Filling the empty seat.

While there are many demons that visit business owners in bed at night, one ranks consistently at or near the top of the nightmare list: STAFF

Staffing consistently presents four challenges to businesses:

  • The empty seat kills your momentum. You know you could take on more business or expand locations, if only you had more qualified staff on board to deliver.
  • The empty seat erodes service. You have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that you aren’t quite servicing your customers as you promised, and they can take their hard-won business elsewhere.
  • You, and often your other key staff, spend time, money and angst on staffing issues with no lasting impact on the staffing problem, except distracting you from what you are best at – running your business.
  • You and your key staff have to work harder and longer to pick up the slack of empty seats, burning them out and eroding morale.

When I talk about ‘empty seats’, I don’t just mean the unfilled chair where you’ve been looking for the past three months for the right person to miraculously walk through your door. I’m also talking about the poor hiring decision you made that has you stuck with a chronic underperformer – a figurative empty seat.

In an ideal world, a business owner would be an expert in the art of recruitment and retention. Of course, this is not always the case. If you are a large or medium sized firm, you can solve the problem by directing some of your own resources into this area or outsource the function to a specialist company. But what do you do when you only have one, four or ten staff? What are some practical lessons for small business owners that can actually make a difference?

I know how difficult it can be, especially in a small operation with less than five staff, to actually define what a new staff member will be expected to do. You know there is too much work for you to currently handle, and you’re really looking for an ‘extra set of hands’.

Defining what person you want

Write down exactly why you need to hire a new staff member. Are your people working too long? Is their work not getting done? Is there an opportunity to grow? Can you service your customers better with an extra person? Then get into the nitty-gritty of tasks. It can really do your head in, but it can also be quite a cathartic experience for a frantic entrepreneur caught up in the now. What tasks do each of your current staff do? What tasks aren’t being done that need to be done. Then allocate the tasks to your current staff based on their strengths and preferences. With the tasks that are left over, do you have a coherent job description for the new hire? You may need to re-allocate tasks more than once to come up with a workable mix.

At this point, you can determine if the estimated workload of that job description requires full-time, part-time, casual, or even a job-sharing arrangement. Thinking outside the box can really open up the number of potential recruits for your position, remembering that the majority of available roles aren’t flexible enough to accommodate the preferences of mature workers, working students and working mums. If yours is a flexible role, you can find yourself someone of exceptional quality who is equally happy that they have found work that fits in with their lifestyle.

Now define what skills, experience, and temperament a person will need to have in order to perform the new role. Be realistic here. If you are not going to be able to train the person, and the task is technical in nature or difficult to pick up, you aren’t doing yourself or the new person hired any favours by glossing over the need for them to either already have experience in the task, or have related experience that can be quickly reapplied.

Similarly, if the tasks are easy to pick up and/or your environment lends itself to personal mentoring by current staff, don’t insist on candidates having performed the role in the past. Do not gloss over temperament – if there is one thing that all good hiring managers have in common, it is that they test for and hire according to a person’s character. The right type of person will usually adapt to any role, because it will be important to them to do a good job and take pride in their work.

Next, ask yourself – does such a person exist? If not, or if there are very few of them around, you should go back to allocating tasks and re-define the job spec. If what you are really asking for is two people in one, for example, then are you better off hiring two people, doing two separate roles, part-time?

Assuming they do exist, what could they be currently doing? Where could they be working? What industries, what companies and what roles are they doing? Are they working – they may be taking ballroom dancing classes, in a netball team, in a university cafeteria or dropping the kids off to school?

How will you get to them? Can you put up flyers on bulletin boards in places they will congregate, or outside your own premises? Can you post job ads on the internet or the local paper? Who do you know, who may know people like this? Referrals, particularly from your current staff, are a great source of potential candidates. Do you need to call a recruitment agency to help? If so, what sort of agent – a specialist in a particular discipline, or a generalist firm that does a bit of everything? Once you know where to find them, the ‘how’ becomes a lot clearer.

How will you sell the role? What’s good about it? Where can it lead to? Why does it appeal to various groups? For example, a part-time book-keeping role may really appeal to a mature-age worker because it gives them some extra income, some people contact, a reason to get out of the house, and keeps them mentally sharp. If you know who you are targeting, the appealing points of the role become easier to define and articulate.

What will you need to pay this person? This is influenced by four things – their tasks, their experience, the demand for them in the employment market, and what you can afford to pay! All of these factors push and pull against each other until you get a salary range you are comfortable with. There is almost always compromise here, either on who the ideal person is, or the salary you can afford.

Finally, how will you select the ideal candidate? I strongly recommend formulating a two-step process. One tests for behaviours, the other for technical ability. The best way to test for behaviour is to ask “behavioural based” interview questions. For example, “Tell me about a time where you really disagreed with your co-worker on how to approach a task, and how you resolved it?” The questions should relate to each of the behaviours you outlined in your job description.

In terms of technical ability, if you or someone in the business is also a technician you will know what questions to ask to test for this. If the role is not technical, a short practical exercise, related to the tasks they will need to perform in the role, is a great way to observe how the candidate will approach a task. The key, no matter what questions you ask or tasks you set, is to do the same for every single candidate. You must take your emotion out of the process and try to make a rational decision, and the only way to do this is to ensure they all jump through the same hoops.

Once you have selected the preferred candidate, you must check references. It is always tempting to ‘fall in love’ with a candidate, usually because you just need them on board so badly that they seem like a saviour as much as a new hire. Stop. Use this as an opportunity to test for any queries you have, or irregularities that emerged in the interview process. Some people are great interviewees but terrible employees – only a previous employer will know.

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