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Why Training Should be a Priority in all Businesses

Why Training Should be a Priority in all BusinessesOne of the projects I enjoy working on the most is creating training and development programs for clients. We create training programs that cover a broad range of topics such as every day work procedures, compliance issues like anti-harassment and customized leadership development programs. We find that businesses who make training a priority have higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Employees want to be developed. This has been a hot topic over the last few years and with all the debate, I think the general population understands that developing employees makes them more loyal and less likely to leave. This is opposite the old school of thought that developing them would only help them take those skills to competitors.

In our work which is focused on small businesses, training and development is rarely a priority. Not because the business leaders think it isn’t important, they think they don’t have the time or budget to produce it. Additionally, they think the training has to be robust or have tons of bells and whistles. Rather than put something together that they think is mediocre, they put nothing together at all.

The reality is none of this is true. Any training is better than none. As long as the training relays the message needing to be conveyed in a clear and concise manner, then it doesn’t have to be fancy or have any extra added bells and whistles.

And the best part of all is that for something to be considered development, it doesn’t have to be formal training. It could be something as simple as a book club or a Slack channel where tips and tricks can be shared. It could be a 10 minute opening to every meeting where one employees trains everyone else on something of importance.

I have a small business client who needed more of their employees to speak Spanish. A larger and larger amount of their customers were Spanish speakers and it was becoming less feasible to have one or two employees translate all the time. The leader asked about bringing Spanish speakers in to teach the class or sending employees to evening classes, but both option would take too long to get everyone trained and would be rather costly in the end. I suggested that I create a training program for conversational Spanish in collaboration with the Spanish speaking employees. Had we sent employees for training or brought an instructor in, they would have started with the basics and worked their way into conversational. By allowing us to create the training program on our own, we are going to focus on what the employees need to know most first and then let their language skills grow from there.

We have just started this project and it’s going to be a long one, but I’m really excited about how it is going to turn out….and more importantly, so are the employees. The Spanish speaking employees are relieved that the business is at least attempting to get them help. The non-Spanish speakers are very excited to learn a new language, something they can use not just at work, but in their personal life as well.

Training opportunities and solutions are all around for the leader who is willing to get creative. They do not have to be complicated or created by a trained facilitator. Anything that develops the minds and skills of employees counts.

Ongoing training and development is becoming a competitive component of recruiting and hiring. Businesses who do not put some emphasis on it in the future may have a hard time finding and retaining the talent they need.

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Employee Performance Plans that Actually Work

Employee Performance Plans that Actually WorkI don’t know a single leader who enjoys dealing with employee performance issues. Few things are more frustrating in a business setting than an employee who is either not performing or who has behavioral issues. It is an area where experience doesn’t really make it easier.

Yet, every leader, at some point or another, has an employee they have to coach and discipline.

Progressive disciplinary policies are common among organizations of all sizes. Most employee performance issues do not warrant immediate termination so policies are put in place to give employees an opportunity to improve. These policies vary but they usually have multiple steps that could include verbal warnings, performance improvement plans, written warnings, suspension, and eventual termination.

Out of all steps I believe the performance improvement plan may be the most crucial. If done well, and early, a performance improvement plan can map out the exact performance or behavior that the employer is not happy with, outline the behavior that is expected and give the employee a clear path to improvement. Unfortunately many performance improvement plans fall short of being worth the paper they are written on.

Here are our guidelines for performance improvement plans that we think actually help improve performance.

Timing:
The biggest mistake leaders make when trying to improve performance is waiting too long. The longer poor performance or bad behavior goes on, the harder it is to fix. By the time the employee is told about the issue, the leader is so frustrated they have no patience left to try to help the employee overcome. All employee issues should be dealt with as soon as they creep up. For this reason we recommend employees receive verbal coaching as often as the opportunity allows. In weekly one on ones or regular performance meetings, employees should be cautioned about any issue that may create problems down the road if they continue.

