The HR headache

The HR headache

You might not be an HR expert, but developing a human resources plan isn’t as difficult as you think.

December 2, 2014

You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s what so many owners say about human resources. Business can be a volatile, uncharted sea of employment liability if HR processes are not instituted, from hiring processes to employee handbooks and the nitty-gritty, like filing systems to keep paperwork organized.

Most green industry professionals admit that HR is not their forte. And that’s OK – as long as owners know when to bring in professionals, whether it’s a consultant who can assist with creating a legally sound, detailed employee handbook or a part- or full-time HR manager once the company has scaled up to accommodate that position.

Are you overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a handbook or frustrated with recruiting because efforts seem only to yield mediocre prospects? If so, you’re not alone.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with three owners who started from square one with their HR processes. Learn how they built systems to protect their businesses and position their organizations for future growth.


Think big-picture

Just when Drew’s Lawn & Snow would bring on a new, promising employee with the thought of driving the company’s forward momentum, a hiring misfire would result in an unproductive dance: one step forward, one and half steps back.

“We were not recruiting people who wanted to make landscaping a career,” says Catrina Wroblewski, president of the Lockport, Ill.-based firm. “We were hiring people with limited success, and that was the only thing holding back our company. We had the reputation, the finance and the sales. We needed good people.”

This pattern persisted for years as the company progressed from a homegrown landscaping and snow business into the $3.9-million company it is today that contends with national players for large multi-family development contracts.

“Without planning, we were finding ourselves in the position of taking not necessarily the best candidate for a position, but picking from the best in front of us out of desperation, and that’s not the best way to build a business,” Wroblewski says.

So Drew’s Lawn & Snow upped their efforts about five years ago after the firm hit $2 million in sales and 40 employees. Wroblewski hired an administrative assistant who also served as a part-time HR clerk. “She was recruiting and going out to college job fairs and things like that,” Wroblewski says.

Still, those efforts produced “limited success.”

“We got people in the door, but we were not recruiting people who wanted to make landscaping a career,” she says.

And it wasn’t just recruiting that Wroblewski realized was potentially stifling the company’s growth potential. HR policies and procedures were piecemeal, and issues were managed as they cropped up. For example, if an employee needed maternity leave, Wroblewski would fast learn about the Family & Medical Leave Act – and so on. She had some processes in place, and would reach out to her attorney to deal with concerns as needed.

“I didn’t have anyone to look at everything globally to make sure that every component was in compliance,” Wroblewski says.

So, last year, Wroblewski set out to find either a full-time HR professional or a consultant who could button up the processes and assist with the company’s hiring dilemma. She interviewed several candidates for an HR position, but had no luck finding someone who knew the landscaping industry.

She eventually hired a green industry consultant who specializes in HR and helped her form an HR strategy, beginning with an organizational chart to focus recruiting efforts. Now, Wroblewski can look at the next “budgetary phase” of her business and plan in advance for her HR needs, from people to processes. “I’m always on the lookout for the next chapter,” she says.

No more regrouping after half-hearted hires. The new hiring process is one of “consistent recruitment” – scouting for landscape career professionals never stops. “We are always reaching out via the Internet or other networking events so hopefully when we have a need and someone finds themselves looking to make a move, we are ready for that,” Wroblewski says.

Thinking of HR strategically has resulted in a solid plan for that fourth piece (people) of the puzzle that the company was missing before, when it had the reputation, finances and sales.

Now, the parts are in place. “I wish I would have done this 10 years ago,” Wroblewski says.


Stop liability leaks

A vehicle crash prompted a rude HR awakening at Andrew’s Lawn & Landscaping in Thornton, Pa. An employee crashed a truck, but reported that he was “fine” and continued to work. A few days later, the crewmember stopped showing up to the job. “He said his back hurt,” says Andrew Gabries, president.

At the time, the company was doing about $1.2 million in revenues with 20 employees on the roster. There was no real employee handbook in place. “We had no rules,” Gabries says. “We had no procedures for making sure that paperwork was done right.”

