Now Hiring: A situational approach

Now Hiring: A situational approach

Features - Cover Story

Is your employee of the month always the same (or worse, nonexistent)? Read on and discover how to find a superstar.

Industry News

Interviewing can be an incredibly time consuming part of running a business. But hiring the right people is a critical aspect of growing and developing a successful company. While there are different approaches to interviewing – particularly based on position – it should always be taken seriously and performed thoroughly.

Crew Members. While it's often the lowest paying job on your books, ignoring the interviewing process for crew members is a big mistake, says Jean L. Seawright, president of Seawright & Associates, a management consulting firm located in Winter Park. Fla. "A lot of companies operate under the misconception that 'It's just an $8 an hour job – we don't need to do applications or background checks. As long as they're breathing, they're hired,'" she says. "But that's a huge mistake. I can tell you from experience that the employers who do this greatly regret that philosophy because those employees are going out on the customers' properties and can create risk for your business. If they harm a customer, co-worker, or member of the public in the course and scope of employment for you, the finger gets pointed at you."

Seawright recommends background checks for every employee hired – but emphasizes it's critically important for crew members. "They're in vehicles, using dangerous equipment, on customers' properties and have access to people's homes," she says. "I'm a huge advocate of running background checks. They can be done at a low cost and very easily today. The whole process can be done online."

First Impressions

Who cares who answers the phones, right? Wrong. And if you have that attitude, you could be turning customers off one rude greeting at a time.

"It's a person that's setting a tone, initiating relationships with brand new clients and supporting relationships that you already have present. And it's not an easy position to fill," says Marty Grunder, owner of Gruner Landscaping Co., speaker, consultant and author.

When someone calls, whether a potential or current client or a vendor, the people answering the phones give an impression of the company. The person on the other end of the line needs to feel glad that they called the company, needs to feel like they called an expert and needs to feel that their questions were answered, Grunder says.

To find the right person, Grunder says first create a description of what the job entails and some of the characteristics that might match the position. For instance, if someone is answering the phone, they need to be a good listener, they need to be able to multitask and they probably need to be sitting at a desk for long periods of time.

Start looking for signs during the call to schedule the interview. "When you called that person on the phone to schedule an interview, how did they sound?" Grunder says.

During the interview process, Grunder says he asks himself whether or not his mom would be impressed by the person and would he be proud to have that person work for him.

"When I interview someone, I've learned to look and listen to what they say and after whatever they tell me they are, I say in the back of my mind, 'No they're not; no they're not. I need to see more proof that that's exactly who they are,'" he says. "They tell me that they're neat and organized, let me have someone go take a peek in their car and see how neat and organized their car is. I'm a skeptic when I'm interviewing, and I think that's a good way to be."

Finally, Grunder says make the candidates take a skills assessment test. "You're always going to be better off getting someone to answer your phone who loves gardening versus someone who doesn't," he says. "Someone who has an actual interest in the service that you provide – I think that's always a win."
– Carolyn LaWell

For the interview process, Justin Carver, grounds maintenance manager, Maxwell Landscape Service, in Chesapeake, Va., says that he's actually less concerned with questions about landscaping than he is about "dependability." A lot of landscaping techniques can be taught, but dependability and work ethic cannot.

"I deal with maintenance almost exclusively so that's not the hardest to teach," says Carver. "But the right attitude and dependability need to already be there. That's something you get a sense of right away by seeing if they show up on time. We run on a schedule and the ability for crew members and leaders to be able to stick to a schedule is really important. If they show up late for an interview, that's something to pay attention to."

Anthony DaRocha, president, DaRocha's Landscape Services, in Rehoboth, Mass., says that having spent most of his life in this business, one thing he's learned is that potential hires often lie about their skills, saying they know how to do a lot more than they actually do.

He says it's an easy thing to catch. "I bring up certain brands of mowers and see what they know," he says. "If they don't know what brands of mowers or equipment they've worked with, it's very likely they're lying about how much industry experience they have. I prefer to have an honest person that's willing to learn, than a dishonest and overconfident person that already thinks they know it all."

