How to Become an Employer of Choice


Tips for employee recruitment and retention.




According to the results of this magazine's Project Millennium survey of the woodworking industry (December 1998), one-third of managers list employee recruitment and retention as their greatest concern heading into the next century. Employee recruitment and retention received nearly twice as many "votes" as the second top concern identified in the survey, the economy at 18%.

Considering the strength of the U.S. economy and the nation's very low unemployment level, it is not altogether surprising that many wood products companies are struggling to find and keep good help. This issue has surfaced repeatedly over the years, especially in times when the housing industry has been booming, adding further challenges for manufacturers of furniture, millwork and kitchen cabinets to supply the increased demand.

If employee recruitment and retention is one of your problems, I think you need to consider merging your recruitment and retention efforts into one cohesive program that will better help you attract and hold on to good people. Your mission is to become an "employer of choice."

Where to Start

If you are having a difficult time hiring good people and are experiencing heavy turnover, you obviously need to find out why. I have found that people who voluntarily leave a company are in a unique position to help identify that company's weaknesses. Since they no longer have a threat of reprisals, they may be more honest than those currently employed.

First, direct your Human Resource Management department to send a letter to those who voluntarily quit in the last year thanking them for their service and asking them to fill out an enclosed survey. Design the survey so it is easy for them to express exactly why they chose to leave your company. Enclose a self-addressed envelope and $2 bill (your bank can help you get them) for their trouble.

Next, begin conducting exit interviews to uncover reasons why people leave your company. There may be some sour grapes, so follow up with the mail survey six months later and see if you get the same answers. In the process, you might get lucky enough to bring a good ex-employee back into the fold who has discovered that the grass was not greener down the street. He might look at the survey as an opportunity for a second chance.

Project a Good Image

Is your plant considered a "good place to work?" How your business is perceived in the community at large, especially in a smaller town, is the most powerful force in steering people toward or away from your doors. Unfortunately, it really doesn't matter if the perception is correct or not because this is one of those cases where perception is reality. A poor company image can kill your recruitment and retention efforts.

One way to find out what your community thinks of your business is to send out a mail survey to a cross section of residences and businesses. I have also found it helpful to have informal discussions with business contacts over lunch. You will be surprised how much useful information you will gather if you only try.

Improving the Workplace

Let me share some practical recruitment and retention strategies that I found to be successful at a furniture company where I served as general manager. This company succeeded in becoming an employer of choice in the community -- overcoming the recruitment efforts of larger companies that paid higher wages.

Here's some of what we did:

* We developed a comprehensive new-employee orientation program, complete with video and handbook. This did not last just a few hours on the employee's first day, but continued for several months on a regular basis. The supervisor and the human resources people each sat down with the new employee and discussed any questions or concerns.

* We actively solicited and encouraged involvement in making suggestions on how we could do things differently, such as improving product quality, reducing manufacturing costs or making our shop a better place to work. Each idea that was discussed and those that were accepted were handed over to someone, or a group of people, empowered to implement the suggestions.

* We conducted a company-wide survey to find out what the employees liked about the company and what they did not like. One of the biggest complaints we learned about was the poor quality of the food in our vending machines. This was easily resolved by changing our vendors.

What Do Employees Really Want in a Job?

Recent employee interviews, exit interviews and focus groups by Human Resource Management gurus such as John Sullivan, head of San Francisco State University's HRM program, have revealed the following list of worker wants:

* Honest, frequent, two-way communication such as being able to walk up to a boss and offer constructive criticism or new ideas.

* Challenging, exciting work.

* Knowing that their work makes a difference and to hear what effect their work has outside the organization.

* Appreciation for work with recognition and rewards.

* Opportunities to grow and learn.

* Having some degree of control, such as control over job responsibilities as found in workcell concepts, plus some work schedule flexibility.

* Fair compensation and benefits.

* We started a monthly company newsletter. One person was given the job of editor as one of her primary responsibilities. The publication was not an afterthought and was published on company time and came out on schedule every month. The editor spent time taking photographs of those receiving special recognition for innovative ideas or for achieving a special anniversary, like 10 years with the company. When someone retired, it was treated like a big deal in the newsletter. The newsletter was mailed to every home so family members and friends could share the company's big "news."

* We would throw pizza lunches each month to celebrate everyone having a birthday that month. This was a great vehicle for bringing employees together from the various departments, giving them a chance to feel part of the greater whole.

* We held an annual company picnic in which employees, their families and other guests were invited. This is an excellent, relaxing way to allow management and production workers to get to know each other better.

Improving Your Company's Image

The following are some of the community relations strategies which I have had a hand in facilitating over the past three decades:

* Always encourage middle and upper management people to get involved with community service and civic organizations. If your employees are involved in the community, it reflects positively on the company.

* At one company I worked for, we conducted an open house every two years complete with refreshments and guided tours of the plant. This was done on a weekend when the plant was not running and not only gave area residents a chance to see what we do, but also offered an opportunity for employees to bring in family and friends. You can boost your attendance by sending an announcement to your local newspaper, radio and cable TV.

* Sponsoring men's and women's softball teams is a great way to support your employees and the community. If you are not doing this already, then you are missing out on one of the most cost-effective tools available to promote your company and improve recruitment and retention.

* Contribute to deserving local charities, typically those with broad appeal.

* Send press releases of newsworthy events and personnel doings to your local newspapers, such as winning a safety award or significant new product launch.

You probably have used the cliche: "Our employees are our greatest asset." If you really believe that, make sure it shows. Now is the time to make things happen ... to make your business a company of choice.


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