Then, after that same issue has been coached on multiple occasions, it’s time to get serious. If regular performance discussions are happening, the time between first coaching and performance plan should be relatively short.

Complete Plan:
The second biggest mistake that leaders make when delivering performance improvement plans is only delivering half the plan – the employee portion. Leaders sit an employee down, tell them what they are doing wrong, tell them to fix it and ask them to sign the form. This leaves the employee feeling as though they are on their own and probably have one foot out the door so why bother even trying.

A complete performance improvement plan follows this outline:

Description, with recent examples, of undesired behavior.
Description of desired behavior.
Why desired behavior is important to the business.
How leader is going to help employee improve.
Milestones to improvement.
Next steps and check in dates.
Consequences for not improving.
Employee opportunity to comment.

The piece in italics is the most crucial. Hopefully all leaders want employees to improve. If so, they should be willing to do their part to help employees turn the issue around. Including this in the documentation provides accountability for the leader to ensure they are offering support and assistance as needed.

The Discussion:
Discussing performance issues with employees really is an art form. I’m not convinced there is only one right way to do it. I think it depends on the employee/leader relationship, the communication style of both and the egregiousness of the issue to be discussed. Here’s what I do think should be consistent regardless of style – preparation. Nothing is worse for an employee than feeling like they have just been the victim of a drive by where their leader vomited a bunch of bad news on them and then left.

Leaders should take time to think about the personality of the employee and how they will best receive the information. They should think about framing their words in a way that the employee will be able to hear and understand what is being communicated while, and this is key, being motivated to fix it. The discussion should take as long as is needed for the employee to walk out of the room focused on the issue at hand and understanding what they need to do to fix it.

Dealing with performance issues is a necessary task for most leaders. They are best dealt with swiftly and directly before they grow into something larger than they ever needed to be. Done correctly, they can often steer employees onto a better path, and if they don’t, at least the leader can say they tried to help and the onus for failure lies with the employee.

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Small Thinking that Holds Small Businesses Back

Our motto at Acacia HR Solutions is that small businesses can do anything big businesses can do – they only have to know how to scale. Often, when I say that to people I get a nod in agreement. I’ve learned however, that nodding in agreement and believing are two very different things.

I spoke to a group of HR practitioners at the California HR conference last week. I had an inordinate amount of small business HR leaders in the room. I consider small business to be 250 employees or less. Most of these practitioners were HR Departments of One or leaders with only an admin or one other support person not solely dedicated to HR. One of the slides in the presentation talks about technology and how lack of technology for small business is no longer a valid excuse for not functioning like a business partner. While the small business market is still an under served market in the HR tech space, it’s so much better than it was even 10 years ago. With freemium and monthly subscription options, there is tech out there that even the smallest of budgets can afford.

Whenever I say this in this presentation, the questions immediately come back asking me for a list of resources. I push back and ask why they haven’t researched any of this themselves and the answer often remains the same.

We assumed there wasn’t anything out there we could afford.

This, and two other beliefs held by small businesses, hold leaders back from being able to serve the business in the way they should. The idea that small businesses can’t do the same things as big businesses is rubbish. They may not be able to do it as fast or at the same level, but that’s not the same as not doing it. Further, small businesses often don’t need to do things at the same level as big business because doing so would be overkill. A performance management system with 18 steps and triggers using artificial intelligence is just not necessary in a 72 person firm.

Small businesses get stuck because they believe there is nothing they can do until they get bigger. Until they have a larger budget. Until they have more resources. Let’s explore three beliefs based on this idea that hold small businesses back, starting with the one I already mentioned.

Lack of Budget Means No Technology/Resources
As mentioned, HR tech available to small businesses is growing. There are companies in nearly every category; payroll, ATS, HCM, documentation and more that either cater solely to small businesses or are lowering their minimum employee numbers allowing small businesses to buy at a much earlier stage. I will be doing an entire series or ebook (yet to be determined) on HR Tech for small businesses to be released around the time of the HR Technology conference (join our mailing list below to receive those posts before they go public).

