Combating Turnover: The Ideal Candidate

Over the last several decades, the employment landscape has changed dramatically. In the middle part of the twentieth century, it was common for employees to stay with one employer for decades. Their loyalty was often rewarded with various forms of compensation and recognition—such as gold watches upon retirement, or pension packages that would be considered very generous by today’s standards.

But that has changed. Employees now job hop frequently, which is in part a result of some of those generous pensions and other benefits being slowly stripped away by the attrition of rising costs and increased demand for productivity. While this is more true for people in younger generations, it has become the case for everyone regardless of age.

The job market today places more power in the hands of the employee than it did during the Great Recession. Gone are the days where employers could carry the notion that their staff was lucky to merely have a job. People today have options, and that’s good for everyone, especially employers smart enough to proactively work to retain their best people.

We often get asked for input on how to address turnover, a request that makes sense since adding new contacts to our database is a common task. The Pool has a vested interest in this topic as well. New employees are more likely to be involved in workplace injuries than experienced ones, and hiring and separating people are themselves risky enterprises.

So what can special districts do to address this issue? In terms of employment issues, public entities are fundamentally similar to private companies. The relationship between employee and employer is essentially the same, but there are differences, so it’s important to thoughtfully apply any advice you find in the field to your specific situation.

This is the first in a series of articles about how to build a strong and lasting team by “hacking” your operations to foster better retention. Keeping your staff happy, recognized, and stable is an excellent way to not only improve your productivity but also to reduce your safety and operational risks going forward.

Refining the Hiring Process

Let’s start with building that team at the point of hire: the job interview. Recruiting, hiring, and training your team (commonly called on-boarding) can be very costly in terms of both time and money. A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently demonstrated that every time an employer replaces a salaried employee, the total cost to replace that person is roughly equal to 6 to 9 times their salary.
That means that the cost of replacing a mid-level administrator making $50,000 would be somewhere between $25,000 and $37,000. SHRM estimates that an employee earning Colorado’s minimum wage of $9.30 per hour would cost more than $4,000 to replace.

Those costs are a combination of things that you won’t likely see on a single line item in your budget or expenses, but which will definitely impact your bottom line. These costs include the time it takes to post a job. It includes the cost to the post the position on a job board or in the newspaper. It even includes the labor your managers and HR staff will invest in screening, interviewing, and training. Throw in the cost of background checks and drug tests and the amounts are starting to add up.

Bear in mind that in the meantime, no one is performing the position in question, which means that your district is suffering a further loss of productivity. Lastly, constantly separating and rehiring people is a perpetual liability exposure, which opens you up to all sorts of possible accusations of hiring discrimination, employment-related malfeasance, and errors in compliance in filling out forms and retaining records such as I-9s. Since many of those things are born from federal law, special districts have no immunity, so the risks are substantial.

Many employers choose to combat these costs by skimping on them. Cost-cutting measures will only exacerbate these issues, however, and could imperil your existing team by placing greater pressure on them. Instead, the best option is to redouble your efforts in attracting, procuring, and retaining the best talent that is the best fit to your organization. There is no advice that we can offer that would work for every district, but here are some good rules of thumb.

If You Hire Friends and Family Do So Selectively… Very Selectively

Many jobs in the US are filled by people who had inside knowledge of the opening—they heard about it from a friend, family member, or neighbor before it was publicly posted. This is commonly referred to as the “secret job market.” While the old adage ‘smart people know smart people’ can definitely be true, it’s best to always go with the most qualified candidate and the candidate who will benefit the district the most.

Hiring the friends or relations of current employees can lead to cronyism and cliques, and that can be severely damaging to morale. Does the new hire who is the child of a board member or a manager have exemption from rules? Do they have to work as hard as anyone else?

The answers are probably no, but if your other staff members are even asking, then there’s a problem. While you can’t stop your staff from thinking those things, the best you can do is not place your district in that situation unless that person is absolutely the best candidate.

This does not include, however, relevant and longstanding business contacts a current employee might have from a previous job or through a personal network.

