From the October 1998 issue of Startups

Stacks of paperwork crowd your desk like high-rises. The phone never seems to stop ringing. On your desk, a photo reminds you that you have a family--but you've hardly seen them in days. You're juggling four projects and are considering taking on a fifth. You need help!

At the same time, you're not sure you're ready to make the transition from "self-employed" to "employer." On the practical side, the transition would mean having to deal with additional accounting tasks: payroll, taxes, benefits and insurance. On the personal side, hiring means bringing someone into your home to interact not only with you and your clients but also with your spouse, your kids and your dog. The thought of making it all work may seem even more intimidating than handling your workload by yourself. Not to worry--other homebased entrepreneurs have managed, and so can you.

Step One: The Groundwork

Before you decide to hire, find out if local regulations permit you to have employees in your home. In some areas, a special zoning permit is required. You may also need additional insurance; make sure you've got liability coverage in the event an employee is injured on your property.

Next, determine the type of help you need. Do you want someone to assist with the primary tasks of your business? Or are you looking for someone to handle the filing, typing and phones? Make a prioritized list of the tasks you want your employee to perform; use it to form the basis of your job description.

While job descriptions aren't required by law, entrepreneurs agree they're extremely useful. "During an interview, it's important to have a list [in front of you] of exactly what you want," says Jennie Hannah, owner of Occasions Catering and Special Events in Olympia, Washington. Hannah hired her first employee eight years ago; today, she has five full-time employees and 25 part-time servers on staff.

A job description is a tool you can use to evaluate candidates. It also provides prospective employees with an idea of the duties involved in the job they're applying for--ensuring you both have the same "view" of their job responsibilities--while providing you with a means of evaluating performance. (It's much easier to fire an employee for poor performance if you've established written guidelines in advance.)

Make your job description simple yet thorough. The Business Owner's Toolkit Web site (see "Online Resources" on page 75) recommends listing not only tasks but also the skills required to complete those tasks. For example, if you're seeking a receptionist, you might specify courtesy, good verbal communication skills and exceptional interpersonal skills. For an office administrator, you might ask for organizational ability, accounting experience and computer skills.

Your description should include the job title and the hours involved. Some entrepreneurs include a salary range; others prefer to negotiate that at the interview. According to Hannah, establishing a competitive salary range is the key to finding and keeping qualified personnel, since a range that's too low may attract underqualified applicants and compel qualified personnel to pass the opportunity by. Hannah also recommends scheduling regular salary increases to reward performance.

Remember, a salary includes not only the actual amount you pay your employee but as much as 30 percent in additional overhead as well. This includes federal and state withholding taxes, Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes, workers' compensation insurance, long-term disability insurance, vacation holiday pay, and other benefits. Benefits requirements vary among states.

For many, payroll and tax issues are the most intimidating aspects of hiring. Hannah has a solution: Hire someone who has bookkeeping skills. "Why make more work for yourself," Hannah reasons, "when the whole purpose of hiring is to reduce your workload?"

Step Two: The Network

Many homebased entrepreneurs first look to family and friends when recruiting employees. Debbi Boyd, owner of Olympia, Washington-based BRIM Inc., a cleaning services company, notes that "[inviting employees] into your home is like making them members of your family, so it's easier when they're family to begin with." Another option is to consider asking family, friends and even clients for referrals.

If these avenues don't pan out, try advertising. If you prefer not to list your home address, rent a mailbox for ad responses. (Similarly, if you prefer not to conduct interviews in your home, arrange to meet applicants at a public location, such as a coffeehouse.) As you receive responses, weed out those applicants who are underqualified or overqualified. While the latter may seem tempting at first, those candidates are more likely to move on once a better opportunity arises.

Review resumes for specific examples of work experience, such as tasks, responsibilities, accomplishments and positions held. Watch out for vague terms like "highly motivated communicator" or "detail-oriented supervisor." Look for unexplained gaps in employment history or a series of jobs held for short periods of time--trademarks of a "job hopper." Note spelling and grammatical errors; you don't want someone who can't proofread his or her own resume to handle your correspondence.

"Insist on references, and check them all," Hannah advises. Call previous employers, personal references and colleges to make sure the applicant has actually held the positions and earned the degrees claimed. If you're hiring young employees with little or no experience, Hannah recommends talking to teachers or relatives.

Jot down interview questions in advance, and rehearse them with a family member or friend. Develop open-ended, information-gathering questions, rather than questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." For example, rather than asking "Do you enjoy office work?" ask "What do you like best about office work?" or "What do you consider your strongest administrative skill?" Instead of asking "Can you handle customer complaints?" ask them to describe how they might handle such a situation.

Be sure you know what types of questions you can't ask, including questions about age, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and marital or family status. If you're concerned about how an applicant's personal situation might affect his or her work ability, keep your questions focused on the job. Instead of asking whether an applicant is willing to be away from his or her family for periods of time, for example, ask whether or not the applicant is willing to travel.

Keith Walton, CEO of Propaganda, a San Francisco firm that markets antique "props" for merchandising displays, notes that an interview should do more than determine an applicant's skills. "Think about who you would want in your home and the type of energy that person will bring into your home," he says. "Will that energy be chaotic or peaceful? Look for someone who `matches' you, someone you'd want to spend time with." Walton and his partner, David Tyreman, prefer to hire employees with a sense of fun: "You don't want someone in your home who can't crack a joke or a smile," Walton says.

Hannah, who recommends putting new hires on a month-long probation, agrees: "If you're working closely together, you have to get along. You have to know what type of person you're hiring." Trustworthiness, she says, is an important criterion. And this applies to more than your personal relationship. You have to feel you can trust this person with your business.