The same is true for resources. I will often have HR leaders from a 150 employee business reach out and say, “we probably can’t afford your help, but I wanted to ask anyway” only find out that they can in fact, afford our services. Depending on need, and the fact that we work solely in this space, we can usually work within the budget available. There are resources like us available for small businesses that are affordable.

Because We Are Small, We Don’t Need X
In speaking to a potential client recently, I went over how our services provides small businesses a complete HR team. That is, working with us is like having a Chief Human Resources Officer, generalist and recruiter on your team. The CFO responded with, “but I don’t think we need all that.” When I explained how it works, he realized he did need all that and actually could afford it.

This way of thinking is the easiest to fall into. I do it myself with my own business. We’re small so I don’t need an ATS, I can just use spreadsheets. We’re small so we don’t need admin support, our (insert random employee here) can handle it.

The reality is being small doesn’t mean you don’t need certain infrastructure and support systems in place. And being small is definitely not a reason to delay building or growing the people side of the business.

Size is a Disadvantage Instead of an Advantage
I hear this one most when discussing recruiting challenges. “We are small so we can’t pay the most and our benefits aren’t that great so we have a hard time hiring.” If you think that your size is a disadvantage, it’s going to be. There are many candidates who want to work in a small business environment. Many who thrive on the chaos of a startup. If leaders focus on the advantages that small businesses offer instead of the negative, their recruiting and retention programs would change forever.

Again I’ll say and forever I’ll stand by the idea that small businesses, can in fact, do anything big businesses can do. I do have to preach to the choir a bit because I catch myself thinking some of these things myself. But I know when I think about what I can do with the budget and resources I have and that are available to me, I can make it happen.

And so can your business.

 

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Pre- and Post-Hire Team Building Ideas for Startups and Small Businesses

team building activities

A make or break factor of all startups and small businesses is the cohesiveness of the teams being built. Whether the organization is starting with just a few or ramping quickly, getting new hires to work together efficiently and effectively is top of mind for leaders. If the team doesn’t jell, the road to success could be a difficult one.

When the teams are small, even the slightest hiccup caused by employees not working well together can create a much larger ripple effect. This can cause time spent on employee relations that could be used getting a product to market. For this reason, it is crucial that leaders are very deliberate, in both the pre- and post-hire process, to create an environment where new team members can get to know one another and begin to work together in a productive way.

In the last 6 years we have facilitated numerous activities geared towards helping teams establish rapport and find the path that helps them work together better. There are activities that we believe are crucial from day one and regardless of team size. These activities work whether you have 10 employees or 10,000.

Pre-Hire
Culture: I realize it seems like a buzz word at this point, but the reality is, leaders have to think about the kind of culture they are trying to build and be deliberate about hiring people that can thrive in that environment. I ask all founders questions around culture in our first meeting. It is likely they have great vision for their product or service, but we need to understand their vision for the work environment as well. Knowing the vision, helps us hire to it.

Pre-Hire Assessments*: The best hiring decisions are ones who take both skill set and intrinsic characteristics into consideration. That is, hiring processes that look as much at personality fit as they do experience. I talked in a recent post about how we use these with clients. This extra step in the interview process can greatly increase the probability that a new hire will be a great all around fit.

Peer Interviews: As much as possible, I encourage clients to include peer interviews as part of the interview process. This means that a candidate will sit with someone who would be their peer should they be hired. While this could be one more formal interview in the process, we find that making it an informal discussion often works better. As we are structuring interview processes for clients, we encourage them to include a meal with peers, typically lunch, that either breaks up the day for all day interviews or follows a more formal session with a leader. This time together gives both parties a chance to determine if there is any initial chemistry and identify any concerns they may have in working together.

Post-Hire
Post-hire I believe there are two crucial components to team building, getting to know you and how do we move forward together. I’ll break both of those down now.

