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HR Advisor: Hiring, Recruiting, and Retention

The Struggle to Hire and What Businesses Can Do About It

If you’re finding it difficult to hire employees, you’re not alone. Bloomberg reports that many small businesses are struggling to find people who currently want to work—in fact, 42% say they have jobs they can’t fill. The number of people quitting jobs right now is also higher than average.

One culprit is likely COVID-19. For reasons related to the pandemic, a number of people are choosing not to work right now. They don’t want to risk getting sick, they have children at home, or they may be able to get by for now on unemployment insurance.

Some small businesses with positions to fill have turned to gimmicks like signing bonuses and free food, but these recruiting tactics are unlikely to be effective long term. They don’t address the risks, challenges, and needs people have right now.

Fortunately for employers looking to hire, the problem of people choosing not to work isn’t fundamentally different than the problem of people choosing to work somewhere else. In both cases, the would-be employer has to convince prospective hires that working for them is better than the alternatives, and then they have to live up to those promises.

To be sure, those who choose not to work are missing out on many benefits. A job provides not only a paycheck, but also opportunities for employees to do meaningful work, contribute to their community, make friends, develop skills, receive training, advance their career, and fund their retirement. If someone isn’t working, they’re missing out on these and other opportunities. Employers may be able to leverage these benefits to appeal to those who have removed themselves from the workforce and convince them that work is worth it.

Safety, Flexibility, and Pay
Before employers can use benefits like friendship and skill-building to lure applicants, they must first address safety, flexibility, and pay; in a hierarchy of employment needs, these are foundational.

While vaccinations are proceeding at an encouraging rate and all adults are now eligible, COVID-19 remains a serious threat. It will be some time before people getting their shots now develop immunity to the virus, and they may worry about infecting friends and family who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccine. Because of these fears, some people aren’t going to work, period, and there’s nothing employers can do to persuade them. Others, however, may be open to working if they feel confident enough that the job won’t put them or those they care about in danger.

Flexibility is another key component for many potential applicants, much more so now that in-person school and childcare have become scarce. Since younger children cannot be left to fend for themselves while parents are at work, something has to give. Employers that provide flexibility—either through the initial scheduling of shifts or the ability to rearrange working hours on the fly—will likely receive more applicants and have a lower rate of turnover.

Other potential employees may be willing to work if they feel the pay is worth the risk and sufficient to cover the costs of working (transportation, childcare, insurance premiums, etc.).

Of course, most businesses don’t relish the idea of paying employees higher-than-usual wages, but there’s good reason to believe that increased pay is a good investment, especially for people in traditionally lower-paying jobs. When people are preoccupied with bills, debts, and other forms of scarcity, they tend to be less productive and make more mistakes. But, when scarcity isn’t taxing their mental bandwidth, they’re able to be more productive, make fewer mistakes, and increase business profitability. Increases in pay can pay for themselves.

Career Development Opportunities
It may be that the positions an employer needs to fill don’t come with an exciting career path or teach the kind of skills that employees are likely to put on future resumes. But that’s not set in stone. Both the employer and the employee choose what skills are learned and used in every position.

Imagine, for a moment, a local deli that needs to hire a person to take orders at the register. The job market might consider this job “low skill,” but the owner of this deli doesn’t think of the job that way or advertise it that way.

Now, the owner doesn’t use the gimmick of giving the job a fancier title than what it entails; instead, they set the job up to provide skills training for more advanced positions in customer service or sales. In the first few days, the new hire will learn the menu and the layout of the register, but then, in the lulls between rushes, they’ll learn techniques for talking to customers, de-escalating tense situations, upselling, and the like—training that people in customer service and sales would expect to receive. Later, the new hire might even learn some of the ins and outs of starting and running a small business.

This owner knows that high employee turnover is simply the nature of the business and that employees will, sooner or later, take their training and skills to other jobs. And that’s the point. The aim here is to cultivate a reputation in the community as an excellent place for customers to grab a meal and an excellent place for employees to start learning marketable skills they’ll use throughout their careers, increasing the size of both the applicant pool and the deli’s profits.

