Employee Issue of the Week: Higher Wages = Higher Expectations - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Employee Issue of the Week: Higher Wages = Higher Expectations

Bret Achtenhagen discusses how higher wages were possible by setting higher employee expectations.

Like so many other landscape business owners, Bret Achtenhagen, president and CEO of Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, was struggling with attracting, hiring, onboarding and retaining quality individuals to add to the company’s production teams.

Bret Achtenhagen discusses how higher wages were possible by setting higher employee expectations.
Bret Achtenhagen

As a result, Achtenhagen says the company was growing faster than its ability to develop foremen and other leaders.

He had to do something.

So, Achtenhagen increased wages. But this came with one request: higher wages must come with higher expectations.

To raise wages alone, with no clear expectations in place, nothing will change, says Achtenhagen who increased the company’s minimum entry-level wage to $15 per hour with the maximum of $20 per hour. Intermediate wages are now $20 to $27 per hour and wages for the most highly-skilled team members are $27 to $35 per hour.

Higher Wages Lesson #1: Set Clear Expectations

Of course, team members have to know what we expect of them in order to be able to follow through. That’s why Achtenhagen says it’s incredibly important to have documented job descriptions. On top of that, he has detailed and documented expectations that go beyond job descriptions.

“Go beyond the basic job description and make sure it’s incredibly clear what you expect of employees not only in their roles but as part of the company as a whole,” Achtenhagen explains. “For instance, it’s important to explain the expectations of your company’s processes.”

Higher Wages Lesson #2: Enforce Expectations

It’s also important that we enforce those expectations.

“We do not tolerate unexcused absences, tardiness, carelessness, uniform violations, safety violations or any other selfish behaviors,” says Achtenhagen. “We have very clear expectations. When they are not met, we initiate our disciplinary process. We do not tolerate a person who makes $20 per hour behaving like someone who makes $10 per hour.”

“Performance improvement plans are keys to enforcement. When an individual fails to meet expectations, this tool gives them a second chance. The plan details the expectations and whether or not they are being met.

“We wouldn’t have hired the person if we didn’t see potential, so we want to give second chances in case the person was just confused about those expectations,” Achtenhagen says.

Higher Wages Lesson #3: Swift Terminations

Once given the performance improvement plan, if the behavior does not change, Achtenhagen says the company moves swiftly to terminate—much more quickly than they ever did before. This is not something they would have been able to do previously.

“We have a lot more people waiting in the wings than ever before—as much as triple what we used to have—thanks to the wage increase,” Achtenhagen says. “This way we can move quickly when someone is not the right fit. We have learned it can bring morale down for everyone else if you let the wrong team member stick around.”

Higher Wages Lesson #3: Take Responsibility

An unexpected consequence of raising wages has been that the company’s foremen have stepped up in an incredible way, says Achtenhagen. They’re now making more money, too, and as a result of that they’ve stepped up their game.

“The years we paid average wages, we were on par with our competitors and nothing special—at least how our employees viewed it,” Achtenhagen says. “The minute we took this huge step up in our wages, the managers felt some self-induced pressure to be better. They also expected more out of their crews. It became a precious commodity. That simply came about on its own, and the plan has been more successful as a result.”

Achtenhagen says delegating higher expectations to people has also helped form more leaders within the company.

“The more you delegate to your foremen, the faster you watch them become leaders,” Achtenhagen says. “We had no choice but to do that when we raised the wages—we had to expect better. Watching the leadership that’s emerging in taking ownership of our expectations to be better as a company is exciting.”