Getting to Know You Typically called Ice Breakers, getting to know you activities are focused on helping new teams get to know one another faster than might typically happen. There is often a lot of talk about these activities and their effectiveness. We have found that when the activities are targeted and not superficial, meaning we go beyond just finding out someones name and title, they can be extremely effective in starting to build camaraderie and find common ground. These activities should be customized to the team and what it is they need to know about one another in order to work together. A few we like are:

Introduce a Partner: partners ask each other five basic questions and then introduce their partner to the group answering those five questions.

Common Ground: a quick activity that starts to find commonalities. Groups of 5-10 are created and given a short window of time to come up with 10 things they all have in common. These should not be generic things (like we all have arms), but specific.

Getting to Know Communication Preferences: a personal favorite of mine since communication, or lack thereof, can make or break a team, this activity asks questions targeted to help team members understand how one communicate and how they like to be communicated to. Answers are then shared.

Myers Briggs*: people resonate with Myers Briggs. Understanding their personality type and the type of those around them is an eye opening experience. It is an amazing getting to know you exercise that dives deeply into the why and how of people. Understanding type and working with people based on their preferences improves team communication and productivity.

Moving Forward Together
After time getting to know one another it is always important to have some activity that gets people thinking about how they will take all of this knowledge, coupled with the mission of the team and work together. Often for us, it means these activities are customized. Understanding what the leader is trying to achieve with the team, coupled with the personalities on the team we customize an activity (ies) that start to build towards that end. Every team is unique and because these activities must have impact, it’s hard to throw a blanket solution out there that works for everyone. I can tell you a few components that all of our activities have.

Tie In…. it may be a tie in to the key values that have just been shared or the mission that was just rolled out or the culture that the leader is building. Whatever it is, the activity has to have a tie in. Doing trust falls are great if you have trust issues (not really but just go with me), if not, they are a waste of time. Team building activity for the sake of having an activity does no one any good. There must be a purpose.

Facilitation great activities are facilitated by individuals who know not only how to administer the activity, but know how to bring it all together, to combat push back and ensure the activity lands the message it is intended to land. The right facilitator can make or break these activities.

A Visual Reminder after the activity people will be energized for a few days. Over time, work and life happens and people will forget the important lessons learned during your time together. For that reason, our activities always provide a visual that can be hung up in the office or kept on an intranet as a constant reminder of the time spent and the outcomes that decided how we were all going to work together going forward.

We often hear from leaders who say they have conducted team building activities and they didn’t work. They are an easy thing to get wrong. The steps and ideas we have outlined here are all part of a very thorough process that ensures the best teams are hired and become productive. In startup and small business life, the alternative can be costly.

Getting this right means less time doing it over. It means that teams are productive faster. It means quickly building a team bond that in startup life, which can be chaotic and uncertain, will be the glue that holds it all together. Small businesses can not afford to not do this. Throwing teams together and hoping for the best rarely works for long. Being deliberate in these areas is a long term strategy for small businesses who think big.

*We are certified in Hogan Assessments and in administering the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

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What You Want Employees to Say When They Leave

Scrolling through LinkedIn lately I’ve seWhat You Want Employees to Say When They Leaveen a number of posts marking someone’s last day with their current company. The post, often of someone moving on to another opportunity, are appreciative of the opportunity they had, grateful for the relationships they forged and overall very positive. The comments on the post from current co-workers and leaders are more of the same. They share their sadness over the person leaving and congratulations for the new opportunity. And every time I see it, I think the same thing.

That’s really the way you want someone to go.

Before the cynics jump in, I completely realize that for every one of those positive exits there are many more negative ones. I know that employees don’t always leave on good terms, but this post is about how you want employees to leave so I’m going to focus on that.

Employees take on new opportunities for all sorts of reasons. Sure the statement about people leaving their leaders is mostly true, but my time spent every week recruiting tells me that often people aren’t looking to leave. They aren’t dissatisfied in their current role, but something intriguing came along and they jumped on it. Many times throughout my day, a person I reached out to with an opportunity will say, “I’m not really looking now, but this does sound interesting”. They then go down the path of pursuing an opportunity not because they are dissatisfied in their current role, but simply because the timing is right for them and the opportunity allows them to move forward in their career or work on something they wouldn’t get the opportunity to in their current role.

