negatively loaded word. Wherever choices exist, there is potential for disagreement. Such differences, when handled properly, can result in richer, more effective, creative solutions. When disagreement is poorly dealt with, the outcome can be contention.
Contention creates a sense of psychological distance between people, such as feelings of dislike, alienation, and disregard. Contention can reduce the quality of work life of those directly and indirectly affected. Furthermore, economic loss is often a side effect of reduced communication. Too often, people prefer to make inferences and assumptions rather than checking for understanding with those with whom they are involved in a dispute.
Contentious feelings are not always of long duration, but may form a pattern of dysfunctional behavior. One subject put it this way, “we sometimes scream and shout at each other” but work things out that day as it is hard for me to wait until the next day to solve the problem as it eats at me.
Caution should be used in interpreting the types of disagreements experienced by farm workers and their supervisors. Because other topics had been raised earlier in the interview process (see California Agriculture research papers), these may have affected subjects’ responses. Nevertheless, the study yielded some important preliminary data on the types of conflicts existing at the farm enterprise level, as well as how these conflicts were dealt with. In an effort to simplify the complex set of data, subjective decisions were required at times.
The subjects were farm workers (173) and supervisors (51) in multiple types of crops and farm operations in the northern San Joaquín valley. Farm workers were less likely to report that they had ever experienced a disagreement, than were those holding supervisory positions. Of 173 farm workers asked if they had ever had a conflict, only 28% (n = 48) reported having had a disagreement. In contrast, of 51 supervisors asked the same question, 47% (n=24) reported a conflict. One of the supervisors who fell into the no-conflict to report category measured success in that “I have had 2 employees for 5 years without a problem. They don’t talk back.”
Most individuals could recall the conflict situation, and even remembered how long ago the conflict had taken place. The average clash mentioned by farm workers was 2 1/3 years ago (n = 24, ranging from two days ago to 12 years ago). In contrast, the average conflict for supervisors was 3 ¼ years ago (n = 15, from yesterday to 20 years ago).
Subjects had the opportunity to label their conflicts as something they handled either well or poorly. Of the labeled supervisorial ones, 5 felt they handled the conflicts poorly, 10 felt they handled them well. Among workers, this 1:2 ratio was maintained, with 6 feeling they had handled the conflict poorly, and 14 well.
Conflicts reported by farm workers
Employees were two times more likely to have reported a conflict affecting their relationship with a supervisor (60%, n = 29) as compared to a co-worker (29%, n = 14). This contrasts with a diary turnover study where dairy workers were just as likely to leave because of problems with their relationships with co-workers (9%) as those with dairy farmers (8%) (Billikopf, 1984). A future study with a focus on the conflicts experienced by the farm business family would be valuable. Sometimes allusions were made by employees about working in an environment that resembled a dysfunctional family.
Farm worker--supervisor relationships
Issues under employee-supervisor disagreements, from most to least pressing, included withholding of pay or benefits (n = 15), correction of employees (n = 8), favoritism including sexual favoritism (n = 2), pay level (n = 2), joking (n = 1), and gossip (n = 1).
Withholding of pay or benefits. Employees were sometimes denied pay or benefits owed to them. Some were more subtle than others. A frequent type of incentive in the dairy industry is the opportunity to go home when finished milking, with a day’s wages. A milker who was washing his boots and preparing to go home was asked, as a favor, to work a couple of hours into the next shift, while the regular employee arrived. Yet, the milker was not paid for the free time he had accumulated as a result of quickly finishing his first shift. While a situation such as this one could be an unintended clerical error, other situations often had deceitful overtones. For instance, one supervisor would report higher earnings for one of his crew workers at the expense of a second worker. After that, the crew leader would allegedly split the difference with the first worker. Particularly painful was a situation where a tractor operator was not believed when he reported a longer work day than those at a nearby yet geographically separate operation. Operations had come to a halt with the rain, but this operator explained that the rain had not reached him until about an hour later. Besides pay, other benefits that were withheld included breaks, water, gas for work-related driving, and benefits related to on-the-job injuries. In one case, it was not that the benefit was totally withdrawn, but rather, that the supervisor would not give timely lunch breaks.
