CWB October 2001

Those First Two Months

The first month or two of an employee's tenure determines how successful his or her career with your company will be.

By Anthony Noel

This month, I would like to follow up in greater depth on a statement included near the end of last month's column: that being sure to take new hires under the wings of trusted, more experienced employees is critical to new employees' success.

As we have looked at the process of developing competency standards and establishing levels for employees who satisfy those standards, we have stressed that it is up to managers to determine what competencies and abilities an employee must possess. And because you, as an owner or manager, are setting the standards, it is incumbent upon you to help your employees attain and surpass those standards.

Why is that? After all, many businesses have been content to bring on new workers, give them a probation period, and, if they can't cut it, let them go as readily as they hired them. By establishing standards and competencies and making them clear to new hires, aren't you already putting forth more than your share of the effort needed to make a new employee successful?

Twenty years ago, the answer might have been "yes." But in case you haven't noticed, times have changed. The difficulty of finding interested - let alone qualified - employees is an increasingly common complaint among owners and managers of woodworking businesses.

Though our long-vibrant economy has slowed down, the labor problem is destined to continue for a couple of reasons: (1) woodworking is not thought of as a "high-tech" or intellectually challenging field among young workers; and (2) the sluggishness of the high-tech economy has only shifted employees into different fields, not left them unemployed.

Despite the slowdown, there are still more jobs than workers willing to do them. That word - "willing" - is the central issue and is the reason we cannot pretend that establishing performance guidelines and turning new hires loose in hopes they will meet them is enough.

When you hire someone, you are making an investment. Beyond the obvious outlays of salary and benefits, you are investing your company's time, specifically, the time of other employees. There's no sense pretending that you and/or your employees won't have to spend some time training this person.

The question is whether that training will be passive or active, whether it will be done grudgingly or positively. In short, whether it conveys to the new employee your genuine interest in his or her success, or an attitude of "hey, it's up to you to figure things out."

You are interested in your new hire's success, aren't you? I hope so, because there is no easier way to throw money out the window than by welcoming a steady stream of new employees in the front door, only to unceremoniously show them the back door a few months later. Yet many companies do it. The stupidity of doing it in our industry - one with a labor pool that is already far too shallow - cannot be overstated.

The time you invest in establishing performance standards, therefore, is just the beginning. Once you have them, the real key is in implementing them, along with the training your employees will need to attain them. Step-by-step, that process should look something like this:

* Step 1: Explaining the process: Upon hiring a new employee, the owner himself or, in larger companies, the HR manager, should take the time to review the company's performance standards, along with the employee designation and pay level that achievement of each of those standards brings with it. This should happen before the employee even sets foot on the shop floor, and the manager doing the review should watch the hire's eyes closely. (Hint: If they glaze over, you are doing a bad job!)

Remember, you have someone here with a new job. They should be excited about it, and this is your golden opportunity to capitalize on their enthusiasm. So your review of the standards and employee levels should be a mixture of information and motivation. (I strongly recommend a few practice sessions with coworkers before actually trying your presentation out on a new hire.)

* Step 2: Assigning a trainer: After you have thoroughly reviewed performance standards and competencies with your new hire, it's time to assign him or her to a trainer in the shop.

Give some thought to this choice. At any given time, every business has an employee or two with bad attitudes, maybe more (and yes, that's usually your fault, Mr. or Ms. Owner). I hope I don't need to state the obvious in regards to choosing such a person as a trainer.

Instead, assign your new hire to someone who knows good work and proves it by consistently producing it. The person you choose should be briefed before the new hire's first day, and it must be explained to the trainer that they won't be expected to meet their normal production requirements during the 30 or 60 days that the new hire is assigned to them. They must still produce, of course, but you will make an allowance for the fact that they are now filling a dual role.

Make it clear, too, that the new hire will be their shadow, and that you understand there will be times when one or both of them will become frustrated. Encourage the trainer to watch for the often-subtle warning signs of this and, when they see them, to tell the new hire to take a 10-minute break. Instruct the trainer to come to you for assistance at these times. Trainers need trainers, too.

* Step 3: "The only stupid question...": Few positions we find ourselves in during our lifetimes are more intimidating than that of being a new employee. The thought on the minds of most new employees is, "God, please don't let me look like an idiot in front of all these new people."

The more sensitive you, your trainer and your entire workforce are to this fact, the better your training program. Over the years, I have found one particular statement to be invaluable in allaying a new employee's fears about embarrassment: "The only stupid question is the one you don't ask."

Whether you adopt this phrase or come up with something else, the point is that a new hire must be consistently encouraged to forget about what he thinks he "should" know, and to find out what he has to find out in order to do the job right the first time. More than any other facet of employee training, cultivating an employee's ability to admit they don't know something is crucial. And you do that by making it okay not to know.

Next month, we'll look at the final three steps in the process.


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