Sometimes it isn’t about a poor working relationship with their manager or dissatisfaction with the business, but simply the right opportunity at the right time. And when it is, that employee leaving a positive note on social media about your company is amazing branding. It also may serve as great advertising that a position is open.

As I think about what I would want employees leaving my company to share, a few things come to mind. I want them to share that…

Their decision to leave had nothing to do with leadership or dissatisfaction, but one of opportunity.

They felt supported, challenged and appreciated while working for my company.

They are sad to be leaving so many great colleagues including leadership behind.

If the door were ever open for them to return and the opportunity made sense, they would do so in a heartbeat.

These are the things that speak to people these days. Pay, benefits, flex work and promotional opportunities are always important, but what people gravitate to now are places that check the boxes above. People are more willing to exchange more money for feeling valued. The highest paying environments, that are also the most toxic, are not as appealing as they once were.

I believe statements like this, when employees leave, are powerful. They are also powerful from current employees and the more you can accumulate the better. Now the question of how to make sure this is what employees say is a whole other blog post -or series – or leadership development program. But knowing what we want them to say is a good start.

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Does Your Business Need a Social Media Policy

Does Your Business Need a Social Media PolicyOur team spends a lot of time writing and revising handbooks. Many of our clients come to us with no handbook in place or one that hasn’t been updated in several years. For this process we have a standard list of policies that should be in every handbook and then we have a few policies we ask the client to consider based on business, industry or culture.

One policy that usually generates conversation is the social media policy. Our clients usually find themselves in one of two schools of thoughts about social media. They either don’t care entirely and want no policy in place or they want to lock it all down and make sure employees are never on social media at work.

We prefer a policy somewhere in the middle couple with training on effective use.

The reality is employees are going to be on social media. You can lock your work computers down from accessing Facebook or Twitter, but you can’t lock down their personal devices. Social media, like taking a smoke break, has become a routine part of most people’s day and locking it down only make them find some other way to do it. At the same time, giving employee’s free reign, in some environments, can lead to lost productivity or situations where social media is used inappropriately creating larger issues for the company.

Further, as I’ve talked about many times on this blog, small businesses may need their employees to help spread the word about hiring or branding initiatives and locking the networks down only prohibits advertising that could help the company. Your best brand ambassadors are often your current employees and if their social networks are active, you want them talking about your company.

Our compromise is to create a policy that speaks to proper usage of social media. We point out that social media should not take the place of other work being done, but that when time permits we encourage employees to use social media and talk about the company (positively) when the situation allows. The policy highlights a few areas that the company wants their employees talking about; recruiting, fun employee events, big initiatives the company is working on. It also shares areas where social media is not the proper outlet; employee grievances, intellectual property, anything covered by a non-disclosure.

We encourage employers to go over this policy and add training tidbits during employee onboarding. Training employees on the proper use, what will and will not be tolerated can reap major benefits for companies wanting to allow for social connection, but mitigate the risk of that connection causing headaches.

Social media is not an area where an all or nothing approach is the only option. There is middle ground that can and should be found for both parties. Companies recruiting on social can’t expect those employees hired through social channels to live for a locked down social media policy.

Admittedly, I do have clients who still think social media is unnecessary, do not have a social presence as a company and therefore want a completely locked down policy. I can honestly say that in the last two years those companies are and few between and those who used to think this way are starting to change their mind as their marketing departments get more and more involved with social. For the companies still in the social media dark ages, I tell them a prohibitive policy is legal, but don’t expect employees to follow it. Also, expect it to be the first place employees go with grievances because chances are good the company without any presence won’t see it anyway right? It may be legal, but isn’t realistic.

Modeling the behavior you want to see on social, training employees on proper use and having a policy that protects you when things do turn negative is the approach we have seen work time and time again. Middle ground, in this instance, is the best place to be.