Discipline. How individuals were reproved or corrected was a frequent source of conflict. Four subjects reported that angry outbursts on the part of their supervisors led to disagreements. A subject felt scolded after being asked, “Why did the machinery break down?” While the tone of voice has much to do with feelings of defensiveness, why questions can also contribute to such sentiments. They are seen as seeking to blame or judge, rather than a quest for information and a desire for problem solving. Public correction tends to make things worse, as does the use of vulgar or loud language. Furthermore, when an employee feels unfairly blamed, conflict can be exacerbated. Two employees reported feeling punished by having to re-do a job. In both cases employees were upset because they had not changed the way they had done the job from the past, and were suddenly told it was wrong. One employee reported being pressured to work faster by his foreman, and another to improve the quality of the work.
Favoritism. One woman was laid off in preference to another because management wanted to employ the other woman’s husband. A FLCs clerk was replaced by the contractor’s lover after having worked for him for 32 years. She painfully recalled that all the explanation received from the FLC was, “You will not be my timekeeper today, she (my lover) will.”
Pay level. One disagreement revolved around what constituted fair pay. Just as parents may give extra tasks to a more compliant child, employers likewise tend to put more responsibility on some employees without necessarily making a corresponding change in pay or benefits.
Joking gone sour. A farm worker used to joke frequently with a co-worker before the co-worker was promoted. “My former co-worker never made it clear how I was supposed to treat him now that he was promoted,” he reminisced. The farm worker continued the joking, but this was resented by the new supervisor.
Gossip. A foreman started rumors about an employee, and would take credit for the employee’s work.
Areas of disagreement in this category (sorted by frequency) included such matters as issues of power and authority (n = 5), work load comparison (n = 3), competition for jobs (n = 3), sexual harassment (n = 1), jokes (n = 1), and gossip (n = 1).
Power and authority. Disagreements over authority involved co-workers who tried to assert authority over others or fight over turf. In one instance, a supervisor with no formal authority over an employee attempted to push his. In another case, an employee was left with formal authority over a fellow employee, but either the latter was never notified, or refused to accept that authority. One employee resented being told by a co-worker that he was doing a job improperly, while another found himself telling a co-worker the right way to do the job. When a worker felt he or she was doing the job properly, such criticism can be even more stressful or annoying.
Unfair work load. Employees resent when co-worker(s) do not seem to put in as much effort, or in the words of one employee, co-workers were on the job “just for the paycheck.” It is not unusual for individuals to overvalue their own contributions and undervalue those of others, having a perception of “doing more than everyone else.”
Competition. Rivalry over jobs, resources, or approval can be a source of disagreement. This may degenerate into one-upmanship moves. When resources seem limited, people are more apt to compete for them. In one case an employee had a higher paid job, but more senior co-workers pressured management until he lost it. In another case, an employee did not get a job because co-workers spread the gossip that he was looking for work elsewhere.
Sexual harassment. A tomato sorter was subjected to sexual comments from co-workers who wanted to take advantage of her.
Joking gone sour. A subject reported that what begun as joking with a co-worker, ended up as a quarrel between them.
Gossip. A hoer reported that co-workers began to say bad things about a foreman, out of envy.
We said earlier that disagreement per se is not bad, and can help people arrive at more creative and positive ways of dealing with challenges. It is how conflicts are resolved that has a huge impact on a farm operation and on its culture.
Conflict resolution strategies may be quite varied. For the purposes of this paper, we divided approaches for solving conflicts into four general categories: 1) confronting, 2) going over opponents head, 3) yielding, or 4) being acted upon. The first three indicate options for the subject on how to resolve a conflict, while the last one “happens” to the subject. While for simplicity we have focused on the first step taken, it is important to remember that at each stage subjects have important options as to what to do next.
In dealing with supervisors (see Table 1), as their first step, subjects were most likely to confront (53%, n = 16), yield (27%, n = 8), go over opponents head (10%, n = 3) or be acted upon (10%, n = 3). In dealing with co-workers, subjects reported confronting (42%, n = 5) as the most common approach, followed by yielding (25%, n = 3) and being acted upon (25%, n = 3), and going over opponents head (8%, n = 1).
Table 1. Approaches taken by farm workers in their conflict resolution, as their first step
Conflict resolution with supervisor
Following are additional details on how farm workers dealt with differences they experienced with their supervisors.
Confronting. There are countless ways that farm workers confront their supervisors. Some confronting involved talking things over nicely, but sometimes it involved taking a bolder stance, “I talked to him right away without bad language but with a firm voice, and he did listen.” Sometimes it was tit-for-tat loudness, “I told him not to embarrass me in front of other workers. He asked me to follow him away from the crew and told me that people would not respect him otherwise. I told him this was his problem and that we should get the manager involved, to which he refused.” By offering this as a suggestion, the worker was telling the supervisor that he felt he had a source of power, if reason alone was not sufficient to put the problem to rest.
