Pats On the Back Can Pay Off


I have been told that I need to give my staff some positive feedback. I’m not great at that – seems gratuitous. I’m busy and get my tasks done, no one pats me on the back. Why should I do more than expect them to do their jobs?

Thoughts of the Day: Acknowledging contributions is a great way to build rapport. Start a dialogue with someone about what they’ve done well, in order to find out how they’re really doing. In an environment of tight budgets and limited pay increases, appreciation can help boost morale.

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Dealing with the Ups and Downs of Seasonal Hiring

We’re coming on another busy season, staffing up for that right now. I’m thinking ahead to when things will slow down again. It’s a waste to just cut people loose when the season is over. And after we let them go there will be another busy season requiring effort all over again to recruit, check backgrounds, process hiring paperwork, and then train. It’s more than just picking people up off the street. Any recommendations?

Thoughts of the Day: Look carefully at the cycles, and what can be done in the slow periods that would make good use of the talent you have. Pick the best and brightest to add to your workforce permanently. Consider flex time to help with the peaks and valleys. Build as much routine as possible into hiring cycles. Consider staffing firms and job fairs to meet short term hiring needs. Insure that sales are growing each year, making the following year’s valleys smaller.

Plan through the cycles, on an upward trajectory. Each year as the business grows you’ll need more people in your down cycles. That means it’s possible to keep some of the people who come to work temporarily in a busy season.

Figure out how many people you’ll need a year from now, assuming sales goals are hit. Identify the best performers in the seasonal workforce. Look for ambition, drive, ability to learn new things. Approach people individually about staying on. Offer part time hours to those who can’t work a full schedule.

Once past the busy season, if things slow down more than expected, ask who is interested in part time. One thing millennials prize is their free time. Some workers may have flexibility at allowing them to cut back. For some, a 20-30 hour work week until things pick up might be preferable to losing the job altogether. Work through stay versus termination based on quality of work, volunteers and then last in, first out.

When it’s time to staff up, look at other competing hiring cycles. For example, January – April of every year accounting firms hire temporary staff for tax time. Know who you are competing with for your temporary workforce. Hire a little earlier than any other competitor. Even a week or two can give you a leg up with the most eager candidates.

Lay out a recruiting schedule anyone can follow next year. When to place ads, when to start interviews, when to check on the number of candidates hired vs. the number needed. Know when it’s time to ramp up things if you’re behind.

Consider working with a staffing company that can do a lot of the leg work for you. Notify them of your needs and let them get to work lining up candidates. They handle all the paperwork and the payroll for a fee. When it’s time to cut back, just make a call to say that the season’s over. The staffing firm takes over helping workers find other jobs.

Consider holding job fairs. Publish the date, time and location in the local paper as well as online. On the day of the fair get attendees to hand in resumes, fill out applications, go through interviews, complete paperwork for background checks, etc. Have your staff on hand to promote the company, conduct interviews and make offers pending final review of all paperwork. Ask the best candidates to fill out hiring paperwork before they leave. Move people you hire immediately into training so they don’t lose interest.

Remember the earlier comment about a growing company having an upward trajectory for its workforce? While things are at their busiest, make sure your sales people keep working on the next round of growth. Consider moving some of your temporary workers into sales and customer service support positions when things slow down. Do everything possible to insure the company has a steady growth track.

Looking for a good book? Recruiting, Interviewing, Selecting & Orienting New Employees, by Diane Arthur.


Shifting Talent to Prepare for the Future

We’ve got a couple of employees we don’t want to lose who can’t grow where they are.

Thoughts of the Day: Figure out the talent you’ll need in the future. Look for keepers among your current employee pool. Keep employees for the right reasons. Figure out the fit through a variety of means. Re-onboard employees periodically.

Every business owner needs to carve out time to work on the business, planning how to meet the company’s future needs. What kind of work will the company be doing? What jobs will people need to fill? What skills go with those jobs? What jobs will go away?