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Encouraging Risk-Taking in Your Employees

Encouraging Risk-Taking in Your EmployeesI have two newish clients who are embarking on very similar journeys. Both are international companies launching their business, or as spin-off, in the states for the first time. Both have decided to launch in California, because if you can get the people stuff right in CA, you can get it right anywhere and both have called my team in to help get them all setup from a compliance and strategic infrastructure (culture/engagement) perspective.

I mentioned last week about the use of pre-employment personality assessments. I am using Hogan Assessments with both groups to understand how potential employees may act in common workplace situations.

A big talking point for both companies is risk taking. All companies have a different view on risk taking, but for both of these companies, employees need to be risk takers. Both are in the tech space, well funded and have aggressive goals for getting their product to market. They need employees who are confident in their abilities and will take risks to move things forward. This isn’t the case for every position, but for the ones where it matters, candidates who are not risk takers may not fare well.

Luckily for these businesses we are able to assess and have these conversations with candidates prior to hire, but for leaders who have already made the hire and now realize they have a non-risk taker in a role that really calls for one, can risk taking be taught? The answer is a bit complicated but I’ll try to explain.

First, let me say that I don’t think you can change someone’s natural propensity to take risks. I believe everyone has an innate level of risk they are comfortable with. Couple that with the way they were raised and past experience around risk taking and by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty settled in our risk comfort level. I do think, however, that risk taking can be encouraged…and that is the biggest thing leaders can do.

Create a Safe Space
One of the things that both leaders I am working with are doing is ensuring that candidates know from conversation one that risk taking is encouraged and expected. The environment they create for employees asks them to take risks in their work and rewards the behavior even if the risk results in failure.

Make it Ok to Fail
This is a big one. Employees may feel comfortable taking risks, but if they know they will be criticized or worse if that risk fails, even the most risk agreeable will hold back. Risk taking has to be rewarded in the face of failure. Leaders must strike a balance between dealing with the failure in a way that doesn’t discourage employees fron taking risks in the future.

Model the Behavior
If leaders want to employ risk takers they must be one themselves. Modeling the behavior you expect is the bet way to encourage not only risk taking, but any other characteristic you encourage in employees. If employees can see leaders take risks and fail they are much more likely to be willing to do it themselves.

Risk taking as a common characteristic in environments that need it can be a difference maker. It is a characteristic that is easy to identify in the pre-hire phase with the right assessment or interview questions. It’s also an easy characteristic to model and encourage for the leader who is willing to make it a priority.

Do you work in a company where risk taking is necessary? How do you or your leaders encourage employees to take risks?

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How Pre-Employment Personality Assessments Can Help Recruiting Efforts

How Pre-Employment Personality Assessments Can Help Recruiting EffortsFor a long time now there have been great debates about the validity of personality assessments. Myers Briggs, DiSC and others have been regarded as useless in determining the way a person really thinks and/or works.

I tend to disagree.

I have been using personality assessments for over a decade and find that, at least the more well known assessments, do consistently resonate with their test taker and offer up great points of conversation for team building discussions and pre-employment. It is the pre-employment use I want to talk about today.

More and more team dynamics play a role in how effective and efficient a department is. One or two bad apples and the whole team is dragged down. Often, the bad apple isn’t necessarily a poor performer, but more often there is a personality conflict between that person and another or even the entire team. And that is difficult to manage and overcome if it gets out of hand.

For leaders, thinking about team dynamics in the hiring process is essential. It is not enough to simply look at how a person’s skill set and past experience is going to fit into the position, but how the person’s personality is going to mesh with the rest of the team. Since the interview process usually produces the best of a person, meaning they are not being their total self in an effort to impress, simple questioning can prove fruitless in figuring out how a person truly works and interacts with others.

And that is where pre-employment personality assessments come in.