Office Staff. While your office personnel aren't typically meeting clients face-to-face, they're often the first contact a customer has with your company. Jereme Pohill, operations manager, Designs by Sundown, based outside of Denver, says they ask potential office staff some tough questions during the interview process to see how they handle difficult situations. "We'll discuss scenarios based on some of the issues we run into and see how they respond," Pohill says.

In terms of a resume, Seawright says it helps give you a flavor for how the candidate "organizes their professional life in writing," but says that it's a "big mistake to exclusively rely on a resume." She suggests a "letter of interest," which is just what it sounds like – a letter in which the candidate explains their interest in the position. "I also want to emphasize that a resume should never replace an application," Seawright says. "The application is critical and allows you to ask legal questions about their reason for leaving the last position, rates of pay, and whether they've ever been fired."

Nathan Helder, president of Gelderman Landscaping in Ontario says he relies more heavily on interview questions than resumes. "We ask a lot of questions that aren't just about work," Helder says. "We believe that questions about hobbies and activities they do outside of work tells us about them as a person, which ultimately reflects upon how they work."

Sales Team. Sales are the lifeblood of an organization so it makes sense so many business owners put an emphasis on it, says Seawright. She says finding the right salesperson starts with knowing what the ideal salesperson looks like for your organization. Once you know what you're looking for, Seawright suggests questions like: What have you been selling? Was it a service or a tangible product? Have you done selling primarily on the phone or in person? Are you used to originating leads or were they handed to you?

"When you look back at their history, you also want to see how they functioned under a commission-based plan, assuming that's what you offer," Seawright says. "See if they had the ability to increase those commissions. You want to see they earned a progression in pay."

Helder says that a sales position is typically a two- or three-interview process at Gelderman. "It starts with myself and the HR advisor," he says.

"If they get through that stage, the next step is an interview with operations. The salesperson has to sell the product, but then the operations crew takes over, so we like them to interview the salesperson as well. The final interview is at a restaurant, where I invite my wife, who is not in the business at all but has a keen perception of people and also brings the female perspective. I'll also invite a few key people from the business, and we'll see how that person acts in a social setting. That's important for a salesperson dealing with customers on a regular basis."

No matter what the position is, Seawright says that business owners should be prepared for the process to take time.

If you're doing it properly and including applications, background checks and reference checks, it's not going to be a quick deal – even for your lowest paying position.

"It's important to understand the value of a good hire and the risk associated with a bad hire," she says.

"Once employers start to understand that, they take the whole interview process a lot more seriously."


Climbing the Ladder

Promoting from within works, but don’t be afraid to look elsewhere.
By Lindsey Getz

Knowing when and who to promote is always one of the big questions faced by landscape business owners. In these times, many businesses say they're struggling to keep all their employees on payroll and haven't given much thought to promotions. But it's still important to give employees reasons to enjoy coming to work. And when it is time to promote, there are some important considerations to take into account.

One of the biggest mistakes that landscape business owners can make in promoting is doing it solely based on tenure, says Jason Cupp, a Kolbe Certified growth consultant. "I've seen it happen where an employee is promoted based on years with the company but doesn't have the skills, knowledge, or perhaps leadership abilities to do that position," he says. "Rather than just hand someone a promotion because they've been with the company a long time, it's better to have them interview for the position like you would have any other candidate do."

Steven Cesare, a consultant with The Harvest Group who specializes in human resources, says employees should only be promoted after they have demonstrated sufficient development. "By that I mean, employees should only be promoted after they have completed a complex assignment, dealt with an issue of hardship or been able to demonstrate performance in a high potential position," he says. "Don't promote someone and hope they can do it. Promote someone because they're already showing they have the potential to do it and could do even more in a higher position."

