The old head gardener is leaving and I have been asked to take on the job. My employer seems to think I could do it, but I am not too comfortable with knowing what questions to ask before signing a new contract. I am wary as I do not want to mess up this chance to prove I can manage the place, and the employer is too busy to spend time helping me to get settled in to the new role.
This is a common dilemma not only in gardens but also in other established businesses including landscape companies, golf clubs, estates and commercial growers of trees and shrubs. The present senior person, whether head gardener or site manager, decides to leave and having given notice it is up to the employer to fill that vacancy.
Some will not bother advertising for a replacement, either because they do not have the time or necessary interviewing skills to begin the process, and you will become of prime interest to them because they genuinely think that you could fill the vacancy as the right person for the job. They will promote in-house. After all, you know the place better than any newcomer.
I know that in your case, there is no chain of command or "ladder" on which employees can climb to become more elevated within the business, although you are the most experienced and the only "real" gardener on site.
I would suggest that you follow a linked series of steps, starting with the contract of employment. When this is presented to you, by all means run through the documents with the employer but do not sign until you have the chance to go through everything thoroughly — say five days hence. Simply state that you want to check everything to ensure that nothing relevant has been omitted because there are always changes to the law and you want to be sure this document is up-to-date.
Produce a secondary sheet of items that you want to see included in the contract. Very often, head gardeners do not have "hours" but work as the need arises. Obviously, the needs of the gardens must take priority over everything else and you will be on call for any emergency, including watering/shading glasshouses etc. As gardens manager, you should expect to be salaried — paid monthly with a fixed sum and not by the hour or day.
If you are to be in charge of any subordinate staff, including part-time or casual labour — often self-employed and unwilling to be directed by another member of staff, no matter how senior — then you will need to have clear instructions with regard to these people. You simply cannot have responsibility without authority.
That authority should extend across the whole of the business area — in this case, a large private garden. The head gardener is the garden manager and this authority must be clearly stated in your contract of employment. Once this principle has been established, you will have to earn the right to manage, and the next step will be to establish a hierarchy for the staff. You may wish to appoint a foreperson who will deputise for you when you are on holiday or ill.
Less-skilled workers and casuals should always be placed above self-employed labour. You and your employer have responsibilities to those employees and none at all for self-employed staff. Even if they have worked on site for years, they are freelance by choice and may be offered price work, should you have the need for their services.
Establishing a hierarchy
The final step before deciding to sign the contract is to establish a hierarchy from the employer’s viewpoint. It is always advisable to have named people identified on
the contract, so that in the event of the original employer dying or divorcing you are not left without some point of contact and continuity.
You are basically pulling all the loose ends together to prevent fraying at the edges if any one part of the whole is not settled in writing. Your employer should welcome your approach because it demonstrates a clear and forward thinker.
The contract should also state that meetings will be held between the head gardener and a named person on behalf of the employer, acting as their agent, on a weekly or monthly basis.
These meetings will be held to discuss and agree (as many headings as you deem necessary) matters such as staffing, vehicles, machinery and equipment, training, health and safety etc, all set out in a printed format to enable copies to be kept by both parties.
I appreciate that the employer may say this is all a waste of time, but the need for such discipline is essential if you want to avoid costly court fees in the future.
You will also need to establish an agreement with your employer that all instructions and directions must come through you, and not directly to the subordinate staff. There can only be one head gardener and everything must go through you.
Quite apart from the opportunities for mischief, if the staff understand that you are in charge then unless they have some legal grievance, which will be included in their contract of employment already, they must come to you first at all times. By including this item in your contract, you will ensure that the employer understands your position.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management — www.tsogm.org.