Step Three: The Housework

The primary downside to inviting employees into your home is the resulting lack of privacy. Your lifestyle, Walton notes, is on constant display: the unwashed laundry, the pizza box on the floor, even prescriptions in your medicine cabinet. He suggests examining how your lifestyle may affect the way employees view you. Will they respect you as a strong, capable boss if they see your pink bunny slippers in the bathroom?

Walton points to another consideration: "If you've built a successful business, you want to reward yourself for that success, and this can sometimes create resentment." While traditional CEOs go home to a house their employees will never see, yours won't miss the fancy new car in your driveway or the new furniture in your living room.

According to Walton, your most important task is to separate your work and your home, both mentally and physically. Creating boundaries is crucial, he says, and the first step is to establish "no go" areas for employees. "In a normal office, if you step out for lunch, you can't be reached," he says. "In your home, however, this could mean stepping into your kitchen for a sandwich or into your living room for a chat with your spouse. It's tempting for an employee to feel that since you're so close, you're available to take calls or answer questions." Walton adds that your staff also needs to understand that when you leave the official work area, you have "left the building" and can't be reached, even if you're just a few steps away.

Walton also recommends establishing "no go" times for your employees. "You don't want to have someone in your home when you're not there," he points out. "Also, if you want to stop working at 5 p.m. but someone else may be finishing a project, it may be hard for you to switch off and `go home.' Nor do you want employees showing up for work early, while you're still in your pajamas drinking coffee." His recommendation is to establish specific work hours--and to give employees the freedom to take work home, with the assurance they'll be paid for that time.

But the most important step of all, says Walton, is to observe your own rules. If you blur the boundaries between work and home--eating lunch at your desk or leaving the kitchen door open when you're on a break--you can't expect your employees to respect those boundaries. "Your staff needs clarity," he says.

Boundaries are also important from your employees' perspective. While you're used to your home's idiosyncrasies, employees may find it difficult or unpleasant to work in a dirty, cluttered, noisy or disorganized house. Employees might not appreciate sharing a bathroom with a litter box, making lunch amid piles of unwashed dishes or trying to work around mounds of personal clutter. Shouting children, barking dogs and loud music can also disrupt employees. Such an environment may lead to a higher turnover rate.

Hannah and Boyd offer the following tips to help you handle these issues:

  • Hire a housekeeper. Don't add to your workload by trying to keep a spotless home/office; let someone else do it for you. This will not only help you keep your own messes private, but will also make sure you won't be stuck cleaning up your employees' messes.
  • Designate a work area for your employees. Even if you can't provide an office with a closed door, make sure your employees have a designated area to store paperwork, projects, equipment and personal items.
  • Install a vending machine. "Whenever I went to the refrigerator, someone had always taken the last Pepsi," says Boyd. To solve the Pepsi problem, she installed a soft-drink vending machine and also placed a minifridge in the garage for employees to use. You might also install a snack machine and set aside a specific area of the sink with coffee supplies for employees.
  • Designate an employee bathroom. Keep the bathroom clean, well-stocked and off-limits to the rest of the household.
  • Try to arrange for off-street parking. This is important, as the zoning laws in some neighborhoods require it.
  • Be flexible about hours. If your home office is in a residential area, employees may have to drive some distance just to pick up a sandwich. Longer lunch hours give employees a much-needed break.
  • Remember that your employees are not babysitters. Clear lines should be drawn between work and family. Ensure that family members don't disrupt your employees' work; and don't expect an employee to take care of pets or plants.

Hiring an employee to work in your home affects the entire family. Before you make the decision to hire, discuss the situation with everyone involved. This will help you identify needs and potential problems in advance, and will also help establish ground rules for everyone. Only take on the employees you really need, so it will be easier to keep the help you hire. Hopefully, you can find someone who will not only grow with your company but also help your company grow.

Knowing When It's Time To Hire

  • You have to turn down assignments due to time constraints.
  • You miss deadlines or don't complete assignments satisfactorily.
  • You spend more than 50 percent of your time handling tasks like typing and filing.
  • You consistently work more than 10 hours per day, plus weekends.
  • You often miss one or more meals during the workday due to lack of time.
  • Your family complains about your lack of attention (or worse, you've begun to snap at family members for intruding on your work time, even though it's a weekend).
  • You cancel activities with your family to catch up on work.
  • You have to hire contractors or temporary employees to help you catch up.
  • You feel stressed and overworked, and your health is beginning to suffer (e.g., you've begun to experience headaches, insomnia, indigestion and similar stress-related problems).
  • You're beginning to wonder whether your business is worth the hassle and stress.

There's no magic number to this quiz. For some, just one of these symptoms is enough to demonstrate the need for assistance. Others may discover they've already scored a "perfect" 10--a good indication it's time to hang a "help wanted" sign in the window.

Online Resources

The Business Owner's Toolkit

This site offers a wealth of free articles on various topics, including recruiting, interviewing, setting salaries, writing job descriptions and more. :http://www.toolkit.cch.com

"Employment Discrimination Law Materials"

This article, posted by Cornell Law School, offers an overview of discrimination issues and the Americans with Disabilities Act. http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/employment_discrimination.html

"Interviewing Techniques and Legal and Illegal Questions in Interviewing"

Find out how to conduct a successful interview--and learn what you can and can't ask prospective employees. http://www.ewin.com/articles/intervw.htm

"The Perils of Payroll Taxes"

What benefits and taxes will you have to pay when you hire an employee? This article offers an overview of what to expect. http://www.daceasy.com/library/nbpay.htm

Contact Sources

BRIM Inc., P.O. Box 1005, Olympia, WA 98507-1005, (360) 412-5266

Occasions Catering and Special Events, 1615 State St. N.E., Olympia, WA 98506, (360) 943-9494

Moira Allen is an author and former technical writer who lives in Olympia, Washington.