Contractor’s Corner: Make your employees your best reference - Dec 2021

By Dave Stafford

Just about everyone is hiring these days-that is, if they can find an interested and qualified person. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for you, most candidates do research on your business through companies like Glassdoor or ask around about your reputation as an employer.

Top questions are always, “How do they treat their people, and what is the work environment like? Do they recognize an employee’s value in a tangible way, and is there promotion potential?” Money is usually about number five on the list of importance. How will you stack up if scrutinized, and will you have answers ready when they ask?

The employment interview is where you set the tone for your potential journey together. Are you organized, at ease, friendly and in-control of the initial time you have together? Everyone has their own style, of course, but a professional approach where everyone is treated the same way pays long-term dividends and protects you from hiring bias allegations. Whether a first interview, final interview or exit interview, all should be planned out in detail. How long will the interview last? What are the points to be covered? What are the goals to be achieved? Is there testing to be done? What is the checklist for minimum requirements? How will you answer their questions, and what is the final wrap-up like?

No matter how unqualified a candidate might be in terms of the position, breathe deeply and don’t let your rejection become personal. In five minutes, you should be able to determine if the interviewee is qualified. If not, the best approach is to level with the person and say, “You know, Bill, after talking with you and reading your resume, I’m afraid we made a mistake here and have wasted your time. I’m sorry. You just don’t have the training and experience that are the minimum for this position.” Stand up at this point, shake hands and walk him out.

Tip: For our litigious society, keep a record of each interview with contemporaneous notes. I once received a call from a candidate’s attorney stating, “Joe didn’t feel like he got a fair shot at the position and thinks there might have been bias.” I actually remembered Joe and not fondly. I reviewed my notes, called the attorney back and outlined specific reasons Joe didn’t get the job. These included substandard test scores, marginal results on references and no job experience-all of which had been shared with Joe. That put an end to the inquiry.

A training agenda on that first day is an integral part of having the right environment for a new employee to flourish. It starts with you having a scripted scenario that unfolds when the employee reports for work. Starting a new job is always stressful, made especially so when you’re met with an unorganized, “Well, let’s see if we can find you a desk, and I’ll give you a few things to read.” Much better to have assigned an experienced employee in a mentoring role to guide the newbie around, make introductions, set up computer access to systems and begin the company familiarization process.

Your hiring process should include a written, well-defined package of benefits and compensation perks. You can also explain the review process and what to expect. As an “at-will” employer, I might say something like, “Jeff, we’re going to give you an opportunity to settle in with us. We’ll do an initial written review of your progress within 30 days and again in 90 to 120 days.”

My experience has been that a more formal written review in 30 days attaches importance to the process and gives you the right setting to establish training goals or curtail employment if the employee is lacking.

Tip: Get specific suggestions from current employees on what would have made their life easier when they became an employee. Use this to plan the first week’s agenda. Fill up the day, including lunch with a supervisor or manager from different departments. Allow a brief time for questions with you or the new employee’s direct supervisor at the end of the day. There are always questions.

Recognition and rewards need to be defined and worthwhile. Beware those where everyone can win or where there is only one winner. Spread it around, perhaps with categories for newer employees and long-timers. Look for ways where a “good, better, best” award can be given, perhaps using a points system for accumulation over a 12-month period. As important as tangible items can be, the actual public recognition can be longer lasting. Spend the time and money to have a company meeting or awards banquet.

Rather than rely on one big annual meeting, a monthly or quarterly luncheon keeps the excitement going all year long. Focus on achievements or some unusual service from employees throughout the company and don’t restrict this to sales. Find a way to say something nice through an unexpected compliment. “When we were in a delivery crunch, Lisa found a way to make the logistics work and so we could complete the job. Our client was ecstatic! Thanks, Lisa.”

Tip: Presenting an award should include a plaque, engraved cup or other physical object that may be displayed. This will reinforce the honor bestowed, allowing the employee further recognition over months and years. Not everyone has an “ego wall” but most will keep certain plaques that detail distinguished service or honors.

