Seven Steps To A Super Staff

Date Published: 
August, 2004
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, August-September 2004

Figuring out which mower or backhoe to buy may be tough, but it's nothing compared to deciding who to hire to operate the mower or backhoe.
Whether you've got a grounds staff so large that some people do nothing but run a string trimmer or a staff so small that the backhoe operator also sits down with families to design monuments, you can't afford to take hiring lightly.

WHAT: We've done a 180-degree turn on the whole subject of hiring. Thirty years ago, our process was something like: "Run down the street, and if you see a warm body moving, try to get them to take the job." Today, we're like the Marines: We're always looking for a few good people. It doesn't matter what time of year it is, we're always looking. We want the best of the best. We might interview 15 people to fill two jobs.

WHY: To carry through what you're trying to do at your cemetery you need the right people. It doesn't make a bit of difference how much good equipment you buy, you've got to have the right people with the right attitude and the right standards to operate that equipment the way you want it to be operated and to do the job in a way that will keep your customers happy.

If you don't start out with great people, even training becomes so difficult—never mind the problems the person may cause down the line. It's crucial you go through an exhaustive search to get the right people.

HOW: Most of the people we hire full-time start out as seasonal workers. This gives us a chance to examine their overall work habits and work ethic. The possible downside is that when you're hiring seasonal workers, you may go in with the mind set that you just need good technicians for specific jobs, and not think down the road to the possibility that some of these people may become full-time. That's one reason we've decided to ratchet up the standards for seasonal workers. We're trying to remind ourselves, 'These people could be full-time in a year."

Most of the people who move from part-time to full-time staff do so at the recommendation of a supervisor. A person who does a good job of mowing the grass and string trimming and basically keeping the grounds looking good 40 hours a week is not necessarily qualified to move up to the backhoe level and start operating a $70,000 piece of equipment and maneuvering it around our expensive monuments and landscaping. And of course the supervisory level requires different skills.

We also realize that not everyone who comes to work at Spring Grove, whether part-time or full-time, will be here in five or 10 years. Some people use the training they get by working here to qualify for another job, maybe to run their own landscaping business. There's nothing wrong with that.

We might post a job opening internally and advertise it outside as well. We generally advertise in the suburban community press, rather than in the larger paper. This helps us target specific areas at less cost. For seasonal or part-time help, we advertise at the colleges as well.

1. Don't automatically give an applicant extra credit for previous cemetery experience. In certain positions we might want someone with experience, but for the most part, just because a person has worked at another cemetery for several years doesn't mean we'll be hiring that person. We're willing to train. In fact, Spring Grove has its own way of doing things, and if a person worked at another cemetery some of the training may involve undoing the training they got there. You want your employees working to your standards, not saying to themselves, "Well, that's the way we did it at Soandso Cemetery—that should be good enough."

2. Set up a check list for qualifications that must be met. We have a fact sheet they have to fill out: Can you lift 40 pounds? Do you have a valid driver's license? We like applicants to have a high school diploma or GED, since many positions, such as backhoe operator or marker technician, require a good ability to read and write.

3. Consider an applicant's job history. Maybe you don't want someone who's had 10 jobs in 20 years. At Spring Grove, we want someone who is likely to have some longevity.

4. Interview to discover work ethic and attitude. Attitude is crucial, yet this is something no one studied in school. Who ever signed up for Attitude 101? So this is something you'll have to try to discover through the interview process. Here's how:

• Use open-ended questions, not questions that elicit a "yes or no" response. Ask what they liked best about their previous job, what they liked least, how they interacted with people. Ask them to tell you their best success story as far as helping a customer. Things like that will give you an idea of whether they're a fit for the cemetery business or not. Another good question: ''Tell me about your last boss. Describe how he or she handled your work relationship." If you ask an applicant that and the jugular vein on the neck starts to throb, that can tell you a lot right there!

The bottom line is, ask a lot of questions and then sit back and listen and observe. Make mental notes about what you're hearing and it shouldn't be difficult to determine whether that person will be coming back for Interview Round Two.

