Lots of components make up a retail store: a building, inventory, products, policies, systems, décor, organization, marketing, and a thousand more details. But none of these is as important or as defining as its people.
A great store can only be built by hiring great employees. Their quality is visible in every aspect of the store’s facilities, methods, and operation—indeed the store is the product of the people.
No other element is as critical and no other element can make up for a store’s people.
We get this backward, don’t we?
When a job is open, we’re eager to get a person onboard and get the work going again. We tend to assume applicants have the same values we do, and because we have little experience with the various problems that afflict many of them, we’re unsuspecting and miss the clues.
Once we’ve hired them and invested time and effort in training them, we hesitate to fix our mistakes. We try to salvage employees with coaching and more training, even though we’ve learned it’s almost always futile.
We’d do better to reverse this tendency—hiring employees slowly and carefully, and replacing them immediately when our mistakes become apparent.
The group of people in the job market at any time is not at all a representative sample of the general population. It’s skewed to the lowest quality of the workforce and heavily weighted with undesirables and unemployables.
Many candidates have obvious flaws such as poor appearance or communication skills. They stay in the pool long term and apply for many jobs.
Some of the rest look good but have underlying flaws (poor work habits, psychological imbalances, drug or alcohol dependencies, criminal histories, etc.). Careful companies don't choose them, so these applicants tend to stay in the pool for some time. They’re occasionally hired by companies that don't do their homework but they’re typically back in the pool many times.
Of those without the above flaws, some would qualify as adequate but are lacking in the focus and drive of a good employee. They would show up and do the required work, but contribute little of what makes a company outstanding.
A few really good candidates go through the pool but they're usually hired quickly—sometimes by companies that are just lucky, but most often by companies that have great hiring processes, do extensive homework, and choose carefully. These candidates aren't in the pool long and typically don't come back to it at all.
An extensive and inconvenient application process discourages the most desirable candidates—those who already have jobs but might consider another opportunity. The candidates most willing to navigate a complex process are those who have lost their jobs, often with good reason, and are in dire need of another; they have ready résumés and plenty of time for long applications and appointments.
Requirements such as applying by mail and submitting a résumé make the applicant stack more manageable but are likely to cull the rare gem we’re looking for. To attract that prize we have to make inquiring and applying easy.
In advertising we can include an attractive job description, specify the pay, and encourage inquiries by phone or email. Yes, this means lots of inquiries to deal with. But an employee can sort through them with a few quick questions, getting more information from the better ones, and encouraging the best to come talk.
A candidate who doesn’t have integrity is unemployable. Skills, abilities, knowledge, experience, and intelligence only make him more dangerous as they’re soon turned against us.
Hiring employees with criminal records is particularly risky. We’re sometimes tempted to believe that a person who once made a mistake has learned a lesson and won’t repeat the error—indeed many candidates who’ve been in trouble are amazingly convincing. And it’s natural to want to help a person who’s trying to help himself.
But few people are caught the first time they commit a crime. Most work their way up from petty to more serious crimes, and are caught and convicted only after crime has become a way of life.
Background checks and previous job references aren’t just smart in hiring employees, they’re indispensable in protecting our customers, our companies, our employees, and ourselves.
We sometimes “fall in love” with candidates we interview, especially if they’re friendly, make a nice appearance, or have useful experience.
First impressions are important in retail but they’re only part of the story. All applicants have strengths and faults, advantages and detriments, and our job in an interview is to uncover them.
Our best tools are subjective, open-ended questions that require the candidate to expose his attitudes and philosophies. We should ask the questions as casually as possible, then let him do the talking—don’t help him with the answers.
When we find something that merits pursuing, we should ask for elaboration: "That's interesting. Tell me more."
Lots of candidates talk a good game, but talk and performance are often inversely related. Experience has taught many what should be done, but that doesn’t mean they have the drive and motivation to do it. Even trying a potential employee out doesn’t guarantee long-term performance, as anyone can push oneself to uncharacteristic performance for short periods.
The most reliable indicator of how a candidate will perform is how he has performed previously. If he was focused and driven in his last job he will almost surely be the same in the next. Jobs change but personalities don’t.
(Past performance is less reliable when two jobs call for opposite personality traits. While a great accountant might make a good engineer, he probably wouldn’t be a great salesman. And the world has yet to see a good salesman who could be a good accountant.)
Most job applicants are skeptical of sales commissions and many completely disregard them as part of compensation.
Some envision working days or weeks only to find the job doesn’t pay what they need to live. Others worry about an occasional paycheck insufficient to meet bills. And most are familiar with cold-call sales jobs in which only extreme compensation can provide sufficient motivation to push past hostile receptions.
But commissions are also one of the few opportunities a job applicant has to earn more than market wages—indeed many commissioned employees earn multiples of what’s available in hourly jobs. A good commission system offers a hard worker the opportunity to be paid in direct proportion to his efforts and effectiveness.
Nevertheless attracting good applicants to a commission sales job, regardless of its potential, is often challenging. Showing them the earnings of current employees can help reassure them, but in most cases we also have to offer a guarantee, at least for an initial period.
It’s counterproductive to talk an applicant into a job he isn’t suited for or might not like. He’ll discover the truth soon enough and if it’s not as expected he’ll quit; both the company and the applicant will have wasted time and effort.
It’s more practical in hiring employees to describe the job thoroughly and honestly, including all of its challenges, occasional disappointments and unpleasant situations (e.g., upset customers, unexpected schedules, conflicting priorities, stress, competitive pressures, etc.) If our description raises concerns, it’s better to discuss them now than to discover them later.