One employee felt he had been taken advantage long enough by his supervisor, who had not paid him. When the worker finally caught up with the supervisor, the latter asked, “What is your address [so I can get the check to you]?” The worker responded, “You have it in my application.” The supervisor brought the employee’s check to his home that very night. “They wanted to play games with me but I did not let them,” the worker explained.
One of the most interesting and instructive conflicts was a power play between the workers and a foreman who would not let them stop for lunch on time: “We were all very upset about this and next time he tried it we all walked off and left him fuming. He told us to never do that to him again, but from then on he respected our need to stop at noon.”
Another type of challenge was a direct dare, such as the almond knocker who felt unfairly criticized by his foreman, “I challenged [the foreman] to knock with me to see how difficult the job was.” The foreman lasted only one row and became much more sympathetic after that. Likewise, a tractor driver challenged his supervisor to measure the acreage involved, when the supervisor questioned the amount of work the equipment operator had reported.
Workers also used a “fairness stand,” refusing a partial benefit just to make a point. For instance, a worker who was denied partial pay for some overtime work refused to take any of the overtime pay, and told his supervisor not to ever ask him to work overtime again. A related type of defiance included some sort of ultimatum, such as telling a supervisor, “If you want [...], then I cannot work here.” In one case a worker refused to obey, and then talked it over with the grower (skipping over the supervisor’s head) to make sure the farm employer would hear the story from his angle.
It is not unusual for the person doing the challenging to upset the supervisor in the process of complaining, but often this seemed to be a necessary step in the process. With time, the upset feelings tended to blow over, as in these examples, “he was upset at me for four days” or “for two days we did not talk much but little by little we started getting along again.” Even longer term, one employee who confronted his supervisor reported, “The supervisor never took it against me,” and “I thought he would not give me a job after that, but he did.”
Confrontation paid off in a dairy family situation, where the son pressed the father to become more democratic in his decision-making. The son reported that after a year of trying a majority rule process, his father felt it was working pretty well.
Confrontation often paid off for the workers. One worker explained, “he eventually believed me and paid me,” and another said, “they created a company rule that protected workers after that.” Several reported that supervisors treated them better, but the courtesy was not extended to the rest of the workers, as a result of their complaint. “Now he treats me well but not others,” explained one worker. Another told of having extra burdens removed from him, but placed on the shoulders of more compliant employees. One family member explained that he could talk over disagreements with his father, but that his brother had not been as fortunate.
Supervisors did not always back down when confronted, however. “He laughed at me,” reported one employee. A couple tried talking things out, but that did not work. Others had fallen into a dysfunctional pattern of fighting over differences but never solving them despite attempts to talk things over. In at least one case matters turned uglier and the contention escalated.
Going over opponents head
In this category workers either went to the grower, to the labor commissioner or other legal authority, or employed an attorney. In the words of one worker, “I am getting chiropractic treatment on my own, and my lawyer will send the bill to my ex-boss.” One worker felt satisfied, that after going over the foreman directly to the FLC, the FLC agreed with the crew and reinstated their break time. The employee was not sure, however, if the supervisor would comply with the orders from above, however. The results of going over the supervisor’s head did not always turn out positive. “I took him to the labor commissioner but was told everything that happened was legal,” one employee explained in frustration.
Yielding or avoiding
Some employees preferred to yield or avoid the situation. Quitting was not infrequent within this category. One said, “If someone treats me poorly today, I quit.” Another was hurt on the job, and quit because he was changed to a job that paid less. Sometimes employees would not only quit, but get others in the crew or operation to quit along with them: “I quit along with 4 co-workers,” and another “... I quit with 15 others.” One employee switched crews to avoid his problem, only to find other challenges there and return to his original crew. Finally, one employee reported simply not liking his job as much anymore, but not doing anything proactive about it.
Being acted upon
On the positive end, a worker reported that his foreman “corrected me nicely and all worked out.” Workers were often fired for disagreements with their supervisors. A worker who possibly felt envy for a co-worker who had been promoted to a foreman, and who was taken to the boss by this foreman, rejoiced that the foreman had been demoted back to co-worker within two years.
