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Ask About Recruiting

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By | May 26, 2012

Dear Toolkit,

What has your small business career taught you about recruiting (and also retaining) good employees? Is there a secret formula somewhere?

Looking for Help

Dear Looking,

The absolutely most effective tool for recruiting and retaining good employees in a small business, particularly a business employing many part-time people, is group health insurance. Expensive, yes. But employees share the cost and are always grateful to have access to a "group" rate.

It's important to note that even huge firms like national supermarket chains use this inducement system-wide. They don't pay a lot, hours may be erratic, but the health coverage is great. Even a part-timer can get full coverage for him-/herself and dependents through the group plan. Small businesses can learn much from this policy. Responsible people know they need health insurance for their families. You want responsible employees. Need I say more?

One of the most effective recruitment strategies we used in our small businesses was to give existing employees an incentive to refer prospects to us. A person recommended by an employee will already have an idea about the culture of the business and the type of positions that may be available. We offered a small "bird dog fee" for a referral and if the candidate was hired and stayed "x" number of months, a larger bonus was paid to the referring employee.

Perks that cost the company little but mean much to employees are also useful for retention. We used a liberal, free-meal policy at our restaurant division, for example. (Many charge employees at least cost for meals.) The seniors who work in these places need the economic benefit of free food as well as a social atmosphere in which to enjoy it. The teenagers are all eating-machines by definition.

We wanted them all to experience the products (and service) from the viewpoint of the consumer anyway, and we certainly didn't want them eating down the block at the competition. Whether it's free meals or dry cleaning or oil changes or whatever business you're in, a perk policy must be closely monitored to stem inevitable abuses, of course.

Be age-blind in hiring. In every business we ever owned, a mix of generations worked to everyone's advantage. The combination of life experience and youthful exuberance is very dynamic. Although the state sets limits on how young you can hire, there is no upward limit so don't impose one.

Older folks know how to take care of customers. They remember the good old days when the customer was always right. And they can teach this to the kids. An elderly lady (mid 80s) once came to one of our stores and said she wanted to work to supplement her Social Security so she could help her daughter's family. We hired her because we liked her moxie. The store was never so clean as after she came on board. She fattened everyone up on her biscuits and counseled the kids and customers as well. The PR advantage is huge.

Hiring disabled folks is good PR, good community involvement and just plain good business. We always participated in the EMH/TMH programs with the local social service organizations and employed many developmentally disadvantaged people. These are going to be your best motivated, most dedicated and loyal employees.

For example, we hired a young TMH chap at a hotel we managed and made him an "assistant" doorman. His job coach alleged he was much too shy to talk to strangers and couldn't do the simplest forms of math. After 3 months he was talking with everyone who arrived at the door, offering help, hauling luggage, getting huge tips--and adding them up with lightening speed! He loved his uniform, his co-workers loved him for being so enthused, the customers loved his grin and attitude. He ended up working there for years, got promoted, became a valuable asset.

Tell folks like this you want them to give good customer service and guess what. . .they take you seriously.

Don't necessarily exclude from the hiring process people who may not have a lot of prior experience in the job you're trying to fill. (Unless you're looking for brain surgeons.) Often, very experienced people know all the reasons why something can't or shouldn't be done. Look for a good track record, a history of teamwork, enthusiasm, self confidence, curiosity.

The importance of good communications with and between employees cannot be overemphasized. Everyone must be made to feel a part of the organization every day. A little hand holding and cheerleading goes a long way. A manager should know every employee's name and use it often. An open-door policy is essential.

If an employee has a beef, you need to hear it yourself. . .be available. Otherwise he'll tell it to a customer or another employee and you'll have two or three problems to solve rather than just one. Solicit feedback. Encourage participation. Even the most highly compensated and pampered employees need to feel connected. Communicating is cheap -- do it!

Be fair and evenhanded with all employees. Establish policies and stick to them. This will not only insulate you from a host of legal nightmares, it will maintain high morale in the workplace. Everyone will know what is expected of them and what they can expect from you.

There's an old adage that goes. . ."The speed of the Boss is the speed of his people." A good manager is always willing to get into the trenches with the troops. Loyalty and respect are built this way. Hiding in the office or on the golf course won't hack it. Get out on the line of fire with your employees. If your car rental agency is oversold this weekend, or you sold a lemon or delivered the wrong couch, get out there and take the abuse from the disgruntled customers yourself. They'll be less disgruntled if they see you personally trying to solve the problem. Set a professional example for your people. Show up earlier, stay later, and never, ever complain!! That is LEADERSHIP. It's what good bosses do.

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