- Chapter 33 -
SEEKING POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES
he best point at which time and effort should be expended with regard to a new employee is in choosing a good one to begin with, not reforming someone's character after that person has joined your organization.
I heard an interesting conversation between two men in which one was describing all the things he had done with regard to a certain employee to get him to perform better.
His friend said, "You are working on the wrong man."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You should be working on his grandfather."
"Mark Twain said that to reform a man, you have to start with his grandfather, and you don't have time to look up his grandfather. You have the wrong person for the job."
Don't settle for less than the best you can get
A young school headmaster once asked an old pro headmaster, "I know what to do with a good teacher, and I know what to do with a bad teacher, but what do you do with a mediocre one?" To which the reply was, "You endure him." What a pity! It's bad enough for the headmaster to have to endure him or her, but what about the students?
So frequently in organizations I have observed a person performing, on a scale of 1 to 10, at "7", or even "6", not bad enough to terminate, and not good enough to perform well. Sometimes this happens when an employer takes the view, "He does not seem to be the ideal person for the position, but let's give him a try, and we can always make a change if he does not prove out." Frequently such an employee "on trial" turns out to be little more than a poor performer, but the employer is reluctant to make the change. It is hard to let a person go who appears to be trying and who does not realize that his performance is mediocre. A foreman of a candy factory once told me, "You can't tell people they are not doing a good job. They just don't see it. You can have two women standing next to each other and one wraps twice as many boxes as the other, but the second doesn't even know it."
It is even more difficult to dislodge a less-than-qualified employee, after the employer gets to know the wife and children. Another mistake results from a situation when someone has been hired with the attitude on the part of the employer, "He is not ideal for the spot, but it is only a temporary position." It is surprising how many temporary positions become permanent.
In the apartment house business, I came across the situation, similar to the following, several times: There was an excellent Resident Manager of a 108-unit apartment named Hazel. She called up to say that she had lost her assistant, but there was a woman who lived there named Martha whom she wanted to hire in that capacity. Even though I had never met Martha, I had faith in Hazel, and for the position of an assistant, I gave my approval. At a later date, Hazel called up to say that her husband had been transferred to Kansas City, and she was distressed about the necessity of giving up her position. It was fortunate that Martha was there, she added, because her assistant would make a fine manager. Obviously, in the meantime, the two women had become good friends, and it was logical for Hazel to sponsor Martha.
Even though I had never met Martha, it was very tempting to promote her on the spot, based on the reomendation. She knew where the checkbook was, had been working with the other employees, and was familiar with filling out the rent roll. Also, hiring her would have relieved me from the tedious task of finding a replacement. However, there is a big difference in being an assistant and being the manager, and experience taught me it was a mistake to take the easy way out. Certainly Martha should have been given more consideration that any other prospect, and was, but, in the end, should only have been given the job as a result of her qualifications, compared to those of other potential candidates. When all of the factors for what made a good manager were taken into consideration and there was someone with superior qualifications, I owed it to my investors to hire the best person possible. From experience, although there were some happy exceptions, I found that the typical Martha turned out to be a "6" or a "7" and there was a "9" out there, or maybe a "9-1/2". It was worth the effort to get someone with the highest rating possible.
We followed the procedure of putting ads soliciting applications for the position of Resident Manager in newspapers in six different cities, directed to a blind box number at the newspaper so as not to identify ourselves. Why six different cities? It turns out that Resident Manager types are rather mobile, and the best manager may come from elsewhere. The outstanding manager we found for Forest Royale Apartments in Hattiesburg, MS, answered an ad in her Baton Rouge, LA newspaper. On other occasions, we ran simultaneous ads, differently expressed, one seeking a couple and another a single person.
By far the best applicants we got were women, either widows or divorcees, because in our country today, there are thousands of women from the approximate ages of 25 to 70 who either have to work or want to work, and have not been trained for a specific profession. What a great reservoir of talent this is! Many of these women, after reasonable training, made excellent Resident Managers, capable and loyal. In this field, as in many, basic capability is far more important than experience. And frequently, I discovered that experienced managers had some bad habits picked up at previous jobs.
