Editor's note: This article was excerpted from Managing a Small Business Made Easy , which is a guide to the essential elements--including human resources, customer service, advertising, finances and advisors--you need to be successful.

I was working late one night to complete an important project for our company, a medium-sized manufacturer of agricultural and industrial equipment. It happened to be a Saturday night and the second and third shifts were not working. The plant covered over 500,000 square feet and was equipped with all types of machinery, including huge 2,000- and 3,000-ton vertical presses that stood more than 20 feet high. During the day, when all of the workers were there, the noise and activity level in the plant was very high.

This particular night, I had to go across the plant to a supervisor's office to collect some reports that were vital to our project. The plant was completely dark, except for a few safety lights glowing at the end of some of the long bays. I turned on the lights to illuminate my way and was suddenly struck by the eerie silence. It was almost deathlike. Here was this huge facility and millions of dollars' worth of equipment, but without people it was a useless collection of idle assets, worth only their price at auction. People, working diligently, were the pulse, the heart of this plant. Without people, there was no activity, no life!

Finding the "Right Stuff"
How many times have we tried so hard to match the skills of a candidate to the demands of the open position that the most important characteristics of a person have been relegated to lesser importance or forgotten entirely?

The key to a person's worth (the "right stuff") is integrity, honesty, intelligence, the ability to communicate, and the ability and willingness to learn. Technical skills are important, but without the key ingredients, the technical skills of the applicant may be irrelevant.

Finding the candidate with the "right stuff" is not an easy task, but then my grandmother, after several years of urging, finally convinced me that anything that is worthwhile is difficult and requires considerable effort.

There are several roads to successful hiring:

1. Personal knowledge of a candidate. The best candidates are usually not hunting for a job. They may be people employed by one of your customers, people in competing companies, people in the same industry but not in the same line of business, or people in other industries who have exhibited the talents necessary for the job. More important, do you or one of your key associates personally know the candidates? If so, you may begin to pursue them, but with a few admonitions.

If the selected candidate works for a customer, it's a good plan to contact the customer and let him know that his employee is a candidate for your position. I once hired one of my best customer's top men, believing that I would lose the customer. I decided it was worth the risk. I did lose the customer, but not forever. The man I hired is now successfully running the business from which I retired. It was well worth it!

People with the "right stuff" are absolutely essential to the future success of your business! A compromise in this area has come back to hurt many businesses: it typically involves terminating the "compromise" and repeating the hiring process. What's worse is that these "compromises" do poor work, cause internal problems, and end up costing the company in many ways.

Depending upon your relationship with a competitor who has a potential candidate, you may wish to treat that competitor much the same as recommended for your customer. The same may be said for candidates working for one of your suppliers.

2. A valued friend knows the candidate personally. This is the next best thing to knowing the candidate yourself. A referral from a friend, a business associate or a present employee whose judgment you respect is a valid basis for pursuing a candidate. Note that your friend must be more than a golfing buddy; you must respect his judgment as you would a trusted associate.

3. "Pay the price." If the first two approaches don't provide a candidate, the next best avenue to the "right stuff" is a toll road. A search firm or a highly reputed employment agency is a good but expensive route (often in the area of 30 percent of the employee's starting annual compensation). Keep in mind, however, the value of an outstanding employee. It far surpasses the fee you may have to pay. Your agreement with the search firm or agency should include the right to reimbursement if the hired candidate doesn't work out within a reasonable time period, perhaps six months and sometimes longer. This may be negotiable with each individual firm. This avenue is most often appropriate for higher-level positions and not entry-level jobs.

The search firm or agency should do all preliminary screening, which often includes intelligence, personality, aptitude and skills testing, the cost of which should be included in their fee. (Note: These efforts do not test judgment; you must do this yourself.) In addition, you should expect the firm to provide you with at least three good, qualified candidates who meet the requirements you specify when you contract with the firm.

4. Hire a temporary employee from an agency. It's quite common to contract for a temporary employee only to find that the temp is the right person for the job on a permanent basis and may be available. In this case, you should be prepared to pay a fee to the temp agency. This is a reasonably good way to hire clerical and lower-level technical personnel and it keeps your business moving while you're continuing your search.

5. Advertise in the right places. Although we have not found many "right places to advertise," they may include trade or industry magazines that you're reasonably sure are read by the candidates you're seeking. Sometimes the local newspaper can be a good source for candidates, but be prepared to kiss a lot of toads to find the prince. Likewise, some have reported success with national publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the National Employment Weekly, and others report good results by advertising on the internet. Choose the outlets best for you. Remember: If you hire an out-of-town candidate, you will be expected to pay for moving expenses!