Play out alternate scenarios:

  • Scenario A: If the economy expands vs. if the economy contracts, might call for stronger sales and marketing skills to know which way the wind is blowing and to sail ahead of it.
  • Scenario B: one product or service takes off, another one dies off: might mean more R&D tied to stronger production skills in a new area, fewer employees assigned to work on the services that are in decline.
  • Scenario C: expansion equates to investment in infrastructure at the same time cash flow dries up: probably calls for greater finance skills.
  • Scenario D: steady growth, more employees, more complex regulatory environment, shines the spotlight on increased legal and human resources ability.

Think about how your company will deal with an aging workforce, changing demographics and the need for workers to have a college level education. Brainstorming what your company is likely to need in the future gives you time to prepare.

Start with your current base of employees. Look for high achievers, steady producers, people you can count on for honesty, integrity, hard work and foresight. Talk with employees about the need to build talent for the future and challenge them to participate in that process.

Get people to engage in their personal development. Use mentors to show people what the future can look like, trainers to help build skills, and coaches to work through the challenges along the way. Regularly take time to talk with employees about both the here-and-now of the business, and what the future is likely to hold.

Find out why employees see themselves as connected to your company. Build on that as you consciously develop the company’s culture. Insure the values of growth and opportunity are part of the company’s mission.

Set KPIs that are good for the business and that reward people for making improvements: productivity, research and development, loss ratios, waste rates. Measure how much people are taking on ownership responsibilities. Look for increasing amounts of time off for the owner. Reward reasonable risk taking and ability to solve the right kinds of problems.

Be intentional with training. Talk about it at every review. Ask big picture questions:
• What do employees need to know down the road, and where can they go to get that education?
• What training resources are available inside the company and how do people gain access?
• How does the company support people who seek education out side the company: funding, reimbursement for results, time off to study, recognition for accomplishments, promotion ladders?

As employees grow, figure out how they get promoted. Not all promotions have to be vertical. Giving employees a chance to rotate through other areas of the business can be eye opening for the individual and the company.

As employees grow, it can be hard for peers to adjust. Have a formal promotion/re-introduction process, as if the employee were new to the company. Make a major announcement. Review responsibilities and benefits that go with the new assignment. Hold a networking session for the employee’s new peer class. Assign a mentor to oversee the transition.

Think about the money and effort that went into training an employee for a new position. If this was a new hire, the company would carefully introduce the employee to the company, insure the employee understood his/her responsibilities, and watch over integration with superiors, peers and subordinates. As an existing employee shifts into a new role and new responsibilities, be equally as formal: behave as if this were a brand new employee.

Looking for a good book? Developing Employees Who Love to Learn: Tools, Strategies, and Programs for Promoting Learning at Work, by Linda Honold.


Engaging Employees in Order to Get Feedback

Employees may speak more freely when the Owner isn’t in the room. Or they may play safe and keep silent altogether. Dealing with employees is a never ending struggle for me as a business owner. When things go wrong I’m least likely to get honest feedback – just when I need it the most.

Thoughts of the Day: Communication is a 2 way street. Deal with the frustrating situations, so you can get them out of the way. It takes time and practice to build a culture of open, constructive feedback. Sometimes it’s hard for owners to accept criticism. Sharing information openly with employees is a good start. Find a major payoff through idea sharing, collaboration, and engagement.

Most business owners are as uncomfortable with silence and anyone else. They rush to fill the quiet spots, thinking people are waiting for them to provide information and guidance. Could be that people are only waiting for a pause so they can get a suggestion in edgewise.

Make sure that you allow employees to put in their two cents. Look the person you’re talking to in the eye. Practice patient stillness. You’ll find it only takes a few seconds for someone else to jump into the discussion.

Acknowledge that you heard what someone had to say by playing it back. Try repeating the last word as a question. Or, ask them to keep going, to clarify, to expand on the thought. Do it with a smile and a nod of the head.

Recognize that because you’re the boss, people need to be encouraged to speak up. And they need to know that if they express an opinion, they won’t get in trouble for it. If you don’t like what someone has to say, bite your lip instead of snapping back with a contradiction. Sleep on it before responding.

Ever felt stuck, frustrated, unwilling to get on board with something? Be honest with yourself. It’s a common reaction.

Without an opportunity to have a say, it’s hard to be in a positive frame of mind. It’s normal to want to walk away and not be involved. That happens to employees all the time, as they wish to be heard and get frustrated when they’re not.

