Summer 2003
Help Wanted

Hiring employees can be daunting. It takes: time, energy and expense to find the right someone. But before you even start the search process, you have to decide what you need—how many? full-time or part-time? year-round or holiday?

The job description

To get there, start by defining the job you need to fill and the tasks you need staffers to do. The energy you invest in analyzing and outlining the job requirements will pay off. Why? Because a clear understanding of the job helps you simplify the interview process, clarify applicants’ expectations, and hire the right person. It will also make training easier and reduce the potential for turnover. Another plus: if you ever have problems with an employee, having a job description will make it easier to iron out conflicts, or defend your position if you had to.

List each job’s major and minor responsibilities. Start with the obvious (e.g., selling merchandise) to nitty-gritty details (restocking; tidying). List everything. Typical retail job duties include:

  • Transfer stock to selling floor
  • Price and mark stock
  • Create, maintain, change/dismantle displays
  • Operate register/point-of-sale terminal/credit-card processor
  • Receive and check incoming stock
  • Process returns to vendors
  • Wrap/package merchandise
  • Process phone orders
  • Demonstrate products
  • Handle customer complaints
  • Open and close out register/POS terminal
  • Complete deposit slips; make deposits

Also describe any physical tasks (lifting boxes up to 40 lbs.; making deliveries), and specific knowledge or skills the employee must learn (cash register; computer system); schedule breaks, and days off (vacation/sick time, paid or not). If there are potential job-related hazards (e.g., machinery for customizing products), include them, too.

Next, define the job title, who the employee reports to, and the pay rate (hourly or salaried? commissions? bonuses?). The pay should be fair and competitive—the going rate for this type of work in your area. That may require a little research. Help is available from the Small Business Administration, retail trade associations, or an online search.

Finally, list the achievements you want, such as education (high school grad? college?), types and length of experience, computer skills, etc. Also list the personal skills needed to perform the job well (e.g., outgoing, well-groomed, well-spoken). Make a distinction between what an applicant must have, and what you prefer but don’t require (“bilingual a plus”). Use this list to evaluate the applicants you interview.

Types of employees

You now have a clearly defined job description and a list of skills and traits. Now it’s time to decide the best type of employee you need: full-time or part-time; year-round or seasonal; permanent or temporary?

Full-timers tend to accept broad responsibility, and are usually reliable because they depend on the job. So if you want someone to assume managerial duties and a committed outlook, a full-time employee may be the best choice.

Part-timers sometimes allow you more flexibility in operating your business, a real advantage if you’re in a mall with its long hours and fluctuating traffic. Plus with part-timers, you have a larger pool of candidates with experience, good work habits and the like, such as mothers of school-age kids, retirees, and college students. And if you need to cover holes in the schedule, part-timers may be the answer.

Seasonal employees who are capable, dependable, and willing to work for just 8 to 12 weeks straight can be tricky to find, but not impossible. Look to special-interest groups (hobby and collectors’ clubs, etc.) or church groups as a source. Students are also a good bet (they love the extra holiday money), so you can get the word out through students and teachers you know, or through school channels. Ask family, friends and neighbors to scout for you. And ask your best customers if they’re interested. They might love working for you part-time, especially if they’ll get an employee discount.

Temporary employees through a temp agency can be useful for filling schedule gaps. Many employers use agencies even for year-round help, because agencies remove some of the burden by testing for skills and checking references before sending someone to an interview. Agencies charge hiring fees, but it may be worth it in the long run if you find someone terrific.

Beyond want ads

Putting want ads in the paper may be the most common way to find help, but other effective means can be cheaper—like spreading the word yourself. Tell friends, neighbors, business contacts—everyone—that you’re looking for good employees. People you tell may have teenagers or retired parents who want to work. If you belong to social clubs or civic organizations, put fliers on their boards or ads in their newsletters. Also see if you can post notices on boards at churches, senior centers, libraries and schools. Vocational schools, colleges and many high schools have job placement programs that can list you as an employer. And don’t overlook local job fairs.

Or focus your search by targeting groups or organizations that relate to your products. For example, if you sell collectibles, run an ad in collector newsletters to reach knowledgeable, enthusiastic applicants. And don’t forget the online option. There are many Web sites with national and local job listings, and many trade organizations have online job banks.

Writing a good ad

A well-written ad can make a huge difference. It attracts the right people for the job and usually deters everyone else. A good ad is informative. It has the basic who-what-where details. Use your list of qualifications you want so that your ad includes:

  • A concise, informative job description
  • Education/experience requirements and preferences
  • A request for a résumé and how to send it (mail? fax? email?)
  • Instructions (e.g., apply in person, call for appointment)
  • Contact information: business name, address, phone/fax, etc.