The hiring of a candidate assumes that you have carefully and thoroughly considered your own employees as a source. You must not overlook current employee candidates! Study the background and work history of those who might qualify. You may not be aware or have forgotten that one of them has all of the qualities that you are hunting for in the new position.

Many businesses post job openings on the employee bulletin boards. I believe this is a good practice.

Be Aware of Employment Laws!

The interview process and application forms, in today's arena, are landmines waiting to be stepped on! There are more employment laws today than ever before and questions you used to be able to ask are now grounds for discrimination lawsuits. If you aren't familiar with these laws, you must become so--and the sooner the better.

Contact your legal counsel. Most law firms either have an expert on employee relations or can refer you to a source where appropriate literature can be found. One good document is the SBA's An Equal Opportunity Guide for Small Business Employers .

There are questions you cannot ask during the interview process. Topics to steer clear of include age, disabilities, pregnancy, marital status, religion, sexual preference, race, ancestry, children and prior arrests. Everyone in your organization who may be in a position to conduct an interview must be aware of these and other limitations. We recommend that you develop a list of questions that are acceptable and provide the interviewers with some guidance that is meaningful.

A typical list of questions that can be asked is presented below. Obviously, if you have found a candidate because of your personal knowledge (or the knowledge of a business associate), you will already know the answers to many of the "illegal" questions. Even so, don't document such knowledge, even if the candidate is for the number-two position in the company. Have as many key people as possible interview the prospect. More opinions will make for a better hiring decision and the other interviewers may uncover something vital that you overlooked.

Interview Questionnaire

  1. What do you like most about your present job?
  2. What do you like least about your present job?
  3. Describe your responsibilities in detail.
  4. Describe your relationship with your supervisor.
  5. What do you like most about your supervisor?
  6. Why are you considering a different job?
  7. Why did you leave the job prior to this one?
  8. Do you like most of your fellow employees?
  9. Are you aware of the responsibilities of the job for which you are a candidate?
  10. Do you have any physical limitations that would prevent you from fulfilling those responsibilities?
  11. What do you consider your greatest strength as a candidate for this position?
  12. What do you consider your greatest challenge as a candidate for this position?
  13. What is your present compensation and benefits package?
  14. What was your beginning compensation in your job?
  15. What specific training have you had that might increase your ability to perform our job?
  16. In which school subjects were you most successful?
  17. Which subjects in school did you find the most difficult?
  18. Can you provide some references for your technical abilities? What are their positions?
  19. What do you know about our company that you find appealing?
  20. Are working overtime and travel acceptable to you?
  21. Are you willing to receive additional training to improve your ability to perform our job?
  22. What is the most important factor to consider about becoming an employee of our company? For example: compensation, benefits, working hours, opportunity to progress.
  23. What are the least important factors in your consideration?

Employment Preferences
Another aid in hiring is a listing of employment preferences. The answers can be quite enlightening when studied with the responses to interview questions and a review of an application form. The answers to these questions are important regardless of the level of the position that you are seeking to fill.

Here is a sample employment preferences questionnaire:

Rank the factors listed below, on a scale of 1 through 10, with 10 being the most important and 1 being the least important to you in considering a position with our company.
___ 401(k) plan
___ Health and dental insurance
___ Incentive bonus plan
___ Initial base compensation
___ Job security
___ Opportunity for advancement
___ Retirement plan
___ Vacation time
___ Working conditions
___ Working hours

The Employment Application
Once you have identified legitimate candidates for the position, you must have them complete an employment application. Failure to do so may result in your inability to defend your decision to hire or not hire an individual. There are a number of sources available for securing a sample form that complies with all government regulations and laws. Or, you can develop one of your own and have your legal counsel review and revise it to ensure that it is acceptable in the eyes of the law.

Hiring the "Right Stuff"

How you approach hiring the right person for a job depends upon the level and type of job. It goes without saying that hiring an entry-level person is substantially different than securing the services of a high-level technical person or a number two or three in the chain of command. In every case, however, reference checking is mandatory.

