Summer 2001
Finding Great Employees

Seven Secrets for Staffing Up

You want to hire only the best employees, but where are they? Chances are, they’re happily working for someone else. Despite the spate of layoffs that several major (mostly high-tech) companies recently announced, today’s unemployment figures are still running at record lows, especially in retail.

“Many employers exist in a world of ‘negative unemployment,'” says Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston-based consultancy. “That means there are more positions available than people qualified to fill them.” That can be devastating for any business that’s hiring, and wants top talent. And perhaps no one knows that better than the specialty retailer hiring for the holiday season.

The seven secrets

“To attract good employees, you need to get aggressive and move out of the box,” Kleiman says. And that involves deploying some new “weapons” in the recruiting arsenal. Five top workplace consultants share their secrets for attracting good employees in a competitive market.

1. Call good employees who left.

“Former employees are absolutely your best source of prospects,” says Kleiman. “Make a conscious effort to call previous workers. See if they’re happy, or if they want to return. Maybe they won’t come back right away, but somewhere down the line they might. So keep the lines of communications open.”

Kleiman suggests waiting about six months before calling higher-level employees, since they’ll want time to become acquainted with their new positions. For mid-level positions, Kleiman suggests waiting only a week or two. That would work for sales staffers, too. Sometimes it becomes apparent quickly that the greener grass they went after has some pesky weeds. Bonus tip: When a good employee leaves, invite them to let you know how the new job is working out.

2. Offer finder’s fees.

“Your current employees are also excellent sources for new hires,” says Kleiman. “Tell them if they help you hire someone, you’ll pay them a finder’s fee.” And don’t confine your offer to current employees—open it up to their relatives, your suppliers and customers, and even the general public. “Most employers forget to expand the base of their finder’s-fees offer,” he says. “The more people you have searching for you, the more choice you have when filling positions.”

To reinforce that you’re looking for employees who will stay, structure the finder’s-fee program to pay half the fee after the new employee’s first 90 days, and the other half at the six-month anniversary. Bonus tip: If the person making the referral is an employee, ask him or her to help orient the new hire. That will increase the likelihood of a long-term employee for you, and the second pay-out for the referring employee.

3. Ask job applicants for names of other potential employees.

No matter how aggressive your search, you won’t see 99 percent of the best prospects. They’re happily employed and aren’t looking at Help Wanted ads in the paper or online. Your mission is to flush them out. So tap the applicants who do come to you. Each one is worth three to five names, says Kleiman, who suggests something simple, like: “I’d like the names of three people who can tell me about you.” Then when you call them, start by discussing the applicant and move on to the other person’s situation and background, and see where it goes (you may find yourself inviting them to an actual interview). Bonus tip: Tell everyone you speak with about your finder’s fees.

4. Offer flextime.

While employment and disposable income levels may have increased in recent years, free time has decreased. “Employers need to recognize that people are looking for a balance between their work and family lives,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a national placement firm in Chicago. Employees everywhere are pressed for time to take care of family members, meet other obligations, or even just get everyday things done. “Flextime is a high priority item for a lot of people. It allows them to adapt their schedules to [their] needs. Some people need to come in later so they can get the kids to school; others need to leave at 3:00 to pick them up,” says Challenger. “In some cases they may want to work weekends and take a day or two off in the middle of the week.” Bonus tip: Because flextime is a valued perk, if you offer it, be sure to promote it!

5. Show prospects how you’ll help them grow.

You want to encourage employees to stay with you as long as possible, but the fact is, the best ones expect to leave you for another job at some point. Attract the best people and encourage them to stay longer by describing how you can assist them in their long-term career plans.

With baby boomers in their 40’s and early 50s, as well as 30-somethings moving up in the workplace, many people are clamoring to get into more responsible roles, says Challenger. “But there just isn’t enough room for everyone who is driven and talented.” There are two types of advancement: vertical (upward) and horizontal (sideways). If people can’t move “up” the ladder of success, they can move “sideways” to greater education and expertise. Horizontal advancement expands an employee’s skills in related work areas through course work or by assuming hands-on responsibility (for example, training one of your sales associates to learn your inventory-control or accounting software).

Employees want advancement because it makes them more valuable—to you, and to future employers. “You must be able to show growth potential in your business,” says Don Schackne, president of Personnel Management at Administration Associates, a consulting firm in Delaware, OH. For example, an employer tells each prospect about three career paths or “ladders” at your company. The employee can choose to climb one ladder as far as possible, or move to an adjacent ladder and climb that one, says Schackne. This shows prospects growth potential and describes exactly what employees must do to climb the ladders. “There was no doubt about how far the employee could go at that business,” he says. Even if you’re a very small business, you can adapt the idea and make it work for you. Bonus tip: Offer tuition reimbursement for work-related courses to help keep employees, especially when they’re being courted by other employers.

6. Work with local organizations.

You network to get new customers, so why not network to attract top employees? Here are some proven techniques:

  • Community colleges: Teaching a business course brings you into contact with prospective job applicants.
  • High schools: Give a seminar on “Life after High School” to explain the world of work to young people. Again, this raises your profile among people who will soon be looking for work.
  • Chambers of commerce: Many chambers offer assistance with matching résumés and employers. “Don’t overlook the job fairs that are often sponsored by chambers and other local organizations such as the Rotary,” says Ethan Winning, an employee relations consultant in Walnut Creek, CA. “These aren’t just places to show off your business. All the job applicants in town come with résumés. They pick up application forms and start applying.” Get to know as many attendees as you can. They may not come to work for you right away, but they may later.

7. Advertise in new places.

Happily-employed workers don’t read “help wanted” ads. That poses a challenge when you’re trying to attract the best and brightest. What to do? “Place your ads where good prospects are likely to see them,” says Dr. Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting (East Greenwich, RI). Instead of the Help Wanted section of the paper, try the sports, auto or local news section. “Even a modest help wanted ad, when it’s standing alone, has a better chance of being seen than a great ad that’s been positioned around 12 other great ads,” says Weiss. Bonus tip: Place ads in out-of-town media in areas of high unemployment.

Maybe the newspaper isn’t the best medium. Weiss suggests considering newsletters that organizations publish. It may cost only $5-$10 to place a small ad with local groups such as the PTA, Scouts, churches or fraternal organizations. Or create a flyer and get permission to post it in local hair salons, health clubs, libraries and cafés. These are places where people spend a lot of time, and your ad won’t be smothered by competing pitches.

What about online? Many newspapers have an online option when you place a print ad. If it’s a good deal, it’s worth a try. Or if you want a broader search—regional or even national—then listing with one or several of the career Web sites might be worth it. Visit a few to see how they look and how they work.

Whether you use most of these tips or just a few, they can help you avoid the mistake of hiring the wrong person just to fill an open slot. The wrong person can wreak havoc with your business operations or alienate customers. Either way, your bottom line takes the hit. And hasty hiring can lead to costly turnover. Says Kleiman: “The most expensive employee you hire is the one you have to fire.”

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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