Listening is perhaps the very best prescription for having employees give you a good reference. Listening starts with you doing some management by “walking around” and asking open-ended questions. “How are things going with the school project?” First, shut up and listen; then, probe for further details. Elicit more info, particularly in private, by saying, “And how are you doing? How do you feel about your progress with the company and your position?” This may be done on an impromptu basis or as part of a scheduled review.

With Russell, I got more than I expected, “I’m having a tough time with previous bills and was hoping for a loan from the company to get me through.”

While I commiserated with him-“Yes, I truly understand that we all hit rough patches; however, our company is not a bank, and we do not make loans. I can refer you to someone, though. Perhaps he can help.”-oft times, it’s not that you were able to solve the problem, rather, just that you listened and showed some empathy. That was the case with Russell.

Develop your reputation for listening, and when an employee is having a problem, other employees will refer them to you for help. “Dave, I know Pamela is having a problem with Roger [a coworker]. Will you talk with her? Yes, it is definitely work related.” Of course, I agreed.

Pamela did follow up and explained, “I’m pretty broad-minded, but Roger is using a company computer to surf porn websites, in full view of my workstation. What’s worse, he’s printed graphic images onto the office printer in my area.” And she handed me several sheets of paper.

I’m sure the blood drained out of my face at the prurient nature of the photographs. By this time, the rumor mill was in full swing throughout the building. Within 30 minutes, I had met with Roger, suspended him for cause and had him escorted out of the building. He was subsequently terminated.

Tip: When you can fix a problem or help the employee, do it quickly; don’t drag it out. When you can’t solve a dilemma, show empathy by listening and plainly explain why you cannot help. If there are extenuating circumstances and you need some time, then say that. Set a specific date to get back together with a firm decision. Above all, do not make a “decision” through your own procrastination. That infuriates employees and makes you a weak manager.

Separation from an employee is always traumatic for both parties. Try to minimize hurt feelings and avoid damaging the terminated employee’s ego by making it personal. Rather than stating, “Harry, you have consistently failed at every task you’ve been given,” you might say, “I believe your talents lie elsewhere.” That way, they don’t have to disclose specifics when they look for another job. “I was ‘laid-off’ due to budget cuts” is preferable to “I was unable to perform at the minimum level required.”

The real reason for separation becomes the official one of record when there is an adversarial approach or a case of theft, workplace misconduct or negligence. Hopefully, you have set up minimum acceptable standards of performance including task metrics, sales targets, profit levels, and written reviews, and have a company policy handbook-all of which will protect you from charges of hiring or termination bias.

The exit interview may be your last chance to part ways amicably. My suggestion is to have a written form containing questions for each class of position: one for sales, administrative, operations and so forth Because different roles have diverse duties and responsibilities, a one-size-fits-all set of questions won’t work.

Make the exit interview mandatory and schedule it as the final part of the last day at the office. Here is your chance to really find out what your employee thinks of the company.

If possible, record the exit interview. In some cases, the employee will give one-word answers, but through probing, their anger bursts forth like lancing a boil! Training snafus, lack of recognition, real or imagined slights, missing feedback or no follow-through on promises, workplace conflict, frustration with compensation level, and poor supervision all figure into job dissatisfaction. Employees usually feel better when they can express their feelings, and you are better for it. Once there is an outlet for their rage, common sense and time may heal the worst of their angst.

Your best reference is always going to be a long-term, successful and fulfilled employee, one who will candidly tell others, “Yes, you can make some nice money, and they do care about their employees.” Or, “At the end of my probationary period, I was given a great review and sent for company-paid training.” Or, “I was given an award for sales excellence that first year.”

You may foster that conversation by having an interested applicant talk with several current employees on a one-on-one basis. This is especially effective when those employees have some tenure, are in a related area, or will be within the same group as the prospective employee.

Treat every employee the way you’d like to be treated, and you’ll get rave reviews and stellar references from them.

Copyright 2021 Floor Focus