Despite your prior knowledge (assumed) of a key manager-level applicant, you may be surprised at what you find when checking references and credit. Remember: Some of the biggest names in industry (and in our federal government) have been embezzlers, bankrupts, accused of sexual misconduct and harassment, felons, and convicted of lesser crimes. Check out their education, call prior supervisors, check for felony convictions and verify prior employment. In short, do your homework!

Assuming you've identified a good candidate and completed all of the homework with positive results, how do you convince him or her to become a part of your company? There are several employment selling points that you should emphasize.

1. Stress the positive factors that have influenced the candidate to favorably consider the position. They may include your company's reputation, a positive environment in which to work, an equity opportunity, the possibility of advancement, the prospect of securing improved monetary rewards for outstanding performance, or simply a "great challenge." Remember that compensation is not the key incentive for people with the "right stuff."

2. Do not "buy" their services. Any person who is primarily motivated by an immediate increase in base pay is not looking for the strong, long-term relationship that will contribute to the company's success. Why wouldn't he leave your company six months from now for another immediate increase in base pay? This is quite different from a candidate's desire to be properly rewarded for an outstanding contribution to the company's objectives. Although you shouldn't "buy" the candidate, you should be willing to "pay for what you get." Good people cost more! More about incentive compensation later.

3. Assure the candidate that his contribution to the company's objective is meaningful. What is more discouraging than being pursued by a company and, once employed, becoming an unnoticed number on the employee roster?

4. Consider involving more than one key manager in the hiring process to reinforce the positive factors. It's fine to discuss prospective employment with the key manager who is involved; however, if other managers are present, it will give the candidate a stronger feeling of being wanted. If you are hiring your number-two man or prospective successor, the group approach is not appropriate, unless that group involves other owners or directors of the company.

5. Consider an employment contract or offer letter. There may be occasions when a candidate for a high-level management position will be more comfortable seeing all of the conditions of employment in writing. The written document is a permanent record of the covenants between the candidate and the company and lessens the possibility for misunderstanding between the parties.

The written document may be as beneficial to the company as it is to the candidate. It would be desirable for you to have your legal counsel draft or at least review and approve either of these types of documents to prevent any potential future legal problems. Be especially careful with any noncompete language. Noncompete agreements are frequently not enforceable.

"Getting Acquainted"
One of the most common mistakes made by small businesses in the human resources area is believing that a new hire will perform exactly as expected. At the very least, there is an indoctrination phase that should be provided to every new employee. In addition to learning his way around the facility, the new employee must be provided information that will improve his chances of contributing immediately to the company's performance. This indoctrination phase should consist of the following, at a minimum.

1. Presenting the company's personnel policies. Although the new employee will have learned a good bit about the company's personnel policies during the hiring process, he should now be provided a personnel handbook (assuming one is available) that explains the more important policies. These policies should include the hiring process just completed, a definition of salaried and hourly personnel (and their differences), salary administration, incentive bonus plan, profit sharing, retirement plan (if any), pay grade structure, time reporting, working hours, overtime pay, shift premium, pay for attending funerals and jury duty, and performance appraisals. Employee benefits should be explained, including vacation time, health and dental insurance, disability compensation and other benefits, such as awards and company automobiles.

If the company has a 401(k) plan and a Section 125 "cafeteria plan," they should be covered carefully so the new employee understands how and when he can begin to participate. All of these matters, and others you may think of, are important to the employee and should be presented as soon as possible.

2. Teaching the company's safety programs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued standards and regulations designed to protect employees from safety and health hazards. These standards and regulations involve the communication of information about hazardous or toxic materials, infectious materials, respiratory hazards and safety procedures for the operation of equipment. In addition, OSHA requires the development of a fire safety program that prescribes, among other things, fire exits, fire extinguishers, an emergency action plan, evacuation routes and procedures, an accounting for employees, assigned fire personnel, the alerting of fire emergencies and training relative to all of the above. Check within your state for any other local regulations and related reporting that may be required.

Many companies also have plans that relate to local or regional weather problems, such as tornados, hurricanes and flooding. All of these plans and programs must be communicated to the employee, who usually must also be trained in the execution of the plans.

3. Understanding the company's business. This may be the most important part of the indoctrination program. The new employee needs to learn about the company's operations, its objectives and, in broad terms, the plan for achieving the objectives. The new employee should understand product information, competitive position, marketing strategy, manufacturing or service process, and personnel organization.

Obviously, the depth of this part of the indoctrination will depend upon the position. He must be involved and made to feel a part of the company's business; the best time to initiate that feeling is at the very beginning of his employment. If there is a plant, include a brief plant tour and introduction to other employees. If there are products, provide an explanation of what they are and why they are unique. If the company offers services, explain what those services are and how they're provided to the customer.

