By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
“Employees are the worst part of having a business. If I could run a business without employees, I’d have no problems!”
This is a quote, more or less from my Uncle Phil. Uncle Phil was an electrician, who eventually started his own electrical contracting business. He grew that business for many years, becoming wealthy and successful. Eventually he was able to retire to Palm Springs and turned over the well-established business to his two sons. I am not sure, however, that his hiring practices are what fueled his success.
Uncle Phil was one of my favorite relatives when I was a little girl. He made big fluffy pancakes for breakfast, bought real firecrackers on the Fourth of July and took his family on adventures, like to wilderness lakes to hike and canoe. He also had many stories to tell of his early life, when he left North Dakota as a teenager to find his fortune in Oregon, during the Great Depression.
Naturally when the grownups talked I liked to overhear the conversation to learn of some of Uncle Phil’s adventures. I often heard a lot about Uncle Phil’s business when I visited, but I didn’t always understand what the adults were talking about. For example, a common theme for my feisty uncle was complaining about his employees. Even as a kid I thought he had a negative attitude about employees. I certainly admired my uncle, but it was not his personality that was so engaging. It was his rugged individualism that appealed to me. I just figured that his disparaging remarks about employees meant that he was a bit of curmudgeon. . . until I hired employees.
Like my uncle I too struggled with the mystery of how to hire capable, responsible, hard working employees. For small business owners this can be a major obstacle when you don’t have the benefit of an HR department, with professionals trained in the science of hiring. Most small business owners rely on their instincts or those of their managers, but that leaves a lot of undiscovered employee problems. But after a few years of trial and error, you probably have come up with a system that works most of the time, or you are out of business.
To save time for those of you just getting started I thought I would share my formula. And I would love to hear from other employers about the methods they have discovered that really work.
First, ask yourself, have you ever had a terrific employee that you wish you could clone? If so, make a list of that employee’s qualities, from their actual work skills, to personality traits, to even seemingly superficial qualities like style of dress or music they like. Don’t leave anything out. This exercise is a kind of free association test for you. As you examine the qualities of this ideal employee, you will open your mind to the traits you are looking for in your next hire.
Out of this free association you will develop a list of the qualities you need to fit your particular setting. From this list, begin drafting questions that will elicit from prospective employees whether they have these qualities.
Second, always use screening tools to search out personality traits, emotional problems and psychological issues that do not surface during an interview. It is probably best to use the services of a psychologist who is expert in interpreting these tests, because you want more than a simple label. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a popular test for employers, but often the results are used by untrained people much like astrological signs are discussed at a party.
Third, you must ask yourself if your workplace is attractive to the type of employee you want. Do you need to remodel to make the workplace more ergonomic? Is your management progressive? Are there other benefits and perks you can offer? Remember, a healthy, hardworking employee is looking for a good match in an employer too.
Fourth, it is important to realize that all employees have problems in their lives from time to time that will affect their work. If your goal is to screen out all “bad apples” you will not succeed. Rather, after doing a thorough screening, and hiring the very best person for the job, make sure you have a back up system to deal with problems as they emerge. For example, providing a child care allotment, or flexible scheduling, or some form of employee assistance plan, goes a long way in correcting stress in an employee’s life, so that they can solve life problems as quickly and effectively as possible.
One final word on finding the perfect employee. Remember that is you the employer who knows what he or she needs. Don’t expect prospective employees, or even current ones for that matter to know what you want. You must take the lead and define the job. If you are clear about this and have followed the advice above, it is likely that the ideal employee for you is looking for an ideal employer like you.