Don’t Skip on the Pre-Employment Screenings

Due diligence is a big part of the hiring process. This includes a variety of screenings as part of your hiring practices. While you don’t necessarily need to run every kind of check on every kind of candidate, you should run them appropriately. Just remember, you need to get a candidate’s expressed written permission to run any of these checks.

  • Background Check: You need to run a criminal background check on every single candidate you plan to offer a job. Whether or not your district has ‘banned the box’ (see above), you should at least be aware of any criminal convictions in a candidate’s past. In some cases there may be a conviction you can overlook, but do you want to be known as the manager who hired someone with a long history of violent crime?
  • Drug Test: The legalization of marijuana does not change the standards for CDL drivers, and at the very least those individuals should be drug tested. While it may be costly to run a drug screening on every employee, it is a good idea for any employee who will operate heavy machinery, handle hazardous materials, work with children, drive a vehicle (personal or district owned) on company business, or be responsible for large sums of money.
  • Reference Checks: Many companies and public entities run reference checks on potential employees, in fact many require it. But many companies won’t allow managers or supervisors to provide references as a policy. This can make it very difficult for a candidate to find adequate professional references. That said, many HR professionals don’t find reference checks particularly useful since the reference is likely to give a glowing recommendation regardless of their actual experience with or knowledge of the candidate.
  • Employment Verification: These are more honest than reference checks, but often cost money. Many companies gatekeep employment verification records through a third party service that requires a small payment by the prospective employer. Despite that, these are often times more useful than reference checks because it can provide the reason for a person’s termination, or at least whether or not the individual is rehireable and if their separation was voluntary or not. Alternatively, some employers pay a vendor to conduct the employment verifications for them, which can also be helpful for a district with limited staff.
  • Credit Checks: Many private companies, especially financial institutions, run credit checks on job candidates. A SHRM survey found that 47% of employers run checks like that. Special districts may be unlikely to need to run this kind of check, and most candidates will find the notion intrusive, so it may be best to avoid it unless the candidate handles substantial financial information or funds.

Look for the well-rounded candidate

Beyond the needed technical skills and experience for any given job, look for people who have attributes that contribute positively to your workplace. These things aren’t always listed on resumes, so use the interview as a chance to draw this out of them. Below are some common factors that could help differentiate an excellent candidate in a pack of good candidates:

  • Curiosity – This is an uncelebrated asset in an employee. Curious people are inherently great learners. They are easier to train, work great independently, and their energy can inspire groups.
  • Team Orientation – It’s become a cliché to ask candidates if they prefer to work better as an individual or a member of a team. The fact is, you really need someone who can do both. Even if you need a field technician who is going to work independently 99% of the time, that person still functions as part of a larger organization. You might have just one employee—but even that person must work with the public and with the district’s board of directors. Your candidate must be able to accept criticism, input, praise, and direction with equal grace and accommodation.
  • Humility – You will want someone who is able to admit when they are wrong. This type of person will be more open to learning or relearning a task as things change. As a bonus, this is also likely to be someone who is very honest and forthright.
  • Communication – Find someone who is able to adequately communicate not only their own strengths, but their weaknesses too. This will be someone able to properly let you know when they have a fantastic new idea, but also when they are in need of help. This person might ask really thoughtful questions during their interview, which is always a great sign.
  • Budget Conscious – Look for someone who is able to recognize that every hour of their labor and every tool in your district’s shed is an asset. This type of person will keep busy and productive no matter the current workload.
  • Adaptability – This is an extremely important quality in a candidate. With technology and politics changing the world so rapidly, it is important to find someone who can change their perspective and their process to meet any situation or change in conditions. This type of person would be able to spot not just that a process has failed, but also why that process failed. He or she will be able to then intuit a way to correct it without needing a tremendous amount of assistance.

While the list above is helpful, think about the team you are managing or working with now, and think about what attributes your best folks have in abundance. There are probably other qualities not listed above which would help a potential candidate excel in your workplace. Is it a great sense of humor? Is it really strong dedication? When thinking of interview questions, try to think of some that will pull those qualities out of a nervous interviewee without violating any laws. If you need help with that, you’re in luck because that will be the topic of our next article in this series.

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