At Georgia-based Coastal Greenery, that "potential" must be demonstrated in order for president Jeffrey Johns to even consider a promotion. "In order to move up to a team leadership position, there are certain criteria that have to be met such as pesticide licensing, CPR certification and an in-house hands-on test we do," he says. "There also has to be additional training on a Friday, which is typically the production crew's day off. If they show up to shadow an account or production manager for the day to learn things like plant identification, then that shows initiative. That's not something they're paid for – it's on their own time."

Looking outside. While many landscape business owners much prefer to promote employees from within, sometimes looking outside of the company is the better option. Joe Markell, president of Sunrise Landscape + Design in Sterling, Va., says that he is always focused on training employees so that should a need for a position arise, internal employees might be ready. But though he always looks internally first, he says that hiring from the outside instead of promoting someone is an opportunity for fresh ideas and someone with a different perspective.

"An outside hire may be more in tune with the needs of the market these days than someone who's been with the company a long time," says Markell. "That fresh perspective and influx of new ideas is sometimes just what a company needs."

Cupp says that failing to look outside of the company because of wanting to try to promote internally may be a mistake. "You need to be honest about whether your existing employees meet the criteria of what you want for the position," he says. "One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is that they don't seek out the best talent. They give the position to a friend or long-time employee when what they really need to do is find the person that's best for the job – even if that person isn't currently with the company."

Keeping them happy. Oftentimes business owners will promote someone not right for the job because they don't want to lose a long-time employee that's great at what they do. But Cesare says there's a big difference between "performance" and "potential."

A foreman may be an excellent performer in his current position, but simply may not be equipped with the leadership potential to move up.

Fortunately Cesare says there are many ways to keep these employees happy without a promotion. He says that "growth" and "promotion" are two very different things and there are other ways to allow an employee to grow.

"One way is called 'job enrichment,'" Cesare says. "You would stretch their duties and provide more responsibility, such as now being in charge of approving time cards or maybe phoning orders into the vendor. You can stretch those responsibilities under the same position, allowing them some growth opportunity and more visibility with customers or vendors."

In other circumstances, a business owner would like to promote an employee but the current economic climate prevents it. In those situations, making an effort to maintain a positive work environment and keep employees happy is a smart tactic.

"We want to keep employees interested and engaged whether it be through bonuses or just keeping them up to date with what's going on at the company," Markell says.

"When things eventually turn around, unhappy employees will jump ship right away. Keeping them happy now is critical. That means giving them new opportunities to keep the job fresh."


The author is a frequent contributor at Lawn & Landscape.

Retaining good employees is hard enough without having the competition poaching them. Here’s how to stop it, and use it to your advantage.
By Brian Horn 

God never gave Moses the Ten Commandments of the green industry. But if he did, and one of those commandments was "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's employee," would you be willing to commit a sin to lure a potential star away from another company? Lawn & Landscape spoke with some industry professionals about whether poaching is acceptable, and how to protect yourself from falling victim to it.

Fair or foul? Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that approaching someone on a job site and recruiting them was wrong – plain and simple. It doesn't matter if you know that employee is disgruntled, they aren't paid enough or if you want to give them a more prominent role at your company. When a guy is on the clock, he is off limits, and if you break that rule, it could haunt you, says Adam Neville, president of U.S. Lawns Louisville.

"Whatever they do, it's going to catch up with them," he says. "It might take five years, it might take 10 years but at some point in time, it will get you."

But recruiting from the competition isn't always off limits. If you run into someone off the job, or at a networking event, there seems to be some leeway about being proactive in showing interest in the competition's talent.

"If I'm having casual conversation with someone and we are talking about the industry in general, yeah it might come up that 'Joe if you're ever looking, buddy, keep us in mind. We've got a good environment, we're a good place, good family company, swing by sometime.' But I'm not trying to recruit," Neville says.

Benjamin Deceuster, a green industry business developer, says the best approach would be to direct a conversation about how satisfied the employee is with their current employer and what goals they have in mind.

