The tale of Tom & Jerry

Features - Cover Story

Avoid being a hungry cat the next time you have to hire someone.

February 10, 2016

I’m going to assume that you’ve made a bad hire in the past – maybe even recently. Not intentionally and certainly not because you aren’t the most dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate landscape industry service or product provider in town, but because every firm makes bad hires from time to time.

And bad hires can cost you a lot of money. The U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics estimates that a bad hire costs a firm approximately 30 percent of the first year earning potential of the bad hire (so that $50,000 business developer who didn’t perform might cost your business an additional $15,000 on top of the stress and strain it caused to get rid of him.)

Tom and Jerry.

A commercial landscape maintenance business owner, Tom, was nearing the busy season and he was short one account manager. Tom placed all the typical ads, offered referral bonuses to his employees and had been interviewing a lot of people, but no one seemed to be able to do the job.

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One morning, Tom was thrilled to find a candidate named Jerry responded to his job ad online. Over email, Jerry looked qualified, he had industry experience and he indicated that he was available to start immediately. After meeting Jerry in person, Tom realized that Jerry was working for a competitor, but Jerry explained that he had a bad relationship with his current employer so he would not give notice when he left.

Tom was a bit concerned, but extended an offer. After all, busy season was rapidly approaching and the situation was getting a little dire. Four days passed after the offer was extended and there was no word from Jerry. Tom called, texted and emailed but Jerry “went dark.” Another few days passed and finally, Jerry called back. He didn’t apologize for disappearing, but he said he had a cold. He explained that he wanted to think about the offer and that he would be back in touch soon.

While Tom contemplated starting the interview process over again, placing new ads and calling some of the less than desirable resumes from the first search, Jerry accepted Tom’s offer and he started the next day. Tom accepted the quick start date since things were getting very difficult internally and externally.

Tom reached out to me three months later, well into busy season, to share the news that after a difficult recruitment process, Jerry had walked out stating that he had taken another job. Jerry would not share the name of the new company, what job he had accepted or why he was leaving.

This bad hire cost Tom a number of clients, affected employee morale, caused terrible stress on the business and made Tom evaluate his entire hiring process.

Developing a hiring plan.

Tom felt a great deal of relief in having a hiring plan that would help guide current and future hires – but it did take some work and the first priority was for him to evaluate the staff’s capabilities and identify any holes or missing skill sets. You can ask the following questions when developing a hiring plan:

  • Is it time to expand your design capabilities?
  • Are your sales people building solid, consultative relationships or just waiting for the phone to ring?
  • Do your irrigation people actively seek out information about new technology to help save clients water and money?
Raise the bar.

When we looked at Tom’s team, we realized there were quite a few opportunities within his organization to raise the bar by seeking out and hiring people who push the entire team to do better work for the clients. Now, Tom looks for exceptional people to do the jobs that he has open – not just warm bodies.

Don’t cut corners.

Tom’s story also illustrates the importance of having a consistent interview process in which you do not cut corners. Even when you are desperate, even when your staff is begging for somebody – anybody – and even when you think you can’t possibly survive another day without being fully staffed, take the extra time to do the job right the first time. You don’t want to be in Tom’s situation where he had to search for another account manager during busy season when great candidates were too busy to return phone calls.

Keys to consistent interviews.

To have a consistent interview process, you should determine what kinds of personality traits succeed within your organization. Understand what kinds of people make your business run more effectively and recognize what kinds of people are most successful with the majority of your clients.

When you hire to make your life easier, you eliminate the need to babysit staff that doesn’t produce and you reduce the amount of complaints you have to field from your clients.

Setting up a job search.

By evaluating your management style, the kind of clients you have (or want in the future) and the kinds of employees you have within your business, you will learn what kinds of questions and answers you need to ask and receive during an interview process. Some questions might include:

  • Does your team pride itself on exceptional results?
  • Are you a demanding business owner, expecting nothing less than perfection at all times?
  • Is your environment characterized by a work-hard, play-hard kind of attitude?
  • Do the majority of your employees have families and like to participate in company events that allow them to show off their children and spouses?
  • Are your clients extremely particular and demanding or do they have high expectations for detailed communication?
Questions to ask candidates.

Put together a list of questions that test for the personality traits and the defined skill sets your business might need. Some questions to consider include:

  • Tell me about a time when you worked with a challenging client. What was the situation like and what did you do to accommodate the client’s requests?
  • Give an example of your most complicated project. How many people worked on the job, what were the specifics of the job and why was it more complex than other projects?
  • How do you motivate others on a team and get everyone on the same page?
The 80% rule.

Eighty percent of the hire is personality. In this case, Jerry was whiny and selfish. He disappeared after getting an offer, took a few extra days to “think about it” and wasn’t very professional throughout the process. Jerry might have assumed that he was in the driver’s seat because Tom was so desperate or Jerry might not have considered Tom at all.

Either way, Jerry did not conduct himself professionally throughout the hiring process so it was not a stretch to imagine that he would not act appropriately when he was presented with another opportunity and the time came to leave Tom’s employment.

Tom was a bit concerned, but extended an offer. After all, busy season was rapidly approaching and the situation was getting a little dire.