Let me be clear. I believe pre-employment personality assessments can be a part of the recruiting process, not the whole thing. I also believe you have to go with a personality assessment that has been validated for pre-employment. Neither Myers Briggs or DiSC are validated for pre-employment. Finally, you have to have someone certified to be able to review the results with the candidate and leader. Someone should be trained in how to interpret the results and highlight what is important for the candidate/company to consider.

I am a certified coach with Hogan Assessments and really like the assessments they offer, the results that are provided and, most importantly, provide great discussion point to review with the candidate and leader. Below is my process for administering and reviewing personality assessments in the recruiting process.

Determine the Right Positions
I don’t think all positions need personality assessments as part of the recruiting process. I believe crucial leadership roles or the first few roles in a small business/startup are usually perfect for a personality assessment step added to the process.

The Assessment is a Final Step
If not the final step, the assessment piece should be one of the ending phases of the recruitment process, meaning only your top candidates take it. You don’t want to make hiring decisions early on based on a personality assessment. If you have results that tell you what their personality may be like before you’ve gone through any other stage of the interview process, you are making a decision without the full picture.

Review the Results
The most important step is to fully review the results with both candidate and leader together. This is where it’s important to have a certified coach who can help interpret and discuss the results that may impact the workplace – both positively and negatively. This conversation must be open and honest. It should allow the candidate to describe how they may act in a workplace setting when certain situations arise. It should also allow the candidate to get an even better understanding of the workplace they will be working in and determine if it is right for them.

When done well, these pre-employment personality assessments allow both candidate and leader to walk into the employment relationship with a head start on how they might work together. Both are aware of areas of synergy and areas that may create conflict. They already know how they might adapt to one another’s style. Information that will also help the leader integrate the new hire into the team as a whole.

For all the debate over personality assessments and their validity, this consultant is a fan. They do require care in administration and execution, but with the right help and facilitation can provide insight now found anywhere else in the recruiting process.

*this post is not sponsored or affiliated with Hogan.

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Do Your Employees Really Have Autonomy?

Do Your Employees Really Have Autonomy?A common conversation I have with small business leaders centers around the idea of autonomy. How much authority is given to employees to do their work the way they see fit? Autonomy in it’s most simple definition is independence. How much independence do employees have?

In my experience, leaders and employees often answer this question very differently.

In many small businesses, autonomy is a selling feature for potential candidates. One of the cool things about these environments is that things are moving so quickly that leaders often don’t have the time to micromanage. They also know they need employees who have expertise they don’t have to get the work done which naturally leads to more autonomy. Especially in the very early stages, these environments are rich for highly autonomous work.

But often, the independence gets stripped away.

Maybe it’s by the leader who wants to be copied on every email. Or the one who wants his employee to “check in” at least once a day with project updates. There are always reasons why this is necessary – at least in the leader’s mind.

Or the leader who gets angry when an employee decides to work from home instead of the shared space. The employee does all the work and is available throughout the day via technology, but the leader is upset they aren’t in the office. No performance issues, just an idea that everyone should work from the office.

Now, let me be clear. There is nothing illegal about having rules around being copied on every email or never being able to work from home. A little defeating maybe, but not illegal. A leader can create almost any rules they want for their business.

But you can’t have those rules and then say that you support an autonomous environment where you trust employees to get the work done.

It reminds me of the Margaret Atwood quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

Many environments I have both worked in and walk into these days are a bit like a maze. The leader has sculpted visible and invisible walls that employees are not allowed to venture outside of. Some of these walls are necessary, others, not so much. Either way, the more the walls, the less the autonomy. When we do culture work in an environment with these walls, the gap between the level of autonomy a leader thinks they give and the level the employee feels they have is often quite large.

It’s a question worth asking of autonomy is important to you and your recruiting efforts. How much autonomy do we really offer and do our thoughts about what we already offer line up with our employees? It is my thought that autonomy is only going to become more and more important in the years to come. Thinking about where your business sits on the subject now and ensuring those thoughts are carried out into action can only help the business in the long run.

