Hiring the Perfect Employee

Staffing in the green industry is a complex job. It's a balancing act requiring talent, business finesse and a little bit of luck. Keeping full-time employees on the payroll year round can drain the company's profits, yet the business cannot run without a full-time staff.

In addition to full-time employees, green industry businesses depend on seasonal workers for nine months out of the year. This brings with it another set of hiring difficulties: 1) The pool of potential employees is small 2) Knowing how many employees to hire because of the unreliability of seasonal employees and the unpredictable volume of business and 3) Procrastination, then rushing through the hiring process, only to have major regrets later.

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For these reasons and more, business owners and managers deal with the question: How do I hire the ‘perfect’ employee? With enough information, you can set up standards for the hiring process so that you'll confidently breeze through like a professional and waiting to the last minute to hire a mismatched employee will be a behavior of the past.

PRE-INTERVIEW

Hiring the wrong person may cost you more than you think. Customers judge your business by the employees. The best-looking trucks, equipment and uniforms in the country won't offset employees who aren't customer oriented — a situation that can cause your business never to realize its full potential. If it's the right match, they'll accelerate the growth of your business, but a wrong match could actually hurt the productivity of your staff.

The first step is to write proper job descriptions for all employees on the payroll. Then write job descriptions for the slots you need to fill. Qualify a salary and benefits package for the job. Realize that when you present an offer to the best applicant, it should be a competitive package. Talk to other managers and small business owners in the community before deciding on a wage scale and fringe benefits for the position. Evaluate the benefits package from both the employee and employer's point of view.

Second, draw a composite of the perfect employee. Consider the roles the employee will take on. Qualities should include:

  • Abilities to identify and resolve problems quickly

  • Good communication skills

  • Professionalism, presenting themselves well to the customer

  • Knowledgeable in customer service

  • Work experience in sales and the green industry

  • Ability to work unsupervised

  • Work well with others

  • Respect management and their fellow employees

Determine the specific level of experience you're looking for, the least amount you'll settle for and be realistic. If the applicant is straight out of school, don't expect a great deal of professionalism and adjust the questions to their level. For example, ask for experiences from school and part-time jobs.

Once you've defined the ‘perfect employee’, effectively prepare for the interview. Design an interview form with standard questions, leaving room for observations made during the interview. As a reminder, make a note of questions not to ask during the interview.

Over the past three decades, the government has passed numerous civil rights laws in an attempt to prevent discrimination in the workplace. This legislation has a direct impact on the types of questions allowed during an employment interview. Specifically, they prohibit questions regarding race, national origin, religion, age, sex, marital status, ethnicity, citizenship, height and weight and physical disability.

Set a bottom line for minimum requirements in each category. Some professionals suggest a score sheet to rank candidates with the characteristics listed as Required, Preferred and Not Required. Filing the questionnaire and score sheet with their application may come in handy later should a disgruntled, rejected applicant file unwarranted charges of discrimination in hiring practices.

The third step is to customize a personnel package. Include an application for employment, the equal opportunity employer statement and a statement that the application process does not represent a contract of employment.

Fourth, decide the most efficient way to find the top candidate for the job. Classified ads are usually the first choice. To discourage unqualified applicants, include:

  • Job title
  • Complete job description
  • Qualifications required
  • Salary range and major benefits
  • How to apply and application deadline
  • Note if drug screening is required

Don't make the job sound better than it actually is. Be aware of the legalities of your state regarding giving medical exams and drug screening tests.

Other ‘applicant pool’ options include employee and customer referrals, trade magazines, association publications and temporary employment agencies. Generally, people don't take a chance on referring someone unless they're completely sure of the candidate's ability to handle the position, especially if it's their own place of employment, favorite landscape contractor or lawn service.

Inform the temporary employment agency that you're looking for a full-time employee and give the specifics of the job. The agency will work to send a good match, with the knowledge that performing this service guarantees them repeat business for future temporary jobs.

All applicants must complete an employment application. Add a statement to the application that false information is grounds for termination. Have the applicant sign the application. If applicants submitted resumes use them in conjunction with the applications to screen candidates before interviewing, keeping in mind that resumes are frequently ‘pumped up.’ When screening the candidates, look for length of time in each job and gaps in the work history.

THE INTERVIEW

Set aside a time slot specifically for the interview and give the applicant your undivided attention. Inform employees that you're not to be disturbed unless it's an emergency. Don't take phone calls and leave email until later. Keep in mind the applicant is a person, not a number and give them the respect you would a customer.

The time spent in an interview with a potential employee may be the most important time you ever spend with them. To save time and to avoid the same questions being repeated in multiple interviews, have two or three people sit in on a portion of the interview to give everyone a chance to hear each candidate's answer to the same question. This group could include a future fellow employee, a customer and their future manager.

A group evaluation of the same interview can be interesting as each one may pick up different details. Conduct one interview by telephone to test the applicant's telephone skills.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Pay attention to the smallest detail. Did the applicant show up on time for the interview? Were they early or did they rush in the door two minutes before the appointment time? Were they dressed appropriately, have their hair combed, face hair trimmed or shaved, chew gum, slouch, shoes tied? These silent factors give out important information about the applicant.

Save the small talk. It's very easy to begin talking about yourself or your company and use up the slotted interview time. Focus on asking your questions, then be a good listener. A good listen/talk ratio to shoot for is 80/20, talk 20 and listen 80 percent of the time.

Explain the job description to the applicant so they fully understand what the job entails. Include questions or problems that the applicant should be able to handle daily on the job.

POST INTERVIEW

Screening an applicant prior to employment can prevent a variety of problems, including workmen's compensation claims.

Create a standardized release form for background checks to hasten the hiring process.

Get written permission from the applicant to verify references and always check their references.

If the candidate is to handle money, get their permission in writing to run a consumer credit check.

If the applicant's responsibilities include driving a company vehicle, get their permission to conduct a motor vehicle record check.

Some employers run criminal background checks. If you're inclined to do so, get permission in writing from the applicant.

Ask for permission to contact their current employer. If they request that you don't, honor their request.

HIRING YOUR NEW EMPLOYEE

Pool the information on the final selection of candidates and meet with the interviewing team to discuss the interviews. Compare observations and make a decision.

Once you've chosen a candidate from the applicants and background checks are complete, don't delay the hiring process. Keep in mind that the candidate will be applying at other establishments. Notify the candidate by phone with a tentative job offer, specifying job title, salary, start date and appointment for drug screening. Make it clear the offer is pending a favorable drug screening. Follow the phone call with a conditional letter of confirmation. Include a second copy with a stamped envelope requesting the candidate to sign and return, verifying they understand the offer.

Once the screening test has cleared, schedule a time to sign employment paperwork. Go over the employment agreement and the company Employee Handbook. Hand out company uniforms and confirm a start date.

Some professionals recommend a three to six month probationary period in which either party can terminate employment at will for any reason. This allows you and the applicant the opportunity to see if this is a good match before confirming permanent full-time employment with a benefits package.

Use these procedures to hire both full-time and part-time employees. It appears lengthy and in the beginning, it will be. However, once it's standardized, you'll ask yourself how you ever hired capable employees in the past. The marvel will be the way your business runs as smooth as a fine-tuned engine with the appropriate number of well-matched employees.

Katherine Woodford is a Green Industry and business freelance writer in Moneta, Va., www.katherinesbylines.com.

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