Working effectively with employees begins on Day One.

Last month’s column, “Firing Made Simple,” discussed the importance of documenting employees’ failures to live up to our clearly stated expectations.

Now, in our continuing quest to make managers’ jobs nearly as easy as falling off a 10-inch-wide by two-foot-long piece of S4S 4/4 red oak stood on edge, we’re looking at how we conduct ourselves on a new hire’s first day.

It’s called employee orientation, and if you’re not devoting at least part of each new worker’s first day to it, you’re sending the wrong message right form the start – and making your job as the manager harder than it needs to be.

Let’s begin with employee handbooks.

Now before you get all “I’m not a writer” on me, relax. It’s never been easier to compose a customized employee handbook using widely available templates created precisely for doing just that.

We’ll talk more about those in a minute, but first, a look at some of the common justifications for not using employee handbooks:

• “My people know what I expect, and if I don’t get it, they hear about it – loud and clear.” Ahh, management by fear. Who among us doesn’t just adore that approach?
• “I’m an employer, not a babysitter.” You wanna bet? For at least eight hours each day, employees are practically your children – and, as countless lawsuits have shown, you’re essentially their guardian. (Hmm, management consulting by fear: Not much better, is it?!)
• “I’m just a little company, why would I need a handbook?” Because one sure way of remaining small is by acting small.
• “But maybe I like being little and want to stay that way!” Nothing wrong with that. But do you also want employees to take advantage of you? Because given the opportunity, they will – guaranteed.
• A gigantic piece of the management puzzle is the degree to which employees respect you and take their jobs seriously.

Just as customers expect you to conduct business in a professional way, employees expect and deserve professionalism, too. Yet business owners find countless ways of rationalizing their failure to go the extra mile for workers; the foregoing examples merely scratch the surface.

In contrast to such weak excuses, imagine presenting a new hire with a detailed employee handbook, touching on its major points verbally (working hours, holidays, benefits, vacation and personal days), then requiring him or her to sit down and read it prior to beginning work.

Orientation sessions should be comprehensive and anticipatory of a hire’s questions. You’ll therefore want your employee handbook to be more than a collection of policies and guidelines. A good one captures your company’s culture while helping new hires understand their responsibilities – and the company’s responsibilities to them.

Still, don’t tell your new hire that the answers to all their questions are in the handbook. You’re trying to encourage communication here, so throughout the orientation and beyond, encourage your new worker to ask questions.

After they’ve read the handbook and signed a statement saying so (put it in their brand-spanking-new personnel file), a tour is in order. Introduce the employee to the key people he or she might interact with in the office.

Next, take them out to the shop. Follow the same route work takes, from raw material to finished projects. Point out equipment, processes and innovations of which you are especially proud. The more pride you show in your business, the more proud people will be to work for you.

Along the way, show your new employee where they will work. Then, when the tour is complete and all their questions are answered, return to that area and make the introductions.

Finally, before turning them over to a foreperson or area supervisor, encourage your new hire once more to communicate: “If you ever have a question or problem you can’t get resolved here on the shop floor, you know where my office is.”

It goes without saying that the supervisor to whom you are handing the newbie was alerted to their hiring in advance and is prepared to get them started right away.

Less obvious is the importance of following up with the new hire and his or her supervisor at the end of the day. 

This practice brings closure to the orientation process and is your opportunity to make clear – one more time – that you want the employee to succeed. Reiterate that the best way for them to do so is by taking the initiative to do a great job every day, while seeking guidance when they need it.

As for getting your handbook together, simply Google “employee handbooks” and you’ll find a broad selection of options and advice for creating a handbook from templates or, if you’re game, from scratch.

We said last month that documenting employees’ chronic shortcomings provides grounds for dismissal when necessary.

In the same way, starting employees off right – with a clear, up-to-date employee handbook, thorough orientation and follow-ups on their progress – is your best shot at cultivating an engaged workforce in which each individual knows what’s expected. The goal is to create a work atmosphere where excellence thrives and chronic shortcomings of performance are rare, because everyone understands that they won’t be tolerated.

Goals are more easily achieved when people know what’s expected.

Do your employees know what’s expected?

Anthony Noel owned and operated Noel Custom Woodworking for 15 years. He is now a consultant helping custom shops with the business of woodworking. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Past articles are available at www.iswonline.com. Send him e-mail at anthonynoel@suddenlink.net.

‘Ask Tony’
Thoughts on Professionalism

This month we turn again to a recent poll of CWB readers, one of whom requested my thoughts on professionalism in our industry. “Professional development,” he stipulated, “as opposed to, ‘I’m gonna set up in my garage and get all the work I can.’”

The frustration behind this reader’s request is evident. Professionalism – more accurately, the lack of it – is an issue that owners of custom shops frequently raise at guild meetings, conference presentations and chance encounters.

“How am I supposed to compete with a guy working out of his basement, with no overhead, no employees and basic woodworking equipment?” they ask, their righteous indignation growing with every word.

“You’re not supposed to compete with them,” is my reply.

Long-time readers already know where I’m going, but I’ll head there anyway: If you want to be successful in this or any industry, you need to stop worrying about what other shops are doing and stay focused on your own.

Concern over business lost to competitors is pointless. Taken too far, it can become paralyzing.

At one guild meeting I attended, I witnessed a long harangue between two craftsmen, one with a fully equipped shop in an industrial-zoned section of town, the other with not much more than a pickup truck and an account at Home Depot.

The first guy accused the second of driving down the value of custom work in the market by doing jobs at prices nobody else in the room could come close to.

The conversation got heated, and as it approached the boiling point I asked the first guy, “Why do you care about this? Is he actually going after your customers?”

“That’s not the point,” number one replied. “He’s giving legitimate businesses like mine a bad name.”

“With all due respect,” I pressed on, “how can he do that?”

“Well, his lowball prices make mine look inflated.”

“How can they, if you’re not competing for the same customers?” I asked.

He thought for a second.

“That’s not the point,” he said again. “He’s not being professional.”

“In your eyes,” I said. “But maybe he’s doing the best he can, or even the best he wants to. That’s his choice. Why are you letting your perception of how he’s running his business negatively affect you?”

It’s nice to imagine a world with a well-oiled certification process separating pros from amateurs. Goodness knows, there are industry organizations to which woodworkers can belong and through which they can obtain “official” status.

But even if attaining such status became a legal requirement, it wouldn’t stop people from running their businesses out of basements, garages or trucks.

In business as in life, there are two things between which we need to constantly distinguish: those we can control and those we cannot.

Does the woodworker with a less-than-professional approach help perpetuate the sense among the general population that pretty much anybody can do acceptable work? Absolutely. But t’was ever thus, and it won’t change anytime soon – so why let it paralyze you?

Instead, focus on those customers who know better. Cultivate a client base that appreciates the difference between acceptable work and excellent work. Find customers who value having work built in a shop and installed with minimal disruption to their lives versus getting it built and finished on site and turning their lives upside down for a week or a month.

There will always be people who are willing to run their companies on a shoestring and barely survive from job to job. If you’re smart, you won’t allow their practices to affect yours one iota.

Questions for Tony?

Got a question? An experience you’d like some feedback on? Send your e-mail to anthonynoel@suddenlink.net. Please put “Ask Tony” in the subject line. Even if your question is not used in the magazine, Tony will do his best to respond personally via e-mail. Because CWB reaches the desks of company owners and managers, we gladly preserve questioners’ anonymity upon request.

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