The alleged injured employee collected workers’ compensation pay for months. (Gabries can’t pinpoint the exact duration.) Gabries hired an HR consultant to implement procedures and a strategy to prevent an incident like this, or worse, from ever occurring again.

One policy put in place was pre-employment and reasonable suspicion drug testing. Gabries will never know if the former employee who crashed the truck was “clean.” But in the future, no one will work at the company unless they can prove that they live a drug-free lifestyle.

The incident was settled out of court, and a private investigator was hired by the insurance company. Gabries later learned that the worker had back problems before he ever joined his company.

“We didn’t even know that we were at risk until we found out all of the HR processes we should be doing,” Gabries says,

During the last year, Gabries has been on a plan of continuously implementing new HR procedures, he says. The most critical aspect is the employee handbook. There’s no arguing expectations. They’re all on paper, and following orientation employees are required to sign an agreement that they read and understand the handbook. This includes policies regarding post-accident drug testing.

Meanwhile, Andrew’s Lawn & Landscaping has been growing rapidly, increasing at a 50 percent clip each year. With that comes more hiring, and more turnover. “The HR processes help with finding quality employees, and having the right paperwork in place reduces the risk on our business,” Gabries says.

These papers were the starting point for the company’s HR processes: Making sure that I-9s and W-4s were correctly completed. At the same time, Gabries worked with a landscape industry HR consultant to create a company organizational chart, and to begin defining positions and roles. All this parlayed into a robust employee handbook.

“There are so many rules about hiring and firing – it was much easier for us to work with a consultant than to find out (the regulations) the hard way because we would have made mistakes that would have cost us a hundred times more than we are paying the consultant.” Now, the office manager has the paperwork and systems in place to properly implement HR procedures. “Now, we have the systems in place and as we grow, we can expand on them,” he says.


A full-scale HR strategy

Tim Saunders had no grounds for disciplining employees who showed up late, abused paid time off or just didn’t do their jobs up to the company’s standards. In fact, there were no documented, clear standards or policies defining exactly what was expected of workers at Coastal Pacific Landscape Management.

“There were issues that would come up, employees would challenge us, and when we’d say, ‘You can’t do this because it’s not appropriate or right,’ they’d say, ‘Well, where is that written down?’” says Saunders, CEO of the San Diego-based firm. For example, one supervisory level employee consistently was not arriving to work on time. Every few days she texted Saunders to let him know she’d be late. This became a regular occurrence. “I didn’t have a vehicle in place to say, ‘These are the hours you are supposed to work,” he says.

Saunders, realizing it was past time for his young company to define and clarify company policies, began modifying a template employee manual. He spent a week retooling the language to apply to his operation. Then, he showed it to an HR consultant.

“He told me I was almost more liable by putting this handbook out there,” Saunders says.

So, last year, Saunders embarked on an HR plan to put processes in place, beginning with an employee handbook created specifically for his company. The consultant spent time in his business getting to know the operation, and the process was collaborative.

Saunders learned a lot. For one, before he was making no distinction between exempt and non-exempt employees. “We know about landscaping. We did not go to school to study California law,” Saunders says.

Another big aha: Saunders realized the importance of Employment Practice Liability Insurance (EPLI). (Fortunately, he purchased this soon after starting the business, before he took on the rest of his HR strategic planning.) “We had an issue where an employee tried to make several allegations against other employees in order to find something to sue us over,” he says.

“I was able to use my EPLI contact and open a claim, and we had lawyers who helped us organize and protect ourselves by really doing a thorough investigation and it didn’t cost us that much because we had the insurance,” he says.

Today, Saunders is in the midst of a strategic HR plan with a timeline for implementing processes until a 100-percent thorough process is in place, he says. Some of those items include defining employee roles and responsibilities; instituting correct time cards; ensuring that proper disciplinary forms are in place; instating a sound recruiting and employee application process, and reviewing the company’s filing system.