Conflict resolution with co-workers
As with the different approaches taken when confronting supervisors, here we discuss tactics used by farm workers as they challenged a fellow employee.
One worker explained that there were no hard feelings after they were able to talk over a disagreement. Another was pleased because after talking things over a co-worker decided to comply with the way he felt things should be done. Less fortunate were the co-workers who got into a shouting match and did not seem to resolve the issues. The worker justified the situation, “If you keep it inside, it kills you.” And somewhat philosophically, “Just learn from the past and move on as you can’t relive the past.” Another worker explained: “We have disagreements all the time. Sometimes we talk to each after, and sometimes we don’t. But after a few minutes we work together again. We spend more time with our co-workers than with our families.” One employee tried challenging co-workers, but took it to the boss when that did not work: “I asked co-workers nicely to stop the sexual harassment, when that did not work I took it to the boss who fired me.”
Going over opponents head
“I talked to the foreman about a co-worker not pulling his way,” one employee explained. “But nothing happened so I have learned it is better to keep my mouth shut.”
Yielding or avoiding
One employee reported that he yields to a co-worker on a regular basis, but that his stress level rises if he feels behind in his work tasks. Another reported that his blood would boil when co-workers would get mad at him for working too slow, but that after a few hours there were no bad feelings and all would be friends again. Sometimes yielding, at least for the moment, is the right response. “An angry co-worker began to shout and push me trying to pick a fight, and I left. For some reason I just let it go and just backed away and left.” The worker reflected that in his more youthful times he was hot headed and would have probably fought back. Instead, when the dairy farmer returned, the worker reported the incident to the dairyman and the co-worker got fired.
Being acted upon
One employee reported, “we were told by the boss to get along, so we did.” Another was fired, and yet another did not get a position he felt he deserved. One foreman was fired when he tried to lay off a woman whose husband the FLC wanted to keep.
Conflict resolution reported by farm supervisors
A simplified sort of analysis is included here for how supervisors handled conflict. We will look at conflicts that supervisors felt they handled poorly vs. well. And then we will discuss conflict resolution in terms of power moves.
Among those conflicts handled poorly included: a farm manager who felt trapped trying to defend an unpopular managerial policy; a dairyman who felt his son did not value his input; a dairy farmer who felt forced to ask one of his sons to leave the dairy; a supervisor who felt he neglected his family for years because he was not able to stand up to his boss who required complete dedication to the job in terms of very long work hours. This last individual finally got up the strength to face his boss, but felt that by then much of the damage to his family had been done. A shop foreman got upper management involved rather than working things out directly with a co-supervisor. This situation had a positive outcome eventually, however. The two supervisors sat together a couple of weeks later, talked things out, and got along well after that.
Several subjects felt they had handled their conflict well when they were able to talk to employees or others, who in turn improved their performance or changed their behavior as a result. For instance, one foreman made it clear that levity was one thing, but it should not be used when talking on the company radio; another confronted several union members and made it clear that his family was off limits to their intimidation tactics. One farm supervisor learned the importance of asking people who seemed angry or upset if “all was OK with them.” This approach tended to yield some calmness, and sharing of things that may have been bothering them related to home or work. One supervisor reported success when two employees started fighting, and he bought sodas and made the men shake hands. A farm manager realized that he needed outside help in dealing with a deep seated antagonism between two of his valuable employees, and was pleased that he had involved a third party mediator.
One supervisor was threatened by workers he sent home as a result of their tardiness. “The workers came in late and wanted to be paid for the day,” the FLC explained. The workers said they would sue. “Go ahead, take me to court,” the FLC told them. “Then they asked me for $10.” When the FLC did not give it to them, one of them threatened him with a knife. “You do what you must do,” the FLC told them. They left.
Two issues of particular importance when dealing with supervisory conflicts, are those of power and value differences.
Supervisory power and loss of face
Supervisors hold power, even when they do not make its use obvious. Most conflicts between supervisors and subordinates revolved in some way or another around issues of power and authority. Supervisory power can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, supervisors may feel less hesitation about holding back and feel freer about telling employees where they can improve. Some supervisors felt little hesitation about having things done their way, regardless of what the subordinate felt. After all, they reasoned, if things go wrong it will be the supervisor’s responsibility. “I just tell them what they have done wrong and it doesn’t bother me a bit,” one supervisor explained.