Sell the job and what your business has to offer. Think about the people you’re trying to reach and what they’d find appealing (e.g., flexible hours? a fun work environment?). You’re competing with other employers to get the best people, so communicate what makes your business different. You’ll attract employees who want more than just a paycheck.

By the way, don’t run “blind” ads that have no information identifying your business. People don’t trust them, and good candidates usually won’t respond to them. And don’t waste expensive space describing the kind of person you want (e.g., “go-getter”). You’ll know when you interview them whether they have the personal qualities you want.

Reviewing résumés

Résumés, like applicants, come in all shapes and sizes. Some give chronological job histories; others organize according to skills and tasks. Regardless of the structure, you want to see the same kind of information on each one: name and contact information, education, employment history, and skills. If it’s incomplete, move on to the next one.

Read beyond the facts for a sense of the applicant’s attitude and character. Neatness and correct spelling are obviously good signs. Good writing shows good communication skills. One that’s tailored to your job ad shows initiative (and good sales skills!).

But a résumé can hide things like unexplained employment gaps. So ask every job-seeker to fill out an application, too—the same form for everyone. You can get a pack of basic “apps” at office suppliers. Having the two documents lets you compare.


Use your job description and list of desired skills and qualities as your criteria for choosing applicants to interview. Be consistent: use the same standards for everyone. (It’s not only fair: it’s the law.) And when you interview, keep the list handy so you can stay focused on what you need. Hiring someone just because you like them won’t work if they can’t perform, so keep the job requirements in front of you.

Prepare a list of questions before the interview starts. Check one or several of the many books written by job-placement and human-resources pros to guide you on questions to ask, how to ask them, and how to interpret the answers you get.

Keep interviews relaxed and friendly. Talk about your business and your goals. Explain what you expect from an employee, and outline the opportunities you offer. Assure them that you value employee input, encourage and reward initiative; and work at good, two-way communication. You have to mean it: otherwise you’ll have a case of “revolving door.” Tell them you reward good performance. Ask questions that get applicants to reveal their true selves, not just yes/no answers. And get them to ask questions, too. What they want to know often reveals quite a bit.

One more thing to factor in: Don’t look for a clone of yourself. In addition to everything on your list, you want employees with some of the skills and qualities you don’t have.

Checking up

Before you make a job offer, check references. Former employers are more reliable than personal references, though you may have a hard time getting them to say much, for legal reasons. But they’ll probably answer some job-related questions that don’t require opinions. Also check an applicant’s driving record if the job requires any driving.

Rules and regs

A number of federal and state laws govern hiring practices—for example, if you decide to run a credit or criminal-background check, you have to get the applicant’s written approval first. Another example: EEOC guidelines govern private employers with 15 or more employees—but that doesn’t mean you can ignore them if your staff is smaller than that.

Will you have to memorize pages of regs? Not really. Here’s the rule of thumb for hiring: All of your decision-making criteria must be job-related. So don’t ask questions that don’t pertain specifically to job performance: that is, doing the job as you described it in writing. Legally speaking, anything else—classic no-no’s like “Are you planning to start a family?” and “What year did you graduate?”—are in the “none of your business” category. Also off-limits: age, date of birth, sex, race/color, ethnic/national origin, religion, military discharge, sexual orientation (in some areas), marital status, family (“maiden”) name, health, alcohol/addiction/mental-health treatment, Worker’s Comp claims, or job-related injuries.

If you’re not sure if a question is job-related, play it safe and don’t ask. To find out more about illegal questions, contact the EEOC for the anti-discrimination guidelines (800.669.3362; By the way, applicants may also resist giving you their Social Security number before they’re hired. Don’t take it as a negative: many experts and even the government are advising everyone to guard it closely.

Day 1 and beyond

You’ve made your choice, the applicant accepted your offer, and it’s Day 1. You want the new employee to fit in and be productive as soon as possible. So make a smooth transition by creating a welcoming atmosphere and having an agenda of Day 1 tasks to familiarize the new staffer with your operation. And as “boss,” it’s also up to you to set the tone and the standard: to be informative, courteous, hard-working, helpful, focused and fun (or at least pleasant) from the start. The “Golden Rule” works at work, and where you lead, employees usually follow. And when they do, they prove to be the kind of people you were looking to hire in the first place.

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