"If the answers fall in line with a guy who is not satisfied with his current situation, I think it is appropriate to invite him to come talk to you over lunch about your company and how you think it can be a better fit," he says. "Let them provide the answers, let them be the one to accept an invite and follow through with an action."

Businesses from a variety of industries recruit from competing firms for talent, so the green industry shouldn't be any different, Deceuster says.

"Companies cannot just sit and hope talent comes to them or sees their help wanted ads. It would be irresponsible to their clients," he says. "It is a big disservice to the good talent in our industry that is being underserved by their current employers to say 'Hands-off till he calls you' because many folks don't know how to manage their careers. I also think one should consider other industries to recruit from as well so that we can increase the pool of good talent in landscaping."

Of course, if you are looking for a tried-and-true method, you can always ask employees to talk to friends at other companies because that doesn't cross the poaching line.

"I would also push for referrals from other employees to fill open positions since friends talking to friends about jobs is appropriate in my mind," Deceuster says.

Look in the mirror. While poaching employees on the job is frowned upon, you still have to hold yourself accountable if your guys are leaving for 50 cents more an hour.

Ed Laflamme, industry consultant with The Harvest Group, says employees leave for small raises because green industry companies don't have a strong recruiting track.

Companies in the industry also need a career ladder, so employees know there is a way to grow within the organization. That means making public the qualifications a worker needs to earn a position in a company and also listing the pay range, benefits and vacation time for each spot.

"If the man knows he's got some place to go in the company, he's less likely to leave or be poached by anybody because 50 cents is not going to do it," Laflamme says.

Aside from cash and the possibility for promotions, just having a positive corporate culture will keep guys from jumping to another company for a little more money.

Deceuster and other managers have a soccer game at the end of the week. Employees wear company-sponsored soccer jerseys that the workers can keep. And gestures like spending $15 to take them out to lunch and talk with them can go a long way in retention, he says.

"You treat your clients a certain way to make sure they are happy with you. And if you drop the ball on your client relationships, you lose clients," Deceuster says. "In all honesty, I see employees kind of as a similar subgroup of your clients. You need to be proactive in communicating with them, in understanding how they're feeling, and that can stave off an awful lot."

Protect yourself. Neville was surprised when he got wind of what was happening on one of his job sites. No, he didn't find out a client wasn't happy, or that guys were sleeping on the job. Instead, he heard that workers from another company were showing up on his job site, and trying to poach his employees.

"I had come to the conclusion that I was just going to drive to the job site and see if I could run into one of their managers or whoever it was at the job site," he says. "If there was no one there, I was just going to go to their shop, I knew where there office was and ask for the G.M. over there and speak to them. There comes a point where you have to draw a line. Obviously there aren't going to be fists thrown or any yelling or anything like that because I have a reputation I've got to maintain."

No fists were thrown, and, in fact, there wasn't even a shouting match. After three weeks, when Neville was ready to act, the poaching stopped on its own. Neville was lucky. He had loyal employees who called back to the office when the guys would show up, and the poaching stopped. But, if it doesn't you don't have to feel like the victim, and can actually use it to your advantage. That's what Deceuster did when he found out a competitor was approaching his guys about work. Instead, they weren't only trying to lure them away, but they were also trying to get the specs of the job that was now out to bid.

"I learned this trick early on when the properties would go out to bid, my guys would provide me feedback that folks were asking them about how many guys and hours it took to service the property. Some would go so far as to make offers to some of my employees," he says.

So he kept the training simple – if anyone ever approached an employee during work, Deceuster asked employees to tell poacher that the client was difficult to work for and to give skewed numbers on the details of the job.

So, instead of collecting correct information, the poacher is being mislead, which affects his bid. That kind of trust with employees is developed by doing the little things, like the soccer games, keeping employees in the loop about company news and taking them out to lunch.

"None of these things cost much, yet they instill loyalty because they see you really care about them and they know others will not treat them the same," he says.

"Through these interactions, you instill trust and they will go out of their way to communicate information to you about what they are seeing, what they hear from friends in other companies and information on who is approaching them."


The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at