Attractive Job Postings and Hiring Processes
Poorly written job postings can prove a serious obstacle to getting applicants. It’s important, as Katrina Kibben reminds us, that recruiters and hiring managers understand what they’re looking for in a new hire and write job postings that are simple and effective.

If an employer offers some or all of the benefits discussed above, they should showcase them in their postings with concrete examples and as part of an engaging story. For instance, instead of the deli owner writing, “We teach valuable skills,” they can explain that down time will be filled with instruction on sales and de-escalation techniques. And instead of saying, “We offer flexibility,” an employer can advertise that employees have of a range of shifts to choose from on a weekly basis, or will be able to complete their work at any time of day, so long as weekly deadlines are met.

But no amount of training opportunities will mean a thing if a business’s hiring process is a chore for applicants to get through. The more minutes it takes to complete an application, the more applicants will decide it isn’t worth it. The longer a candidate has to wait for an offer, the more likely they’ll turn down that job offer—sometimes, as Adam Karpiak illustrates, even when they don’t have another job lined up.

How Conducting Exit Interviews Can Help You Increase Retention

The exit interview is a conversation with a departing employee about their time at the company and the reason for their departure. It’s completely optional, but some employers conduct them to learn about workplace issues that may be costing them good employees. Exit interviews can shine a light on toxic management practices, hostile work environments, departmental conflict, and employee concerns that aren’t being shared with management or HR. They’re often more informative than regular check-ins because departing employees have little to lose in being candid. Exit interviews are only useful, however, if employers are willing to act on the information they receive.

The Formats
Exit interviews typically use one of two formats: an in-person interview or a form the employee completes on their own. Each format has its advantages. The interview allows for further questioning if the employee mentions something you’d like additional information about. The written form option lets the employee give more consideration to each question and answer each at a pace that works for them.

Tips Before You Get Started
• Make the departing employee as comfortable as possible and encourage open, honest communication. Meet somewhere private and make sure to allow enough time for a meaningful conversation.
• Avoid having the employee’s direct supervisor conduct the interview, if possible.
• Offer a form to the departing employee instead of conducting an in-person interview if you have concerns about safety or the departing employee’s temperament.
• Explain that the interview is for informational purposes and for the betterment of the organization and their coworkers.
• Say that you will take notes and that you will keep them as confidential as possible. Note that certain allegations must be discussed with management.
• Assure them that concerns or information shared in good faith will not be communicated to future employers or negatively affect a reference check.

The Questions
The interview typically begins with questions about why the employee is leaving. In this line of questioning, you should ask why they sought employment elsewhere, whether the company or manager could have done anything differently to keep them there, whether they explored any options that would have enabled them to stay, and what their new company does better.

If the employee had a bad working experience at your company, try to find out why. Ask the employee to talk about any problems, unresolved issues, or other matters not handled to their satisfaction. Did their supervisor demonstrate fair and equal treatment? Provide recognition on the job? Develop cooperation and teamwork? Encourage and listen to suggestions? Resolve complaints and problems? Follow policies and practices? You might get answers you don’t want to hear, but they’re invaluable if you’re serious about improving employee retention.

Working relationships are foundational to employee morale and success, so ask about them! What situations, practices, or behaviors hindered collaboration? How could those be changed? Was communication good or bad? What made it that way? What practices or working conditions were beneficial and should be maintained or enhanced?

The exit interview is also a good opportunity to get the employee’s perspective on the training they received, the benefits the company offered, the growth potential the employee felt they had, the performance review process, and their assessment of employee morale. At the end of the questioning, ask the employee if there’s anything they’d like to add.

Next Steps
Once you’ve completed the exit interview, put the information you receive to good use. Share it—as appropriate—with the leaders in the company. Some of these conversations might be difficult, especially if you’re having to address sub-par management practices, correct unproductive working conditions, or investigate harassment. But exit interviews will be useful only if you’re willing to have these conversations and make changes based on what you learn.

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