To locate a Resident Manager, we often received as many as 140 applications, and talked by telephone to the 20 best prospects. Then we reserved a motel room in the city involved and spent two days personally interviewing the top 10. This is a great deal of work and expense, but the results paid off. I have been asked, "Why a motel room rather than using the apartment?" Having strangers troop in and out of the apartment area unnerves the tenants, and in this business, you do not want unnerved tenants.
One technique which I sometimes used in making the employee-search more effective was to begin by sorting out the best applicants. Then I sent each of them a detailed, three-page description of the nature of the job, its requirements and its positive features. I asked them if they were interested, to write back. This eliminated some who had decided that being a Resident Manager was not for them, and the remaining ones, who did respond affirmatively, were real prospects. It was not only a good screening process, but it shortened interviews because almost all of their potential questions had been answered by the description I had sent.
There is something I feel very strongly about, and that is the moral obligation to respond to every applicant in a courteous manner, even when you have used a blind box and they do not know who you are. Such an ad raises peoples' hopes, and it is unfair to let them dangle. I have talked to numbers of those 140 people, and been surprised to find how many were meeting the postman each day or waiting for the phone to ring in the hopes of getting the job. The sad thing is that the less capable and the less educated they were, the greater was their desperation, and therefore the greater was their hope.
The compassionate course of action is to reply to all the rejected candidates, with a simple message, perhaps a post card, such as, "Thank you for your answer to our recent ad for a resident manager. We read your application with interest, but while recognizing your qualifications, we have chosen someone who fits our needs to an exceptional degree. We wish you the best." There is no need to identify yourself, because you are not inviting continuing correspondence.
The question described above as to whether or not Martha "deserved" the position as manager because of previous service brings up an important point. No one "deserves" a job. It is not a reward; it is a function of performance. Certainly someone who has performed well in a previous position and has been employed for some time deserves consideration, even special consideration taking into account that it demonstrates loyalty and loyalty is important. But the paramount point is whether or not the individual is the best one for the job. A supervisor or employer is charged with filling each job with the person who can perform better than other possible candidates.
For example, Bill is on the assembly line. He has worked for the company 10 years and has rarely been absent. He is well liked by his fellow employees, and was "Employee of the Month" last May. The position of foreman opens up and it is only natural to conclude that Bill "deserves" the promotion. But would Bill be the best man for the job? Is he such a friendly fellow that he could not exert authority as a foreman? These are considerations for the employer if he is to maintain the management team most likely to achieve efficient production.
Hiring the Disadvantaged
This is a different question from the fact that there are deserving people in our world who are disadvantaged in one way or another, such as being handicapped physically, and finding opportunities for them to work within the limit of their capabilities is a societal obligation.
At our cake and candy factory, Tasso Plantation Foods, we hired some qualified people from the Desire Street Housing Project and anyone familiar with that poverty pocket in New Orleans knows that almost all of the residents there could be classified as disadvantaged, economically and socially.
It was a source of great satisfaction to me when, thirty years later, I talked to the pharmacist, Melvin Thompson, at the K&B Drug Store on Magazine Street. He had come from a different area of the city than the Project, but he was an ex-employee of Tasso Plantation Foods, of which I was co-owner. He told me that he had earned enough money at our factory to put himself through Xavier University and become a pharmacist and that his brother, who also worked there, had been able to graduate from Southern University. Two of our ex-employees became famous black musicians, but I do not know how making giant lollipops contributed to their careers unless it paid for music lessons.
A summary of suggestions for hiring an employee is:
- Do not make an easy choice of someone on hand when there might be a better person for the job out there.
- Solicit as many applications as possible by soliciting widely.
- Spend the money necessary for the search. The investment is worth it if it brings in the best candidate possible.
- Use every technique possible to screen applicants.