Everyone has their own private hell, a place where monsters hide under the bed or in the dark corners of the closet down the hall, patiently waiting for just the right moment to strike. It may be a different place for each of us, filled with all manner of dark images and demons. But, regardless of where or what it is, the anxiety that accompanies a trip through that particular neighborhood is something almost all of us can relate to. It would probably be safe to assume that each profession has more than its share of such places, but it would be safer to assume that owning your own business has more!
When the number of Schneiders at Schneider’s Automotive began to dwindle, I discovered there were even more such places than I had been aware of — something I’ll bet most of you single-proprietors have known from the beginning. You see, when there were four of us here we could divide up our private terrors accordingly. Now, they’re all mine.
Frankly, after the last few years of dealing with the demons, a number of them have become quite familiar and, like many things we become accustomed to, they aren’t nearly as frightening as they once were. In fact, I believe I might actually miss a couple if suddenly they disappeared.
There is one I’m sure I wouldn’t miss, however. One I would be just as happy to see disappear all together and that is the private hell I associate with hiring and firing. To paraphrase an old drill instructor of mine, “There may be many like it, but this one is mine!”
I don’t know how you feel about hiring or firing, but just thinking about it ties my stomach in a knot. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with “having” employees. In fact, I like just about everyone associated with our business. I have a problem with the process of finding them, and ultimately even more of a problem when it comes time to lose one of them.
Why? Because even under the best of circumstances it’s a crap shoot … and, I’m not a very good gambler.
It isn’t that I don’t like to gamble: I do. But, I’m a much better winner than I am a “good” loser. Consequently, hiring and firing are the two things I dread most about being a business owner … next to paying taxes, of course!
There is something inherently mystical about trying to determine if some other adult human being would be willing, able or inclined to join their wants, needs and expectations with yours; something magical about the trust that must flow in both directions to make that kind of a union a success. You could argue that there is a science to it, and there is, at least to some degree. But, if you ask me, in the end it’s one part intuition, one part due diligence and five parts luck!
The good news is the longer I am in business, the more I understand all the elements involved in ensuring that the business remains strong and successful for everyone involved, the less it seems I have to worry about it. That may be one of the most powerful reasons for hating it: the fact that I don’t have to do it all that often. Certainly, nowhere near as often as we found ourselves hiring and firing in the past. We work hard to make better choices today. And, that means understanding the relationship that exists between employer and employee on a deeper level. We work hard to identify the best tools available to help us in those choices as well, even though we realize that in the end no matter what those instruments tell us, the decision will always be ours and ours alone — in this case, mine and mine alone.
I find myself in the middle of that process right now; drawn here against my will. I have one key employee moving out of state, one leaving the country and one just about to leave. One is leaving by choice, one by necessity and one because they fail to recognize the impact an apparent lack of interest can have on their professional future.
Part of it certainly has to do with a volatile and unpredictable Southern California economy, but realistically, people coming and going, businesses shrinking and growing, constantly improving the quality of your staff is the very nature of a dynamic enterprise.
It would just seem a lot more bearable if everything didn’t always seem to happen at the same time or in the middle of some other catastrophe! But, how often does that happen? Certainly, not this time.
This time I found myself in the hunt for just the right individual to fill a critical, back-office position in our company — a position that has become even more critical as my mother chooses to be less and less involved. Any hunt starts with a deep and complete understanding of exactly what it is you are hunting for. In this case, it was a deep and complete understanding of the tasks that needed to be accomplished: what they are, why they are important, how they get done, how they must be documented and why. For want of a better term: a job description. But, how often have you run across a job description that actually described the job?
Could you capture what you do in a job description? And, would it — could it — actually do justice to what you do every day, day in and day out? We’ve borrowed some, written others and purchased the rest … But, do they work? You tell me …
Once you know what must be done, how and why, you can begin to create a kind of jigsaw puzzle of personality, skill, ability and temperament appropriate for the task(s) at hand. Next you must formulate a public notice of some kind announcing both the nature of the opportunity and a general, yet enticing smorgasbord of benefits that will hopefully result in reasons for individuals to respond.
Over the years, we’ve put together a pretty impressive collection of job descriptions as well as a number of “instruments” designed to align the person and their inherent skills and abilities with the tasks required for a successful and fulfilling experience. If that sounds a bit cynical or sarcastic, it is; and I know it is. You see, while I use these instruments and they are revealing, they are no more indicative of a person’s performance in the workplace than a high SAT score guarantees graduating in the top 10% of your college class, or a high LSAT score guarantees you a seat on the Supreme Court!
That’s one of the many reasons all this drives me nuts! It’s like trying to find a life-partner without the benefit of a proper courtship.
I can’t list everything we’ve tried over the years to ensure the choice we finally get to make is the right one. We’ve advertised in the food section of the local paper to try and get the attention of the wives of disappointed and disgruntled technicians. We’ve tried the classifieds in both the local and the regional papers. We even tried the classifieds in the trade magazines and on automotive specific job sites on the Internet. We’ve bought countless lunches and dinners for job applicants and their significant others. We’ve tried the “Puppy Test” — inviting them to the shop and paying them for the day just to see how they behave around broken cars in a real-world environment. We’ve done background checks, reference checks and drug tests — just about everything you can think of, all of which is expensive when you calculate the time and money spent just looking for and then finding a new hire. Especially when, more often than not, you can still wind up scratching your head wondering how in the hell you could have been so wrong! But, that expense is nothing when compared to the cost of training that individual or the emotional toll that disrupting the normal rhythm and flow of your business can take on you.
The only thing I can think of that might be worse is trying to fill more than one position at any given moment and that’s where we find ourselves right now. We just found a potential match for the back office position we needed to fill. She started yesterday, and so far (8+ hours) things are looking pretty good. Her test scores indicated that she might be better suited for “other” things, however. But, then again when my wife was tested in high school, her test scores indicated that she wasn’t “college material,” and instead might consider a career in automotive technology (The truth!).
Nevertheless, she went to college, married a technician and graduated on the dean’s list, with honors. So much for testing!
When all is said and done, nothing you do can or will accurately measure attitude or desire. Frank, my service advisor, and the “right” choice a number of years ago, said it better than I ever could as he was trying to articulate how he felt about what he has chosen to do with his life. He told me that in the end, how you approach what you do is the difference between a job and a career. And, it manifests itself in the dignity and pride with which the professionals in our trade, or any other for that matter, carry themselves.
I guess in the end what we’re all searching for is the rare individual who is either looking for that professional career, or better yet, someone who has already found it. It is the difference between being a professional and just taking up space on the job site; the difference between hiring heaven and hiring hell.