From the July 2002 issue of Startups

Years ago I worked for a large national company. We had sales and service offices in many cities and a manufacturing plant in the Midwest. From time to time, an employee would quit and we would have to find a replacement. It was a low-pressure situation; there were plenty of other employees to carry the extra weight while we waited to find the "right" person. Sometimes the right person wasn't the right one after all, and the process started all over again within a few months.

The scenario is quite different for small companies. A single wrong hire could cost you an entire year's profit and result in a mountain of work that needs to be redone. So let's take a look at some of the steps to follow when hiring. And to make it a little more interesting, let's hire our very first employee.

The great part of owning a small business is the right, indeed the responsibility, to make decisions. Those decisions can't be second-guessed by people with the authority to overturn them. So the reasons business owners hire people are not necessarily the same reasons a large corporation may have to justify the action.

Quite often, business owners ask us "When should I hire my first employee?" In short, whenever you want to--it's your company. You'll find, though, that you'll have some advance warning of a need to hire. In general, you should hire when one of two factors is present: Your workload has become unrealistic, or you are in need of some special skills beyond your own.

Some business owners we've met are resistant to hire even when faced with the obvious need. And we've come to the conclusion it's usually fear-based--they're simply afraid to manage a work force of even one person, or they fear admitting deficiency in certain skills. Get over it. Your business should provide more than a living; it should provide a life. That means free time to enjoy your family, friends, interests and hobbies--and the likelihood of successful growth.

So you've decided to take the plunge and hire that first employee. Be methodical. You will probably never get it perfect, but the job applicants are not the only ones interviewing. You are, too--you're trying to sell the merits of working for you rather than someone else. These are the steps we suggest:

  • Identify the specific needs to be filled. Determine the duties, responsibilities and authority.
  • Write a colorful ad that will stand out from the others, and place it where your target candidates are likely to read it. Let your friends and business associates know you have an opening, too.
  • Arrange to have someone other than you handle incoming calls and set interviews. Have that person screen out those who obviously don't meet your basic needs. Limit the number of applicants based on how critical the position.
  • For the interview, dress appropriately to convey success and authority. Give your complete attention to each applicant--no interruptions. Ask every question that will have an impact on your decision, but do not ask anything inappropriate or illegal, i.e., questions about a person's age or marital status.
  • Do not hire anyone until you've met with all applicants and have given yourself the opportunity to review them during some quiet time.
  • With permission, call references and former employers. Do they confirm your own impressions?
  • Make your decision, and don't second-guess yourself.
 
NEXT STEP
 

The interviews and the hiring decision were certainly important--but now comes the hard part: integrating this new employee into your formerly one-person company. His or her first day on the job will set the tone for the foreseeable future. Let's look at some helpful steps:

  • Make absolutely certain you are there on time to greet your new employee on his or her first day. Spend some time in casual "friendly talk."
  • Show the new person around the business, and make him or her feel at home. Let the new employee know you are there for his or her success.
  • Get all new-hire paperwork completed.
  • Begin the process of helping your new associate learn the business and the job.

Like much of life, hiring your first employee will go smoothly if you take the time to do it right. Just be well-prepared, and overcome your fears.


Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.