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HR 101: A Guide for Small Business

HR 101: A Guide for Small BusinessEarlier this week I talked about the importance of HR in a startup. Whenever I talk about this topic I receive questions about what exactly I’m referring to when I say HR. Is it just the legal stuff like paying employment taxes or is there more. It’s a good question with an answer that would probably differ depending on who you asked. Here is my idea of HR 101 in a small business or startup environment.

Essentially there are three things that I believe small businesses need to think about in the very early stage of their people development. I do believe it is important to start thinking about these things with the very first hire. The degree to which you should build strategies around these areas grows with every hire.

Compliance:
The baseline nature of HR is tacit. The role was invented to ensure compliance. While it has evolved in the last few decades to much more, the necessity to ensure legal compliance remains, especially in states like California. Setting up and growing a business dictates the need to be legally compliant in hiring, payroll, performance management and more. This is HR at it’s most basic and the bare minimum of what all small businesses should consider.

At this stage, companies are figuring out what payroll service provider they will use, acquiring unemployment tax ids and workers’ compensation insurance and ensuring workplace posters are legal documents are available to all employees. This is where ensuring you understand laws around documents required at hiring (tax forms, I-9 etc) is important. Writing handbooks, understanding the law around required benefits (if any) and making friends with legal counsel are all important parts of the compliance area of HR infrastructure.

Hiring:
Quite possibly the most important step for early stage small businesses is figuring out the recruiting process. It’s not enough anymore to just place an ad and hire the first qualified person you see. Small businesses have a lot at stake. The first few hires are crucial. I encourage small business leaders and especially new founders to really think about the type of person you want to hire beyond the job description. This requires thinking about what type of environment you want to build in the long run and what intrinsic characteristics a person needs to help you get there.

Let me give you an example from my own business. I started this business because I wanted to be able to navigate being mom and worker. I wanted the utmost flexibility, beyond what even a 100% telecommuting job would give me. I wanted to be able to completely own my schedule. One thing that has made me successful in doing so is that even though I may not sit down and work a typical 8-5, I am extremely responsive to my clients needs. This means I may be taking calls at swim practice or answering texts while grocery shopping, but responsiveness is important to my clients and so I make it a priority. When I started to think about hiring employees, I knew this was a trait I needed in them. I don’t care when, where or how they work, but when I or a client reaches out, I need them to be responsive. That doesn’t mean stop everything and do what the client asks, but it does mean giving some response to let the client know you are on it. Beyond any skill set they may have from their past experience, this trait is the most important for me.

I have clients who say they need critical thinkers or individuals not afraid to push boundaries. Whatever those things are, the hiring process should seek them out. The process has to be thorough enough to sift through a person’s experience and character to make the best decision.

Organizational Structure:
I’m often impressed with business leaders who know ahead of time the type of organizational structure they want to build and then are very deliberate in keeping it so. What normally happens is that leaders let business growth, or the ideas of other leaders, dictate the type of organizational structure. With that, you either end up with too many leaders or not enough. Small businesses can go through times of explosive growth. With that comes decisions around how to break out departments and how the reporting structure should be. While this can be organic to some degree, thinking about how this builds out early helps focus development.

Regardless of what other consultants may say, there is no one right structure for small businesses. Some of my clients are very flat while others have multiple layers and leaders even though they only have 100 employees. While I prefer a more flat organization initially, that doesn’t mean it always works best. Much of what works is dictated by the founder or CEO’s personality and preferences. How involved do they want to remain in the minutia and how much are they willing to let go.

I often lump leadership development in this as well. As you think about organizational structure and potentially adding layers to a business, it’s imperative you also think about how you are going to develop those leaders you hire or promote. Assuming they need no development is short sighted. All leaders need continual development opportunities and the need for this doesn’t change because a business is small. In fact, I would argue it increases.

While HR infrastructure is so much more, these three areas are the most important for new businesses or those in an early stage of growth. Thinking about them early rather than waiting until they are broken will prevent so many headaches down the road. In future posts we will break down these areas one by one to give more detail and guidelines on how to build strategies in each area to set you on a path of success with your people processes.