Reframe your approach

Instead of focusing on the lack of good labor, think about how you can be a better employer.

I have four kids ages 11 and under. My wife and I work really hard to raise and train them. Sometimes people will comment on our kids, saying, “You have good kids.” We appreciate that.

But you know what really makes us feel good? When an experienced parent looks at our kids and says, “You guys are doing a good job as parents.” They understand that when you see well-behaved children, it says more about the parents.

I see something similar in the employee/employer relationship.

Read the industry surveys.

Go to the online forums. They all say the same thing – finding and keeping high-quality employees is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, problem we face. And yet, in every market there are exceptions. Some companies (like my family firm) don't rate employees as a major problem. Are they just lucky enough to have found great employees? No, these companies understand something important: You attract and retain good employees when you are a good employer.

Stop fretting about the work ethic of Millennials, immigration issues or whatever you think is driving the problem. Focus instead on something you can control. Start thinking really hard about being a better employer.

I assume if you’re reading this, you’re already trying to be a good employer. You pay fair wages for your market, follow local labor laws and don't make your people's work day miserable. But in today's competitive job market “good” is not good enough. So how can you be a great employer – the kind people really want to work for?

Respect your employees.

We operate on the assumption that all of our employees are honest and hard-working. This starts day one; they don't have to earn it. People have a tendency to live up to the expectations we have for them.

When someone gives us a gift we naturally want to give something back. This natural human tendency can help you as a leader. Give the gift of respect and employees will give back by living up to your expectations for them.

Not all people will respond to your respect. The employee we caught smoking meth in the boss’s backyard certainly didn't value it. But you have to fight to keep from becoming cynical. Think about it. You can distrust people and make everyone unhappy or you can trust everyone and then deal with the few who let you down.

One important way to convey respect is by getting to know your employees. Start with names, but don't stop there. The more you know and understand them, the easier it is to treat them with respect – especially on days when they are not at their best.

It is just as important to let your employees get to know you. I occasionally bring my kids to job site visits. I will introduce my kids to the crew. They get to see me interact with my kids, which is obviously a side they don't normally see. When something big is going on in my life, I don't hide it. When I recently had my fourth child, I sent a picture to my crew leaders. It was a simple way to show I counted them as important. They also understand why I haven't been in the field as often.

This simple concept affects many other work situations as well. It has a positive impact on the way our team members treat each other. I’m able to confidently tell clients they can trust my team to be at their home, around their family.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is the loyalty that is earned by treating people this way. Our senior crew leader was approached by a former employer. He was offered double what we were paying him to return.

He immediately let us know about the offer and assured us he would give at least 60 days notice before quitting. After deliberating for a couple weeks he decided to stay. Why? The former employer is an amazing landscape architect and landscaper, but he treats his employees like cogs in a machine.

He stayed with us because we respect him. Don't underestimate how highly your people will value being treated as valuable individuals.

Be as flexible as possible.

We offer a small amount of paid time off and the state required paid sick leave. Nothing fancy there. But we have found ways to add flexibility in ways our people value.

Employees can take unpaid leave whenever they want, and with very little notice required. Construction personnel can call in the morning and get the day off. During the mowing season we ask for a day or two notice from maintenance crew members. Our crew leaders decide when their crews start and stop for the day. And if a crew wants Friday off but wants to work on Saturday, we allow it. What comes of all this flexibility? Our team members miss very few days of work, but are able to take time when they really need it.

Our crews vary when they start and stop based on the time of year and weather. They usually start earlier and work later than me, and miss maybe two to three days a year due to weather. But they have a level of control and autonomy that’s obviously valued.

Treating our people with respect and giving them a high level of flexibility is not always easy. For example, we had a large design/build project in the summer of 2014 that seemed to be moving very slowly. We were behind schedule and the homeowner was concerned. He was a great client, but he was retired and often spent the day just watching the project crawl along.

We spoke to our crew leader about the issue. Because we respect him and he has a long history of excellent work we never implied he was doing anything wrong. And since we have given him flexibility we resisted the urge to mandate more hours or weekend work. We simply presented the problem and the client’s concern, and asked for his thoughts.

The result? The crew volunteered to work the next two Saturdays. This showed the client we were taking his concern seriously. We also realized part of the problem was cosmetic in nature. The crew would arrive early and drink coffee in their trucks before starting. Lunch breaks were taken in view of large back windows. By parking a couple blocks away to drink a morning cup of coffee and taking lunch in the more private side yard we were able to lessen the mistaken impression that the crew was not working hard enough. In the end the client and crew were both happy.

To a large degree, your success, or lack thereof, in building a team will depend on you. Take the initiative to treat people with respect from day one. Decide how much flexibility you can give your people. Then give them a little more.

Of course these are not the only ways to be a great employer. Maybe you can provide other benefits. The key is to provide something that your people will value – not simply something that you value.

The most important thing to remember? Just as great parents are more likely to have great kids, great employers are more likely to have great employees.

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