Thursday, 30 November 2006 17:00

Smarter ways to respond when inevitable changes in personnel occur

Probably everyone in the industry has heard some variation of the joke about wheels on toolboxes being the cause - or a result of - the high rate of turn-over among the industry's technicians. {sidebar id=1}

And although at least anecdotal evidence suggests that turn-over in the industry has slowed from what it was in past decades, anyone with employees has undoubtedly faced the two-fold process of dealing with an employee's departure and then finding a replacement.

It may not be possible to remove all the stress - and costs - such turn-over can create, but there are some concrete steps to take to make it as positive for your business as you can.

One last interview

Whether they storm out in anger or respectfully offer you a 2-week notice, it's never pleasant having an employee quit. But human resource experts say far too many employers - particularly at smaller businesses - miss a key opportunity that such departures offer.

"An exit interview with a departing employee is your opportunity to obtain information about what your company is doing well - and what your company needs to do to improve," says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant who specializes in human resources.

Exit interviews can tell you a lot about your company because rarely is a current employee willing to offer such frank feedback as one on the way out. It can help you pinpoint weaknesses in a manager (or yourself), and can help gather helpful information about salary/benefit packages in your market as well as other information about your competition.

Conduct such interviews face-to-face if possible, human resource experts suggest. You can often read a lot into a person's facial expressions or body language. Keep the session relaxed and conversational, treating the employee as an advisor rather than a traitor.

It's better if the employee's direct supervisor does not conduct the interview, which can be a challenge for smaller companies. One shop owner with seven employees says he has his wife talk with departing employees; because she works at the shop only part-time and not as a supervisor, he has found that employees have seemed more comfortable and open talking with her than when he did the exit interviews.

And as with most data-collection, exit interviews will be a waste of time if you're not prepared to use the information you receive. You have to be willing to act on the suggestions you hear. Communicating this to the departing employee can also be a good way to end the relationship on a positive note (which could help you down the road if you'd like the employee to return) because even most dissatisfied employees feel some connection to their co-workers and want to feel they are in some way helping.

Effective exit interview questions

• If you were put in charge of your department (or the company as a whole), what are the first things you would change?

• What could have changed 3-6 months ago that would have prevented you from looking for a new job?

• What factors tipped the scale as you decided whether to stay or take the other position?

• Who do you think is next to resign, and why?

• Do you think your manager was fair and reasonable and communicated with you adequately?

• If one other person leaving the company would cause you to think twice about leaving, who would that person be?

• What would make you consider working for this company again in the future?

One additional note: Employees leaving your company may still be a little hesitant to honestly share all their views about your company right away. They may know they will likely want you as a reference in the future and may not want to burn a bridge. (That's why decisions shouldn't be based on just one employee's comments but only if there is a trend in the comments or additional research backs up what the departing employee said.)

One way around that hesitancy can be to follow-up with employees who have left, particularly those you didn't want to see leave, several weeks or even months later. Do the regular exit interview at the time of their departure; it can be a chance to make a counter-offer or otherwise convince them to stay. But if not, invite them to lunch after some time has passed and ask them similar exit interview questions. The time lapse may make them feel more comfortable about being open with you - and who knows, you may find out that at that point they have some interest in coming back to work for you.

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Interviewing and references

But the exit interview with a departing employee is just the first step in another critical process. Whether replacing an employee who has quit or been fired, or adding a new employee because of growth, the hiring process can be a challenging one.

Doing it right, however, can greatly reduce how frequently you face that challenge. One shop owner said that just over four years ago he changed his hiring process. Since then, he said, he's had only one new hire that was with the company less than a year, and his average employee tenure with the company has risen steadily.

The first thing he's doing differently is including a key manager in the interviewing and hiring process and decisions. It's another set of ears and eyes helping determine whether a potential employee will be a good fit. A one-evening seminar offered by a local employment law firm gave the manager a good understanding of what to do and not do during interviews, and the two developed a standardized list of questions that all candidates are asked, including:

• Have you ever had two vehicles (or projects) with the same deadline? How did you tackle that?

• Have you worked with a fellow employee who was difficult to get along with? How did you handle that?

• What's the last thing on which you and your manager or boss disagreed? How did you settle it?

• What was the most frustrating experience in your past job?

• What are your references likely to say about you?

The other change the shop has made is being more conscientious about checking job references. Just assuring applicants that you will be checking such references may weed out some potential bad hires.

Some employers are reluctant to give out reference information (fearing lawsuits) so check with your attorney about a liability release form you can have applicants sign to reassure their references. If references refuse to talk or cite a company policy against providing such information, ask the applicant to come up with additional references who will talk or to convince reluctant references to be more forthcoming.

At an absolute minimum, you should be able to confirm from each reference if the employee worked where and when he said he did, and if the applicant would be eligible for rehire by the former employee - a valuable piece of information.

But try to ask open-ended questions rather than those that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Rather than asking, "Was Bill a good worker?" ask, "How would you describe Bill's job performance?"

Another useful technique is to ask the reference for other suggestions as to who else might be able to speak about the applicant's ability to do the job. This can often help put you in touch with other technicians or employers the applicant hasn't listed on the job application.

Some other good questions to ask references include:

• If you had to pick three words to describe this person, what are the first that come to mind?

• If you could change one or two things about this person, what would they be?

• Why did the applicant leave your company?

• How likely would you be to rehire this employee if you had the opportunity?

A good investment

While there are a a host of other applicant screening tools - personality tests, criminal background checks, drug testing and even credit checks - several collision industry consultants say they see far too little emphasis placed on the two basics of good interviewing and reference checks.

The high cost of continual turn-over within a company is certainly not up for debate. That can make spending a little more time and effort when an employee is leaving and prior to hiring a new one a very worthwhile investment.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

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