Reading about South Africa’s experiment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led me to some observations about how to engage people in working through difficult circumstances. Encourage:

  • Accurate and complete sharing of information
  • Impartial conduct of hearings when problems arise
  • Accountability
  • Inclusion of all parties in economic advancement and political power sharing
  • Follow up designed to move people from airing grievances to planning a way forward together.

Share examples of when employees told you not to do something and they were right. Talk about how their taking a risk to stand up to you helped the company to succeed. Show people you can accept being wrong.

Make it safe for people to bring issues forward by allowing them to be heard without rebuttal. Practice saying thank you when the news delivered is critical, even when you don’t think it’s well deserved. If the employee is wrong, take them aside and discuss the issue one-on-one.

Speak to employees as grown ups. Treat each person with respect, honesty and dignity. Give them information they need to do their jobs. Let them sort out the details and learn from their mistakes.

There are significant payoffs to the company for getting employees to provide honest and open feedback. Here are just a few examples: lower turnover, better payoff for training budgets, higher output for similar paychecks.

Employees who are heard are more likely to engage and collaborate. Recognition for speaking up reinforces the behavior, leading to greater degrees of risk-taking contribution. People start looking for the next opportunity to step up, going from avoidance to garnering additional recognition.

Looking for a good book? Try… It’s OK to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need, by Bruce Tulgan.


Irreplaceable? Think again…

When I hire people, after awhile many of them get comfortable with their jobs. Even worse, some of them come to think they’re untouchable. I know they’ve grown into important roles, but that kind of attitude isn’t good for the company. What should I do?

Thoughts of the Day: Build an organization of team players by giving people goals and challenges. Remember, no matter how key an employee may seem to be, everyone is replaceable. Use regular reviews to tell people where they stand. It all comes down to what you’re willing to accept, and whether or not you’re willing to make and enforce demands.

A team of employees focused on a common goal, working together to understand and overcome a set of challenges, can accomplish substantially more than any single individual. Assign all employees to teams. Look for opportunities to have people overlap duties and back up other positions.

Target the people who are isolated, either by job function or by personal choice. For starters, ask them to join a group project, with a clearly defined goal and a leader who is good at including team members. Make it clear that part of their performance review is based on how well they perform as a team member. Ask the team leader for regular updates. If necessary, provide one-on-one counseling to the people you’re working to turn into collaborators.

Sometimes you may run into a fit issue: as in, the persons you’re counseling are having trouble fitting in as productive team members. Document the work they do. Start cross-training others to do some, or all, of their job. Keep in mind that your responsibility is to the company overall. With enough documentation and cross training, even key players can be replaced.

Meet individually and explain that sub-par performance on a team could get in the way of making progress in the company. If behavior is especially disruptive, or if you’ve been through multiple counseling sessions and there’s no real progress, make sure that person knows that they could be facing consequences up to, and including, termination, if they don’t shape up. Don’t be subtle at this stage. Make sure the message gets across.

At the same time that you’re telling people they’re in trouble, post their jobs and look for potential replacement candidates. Many times managers and business owners hesitate to draw the line with disruptive or uncooperative employees because they fear no one else can do the job. Looking for replacements, and training others to do some, or all, of the job will give you options.

In general, it is wise to conduct reviews with people once or twice a year. Try to keep people on their toes by finding the balance between giving them new tasks to master, and allowing them sufficient time to get good at existing assignments. Everyone should have a mix of some new things to learn, some things they can do really well, and a bunch of things that they’re working towards mastering.

Set the tone for the company as you conduct reviews. Give people realistic stretch goals. Put it in the context of what the company has to achieve in the upcoming year, and how their success at mastering new goals is essential to that progress.

Make time to review company results, and to plan out what’s needed for the company going forward. Make it your job to demand excellence from everyone around you, starting with yourself. Create a culture of accountability, responsibility, and striving to achieve.

Limit the time you spend with marginal performers, energy suckers, and self-serving individuals. Recognize and reward the people who perform in an atmosphere of collaboration, cooperation and acting in the best interests of the company. Give them 80% of your time. After all, the team players are your future.

Looking for a good book? Try HR from the Heart: Inspiring Stories and Strategies for Building the People Side of Great Business, by Martha Finney.