• Include several people in the interview process. We can't stress enough how important it is to have more than one interview, and to involve the employees the new person will be working with. We also have at least two people conduct each interview. You want to get multiple views on whether the person is a good fit for your company and the position.

We do two to three interviews for a new hire (someone who hasn't worked for us part-time). Maybe two supervisors or a manager and a supervisor will conduct one.

And before someone is hired, there has to be an interview involving the people he or she would be working with. This is good for the interview process; it will result in different questions and insights. It's amazing what you'll learn during the debriefing process after you've talked to an applicant, the things that some people will have noticed that others didn't.

It's also good for your employees to get a feel for whether they want to work with this person. Even if you only have two employees, if the two don't get along, you're going to spend all your time dealing with their conflicts.

Doing this also creates "buy-in" and team camaraderie. Years ago, when employees were told on Friday afternoon that someone new would be starting on Monday, it was "the managers decided," "they hired someone." And the employees would think, "I wonder who the heck they're bringing in?" Now, when the new person starts, they're welcomed to the team by some of the people who were part of the process.

• During the interview process, let applicants know what your company has to offer the right person besides money. Good employees will be interested in more than the starting pay. One of the things we learned as we've refined this whole process is that money isn't the only thing that motivates people.

When companies are having trouble filling positions, the automatic response is "you've got to pay more, you've got to pay more." But back when we were chasing after people to work here, we were already paying well—very well—and we're convinced that's not an issue, at least not here. You do have to be in the ballpark as far as pay, certainly, but people want more out of a job than money. What else can you offer? Communication and recognition.

Communication: People want to have a feeling that they are part of things, that what they do matters. An applicant will want to know, ''Can I be a part of what's going on here, or is working here going to be a matter of 'Do what you're told, keep your mouth shut and keep on mowing'? Am I going to be kept informed about what's going on?"

At Spring Grove, it doesn't matter if you're a vice president or a student who's a part-time string trimmer, you're going to know what the company's vision is and you're going to know that we're all working together as a team. People like that. They like feeling that they're "in" on things, that they're being kept informed no matter what their job is.

In too many companies, the attitude is, "Well, that's something the officers will decide. We don't tell the line people about that" But those line people are the people who are getting the job done! They're the ones who need to know where the company's going and what the vision for the company is.

Recognition: We have a sign that says, ''People work for money, but they excel for recognition." We don't do enough of it in the American workplace. Every way and every chance you get, recognize people. Find people doing good things and let them know right then and there. Have all kind, of recognition programs.

Of course, doing these things will help you keep people once you've hired them. We've had people tell us, "Wow, what a great company to work for. Nobody I worked for ever asked my opinion before. Nobody had an appreciation event."

5. Consider doing some testing. We're still developing this, but we've had great success with testing that determines personality styles. We had used it for years in hiring sales people before we started using it on the operations side.

We definitely do testing now when we're advertising for our supervisory jobs, using a test designed for the purpose. It's helped us make decisions we would not have made if we'd just gone with our gut feelings.

The testing organization we dealt with designed a test that tells us how people would handle a hypothetical situation if they were supervisors. The first time we did it, the test results surprised us at first, but when we read over them, we could see that they were accurate, and we've never looked back.

6. After you select a candidate, do a pre-employment check. We pay a third party to do it, and it costs less than $50 per check. Most of the time—maybe 70 percent of the time—it comes back exactly as you expected, with everything the applicant told you checking out. But then there are the times it doesn't.

Sometimes it's bizarre what you find out—sometimes people just lie. The person said he had a valid driver's license but doesn't. We've had serious problems show up—gun law violations, robberies. It might take a week longer to get the new person on the job (assuming everything checks out), but the extra time and expense are definitely worth it. Think what it could cost you in the long run if you hire some scam artist.

7. Require drug screening. No one starts to work here without taking that final step. And again, people know they'll have to pass a drug test to work here and yet sometimes you get the results and it's "oops."

No matter what you do, of course, you won't be immune to some bad hiring decisions, but if you take these steps you should have plenty of successes.