On the other hand, employees are likely to quit or lose interest in the job when they perceive they have lost face. One supervisor had a heated argument with his boss, who had falsely accused him, and was pleased when he obtained an apology.
A supervisor told an employee to shut up if he wanted the job. After 4 weeks the worker quit. Another worker quit, even after his supervisor apologized about how he corrected the employee. One supervisor explained that in her youthful inexperience she scolded one of the Mexican employees in front of the crew. This turned into a nasty verbal exchange and eventually the worker would not talk to her anymore. The grower suggested a public apology, which worked out well. This case had a positive ending, as eventually they ended up being good friends. More importantly, this and other supervisors reported that they had learned not to be so verbally explosive.
What sometimes starts as an angry confrontation at times ends up in better understanding, as the stakeholders calm down and exchange pertinent information. Several individuals liked to deal with challenging issues, rather than let things fester. One explained, “We talked about it and resolved the problem, and I feel better.” This individual explained that mutual communication had improved since they were able to deal with one difficult issue together.
When disagreement does not lead to improved communications, everyone stays frustrated: “Everyone is dirt-kicking upset,” one supervisor explained, in terms of his inability to communicate with his own boss who had the tendency to micro-manage.
A farm operator sent two quarreling employees home and did the work with his own son, rather than put up with the contention. When the employees came back separately asking for their jobs back, the farm owner gave them an ultimatum, “Get along or else ....” The employees improved a little, but have continued to quarrel to the point the supervisor had to follow it with a second ultimatum, “That is enough, I will replace you!”
Where there were differences in managerial levels, people did not always see things in the same light. One manager could not understand, for instance, why a tractor driver preferred a lower paying job over a higher one, when the latter meant handling pesticides. A supervisor felt that his boss could not understand the value of spending time with the family, and attributed it to cultural differences.
Disagreement is part of everyday life. Individuals who can learn to focus on the issues, rather than creating or increasing psychological distance between themselves and the other stakeholder, tend to be more successful in reducing contention and stress. Both farm workers and farm supervisors reported a 1:2 ration between conflict they felt they had handled poorly vs. well. Farm workers were less likely to feel they had been involved in a work conflict than supervisors. Respondents were likely to recall the circumstances around conflicts, even when these had taken place years earlier. Farm workers were twice as likely to have experienced a conflict with a supervisor than with a co-worker. As their first step in dealing with conflict, workers chose confronting over other approaches such as yielding or going over their opponents head. This was true for both dealing with supervisors and co-workers. Two particularly key issues for supervisors to consider in terms of disagreements with farm workers, are those of using power and authority and of potentially differing value systems.
Power is an interesting phenomenon, a two edged sword. It seems to exert its force as long as it looms in the background. Much of what people do is based on respect for another person’s power and authority. Once that respect is gone, the source of power erodes (Folger et al, 1997; Billikopf, 1994). An excellent example is that of the foreman who was able to coerce workers into delaying their lunch for an hour. The foreman lost all respect from his crew. Next time the foreman tried to repeat his power move, the workers walked away and took their lunch time despite the demands of the foreman.
Here are some recommendations for both farm supervisors as well as farm workers who wish to increase their abilities to resolve conflicts while avoiding contention (additional suggestions can be found in the sources for further reading, below).
Gregorio Billikopf-Encina is Area Labor Management Farm Advisor, Stanislaus County, University of California Agricultural Extension.
Benjamin, A. 1974. The Helping Interview (2nd Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston.
Billikopf GE. 1984. Why workers leave dairies. Cal Ag 36(9):26-28.
Billikopf GE. 1994. Labor Management in Ag, Cultivating Personnel Productivity, UC ANR Publication Code 3417.
Folger, JP; Poole, MS; & Stutman, RK. 1997. Working Through Conflict, Longman: NY.
Leritz, L. 1987. The no-fault formula: five easy steps. In Lewicki, RJ. 1993. Negotiation: Readings, Exercises, and Cases (2nd Edition). Irwin: Burr Ridge, Illinois.
Billikopf GE. 2000. Labor Management in Ag, Cultivating Personnel Productivity, UC ANR Publication Code 3417, on-line version,http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7labor/001.htm, Ch. 13, Conflict Management Skills.
Folger, JP; Poole, MS; & Stutman, RK. 1997. Working Through Conflict, Longman: NY. Ch. 4-5, Power and Face issues.
Permission to reproduce research paper is granted provided author and affiliation are credited.
15 November 2004