Training the Right Employee

In some cases, you may have hired a person who has all of the character attributes that you desire but may not be well-versed in some technical area of his responsibility. He may be a good machine operator but not have adequate training in computer numerical controlled (CNC) equipment, or he may be a great salesperson but not understand the required data entry functions required of sales personnel, e.g., use of a point-of-sale device, cash register and so forth. Many times a person with responsibilities in operations may have no background at all in accounting and financial controls. In all of these cases, a training program may be appropriate. There are several ways to provide the needed training.

1. Vocational technical school. Vo-tech schools are quite good in training people in industrial arts, such as machine tool operation, engineering design, computer-assisted design (CAD), computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM), and similar skills. You or the person who is responsible for human resources matters should be well acquainted with any vo-tech schools in your company's area and the types of skills for which they offer training.

2. Business schools, colleges and universities. These institutions offer excellent training and education in traditional areas of marketing, sales, accounting, computer operation, clerical skills and others. If the school is of sufficient size, it will offer these subjects at night, interfering less with the normal workday. If your company has a policy for doing so, you may offer to pay the tuition to attend such classes, provided the classes relate to the employee's primary job responsibility, the classes are approved in advance, and the employee completes the course satisfactorily. And, of course, I must mention the seminars and workshops offered by the local SCORE chapters and by the Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) . Most often, these educational opportunities are low cost and, in some cases, free to the participant.

3. Industry schools and seminars. Depending upon the background of the instructor and his or her teaching skill, industry-sponsored seminars or workshops can be an excellent way to provide "brush-up" training to new employees. The sessions are usually not lengthy and the value of meeting their peers from other companies may be even more valuable than the training itself.

4. In-house training. Many small companies don't have the facilities or time to offer formal in-house training. However, one-on-one or on-the-job training, focusing on the critical needs of the new employee, is an excellent way to make sure the needed information is learned. Keep in mind that such training may detract from the efficiency of the trainer but the new hire will learn "our preferred methods," enabling him to contribute more rapidly to the company's performance.

Motivation and Involvement
Do you really know what motivates your people? Have you thought about what motivates you? We believe the answer can be expressed in this way:

Something or someone you respect has told you, in some way, "You have done well!"

The "some way" may be a silent nod, a communication from someone you respect, or your own knowledge (based on parameters you know and honor) that you have "done well." The more clearly this acknowledgment is perceived, the more effective the motivation.

The premise that "nothing succeeds like success" is illustrated by a research study involving ten adults who were given a puzzle to solve. The puzzle was the same for all ten participants. After they were completed, five of the adults were told that they did quite well, getting seven or more correct out of 10 possibilities (which wasn't true). The other five (who may have done well) were told that they had done poorly, seven out of 10 wrong (which wasn't true either).

Then all 10 were given another puzzle, the same for each person. The five who'd been told they had done well on the first puzzle really did do well on the second puzzle. The five who'd been told they had done poorly on the first puzzle did poorly on the second puzzle.

Having coached little league baseball (ages 9 to 18) for 16 years, I can absolutely corroborate the results of the puzzle experiment. We created good teams out of players who were average in technical skills by reinforcing the good things that each player accomplished. We pointed out that poor performances were the result of some technical miscue of which the players simply weren't aware and we were sure that they would do better now that they were aware. This confidence that we expressed in the players was rewarded!

In my own business, we often hired young people who had just graduated from high school and were known to some of our proven employees. Our on-the-job training program was essential to the success of these new recruits; however, positive recognition of their successful accomplishments played an immense role in their becoming valued and competent employees. We dealt with their mistakes as a learning process as long as their attitude remained good and they did not often repeat the same mistakes. Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator!

Obviously, motivation is not as simple as a pat on the back or a person knowing that they've done well. You must understand the normal desires of people relative to their employment, regardless of the level of their responsibility. Most people desire the following:

  • Recognition for their good work
  • Meaningful participation in the company's efforts
  • A feeling of belonging in a successful organization
  • Opportunities for growth and advancement in their competence and responsibility
  • Security in their job if they perform to expectation
  • Monetary reward for an expected level of performance
  • Benefits that protect them and their families from significant monetary loss

Even top-level management personnel, who are typically self-motivated, desire the same things as those in positions of lesser responsibility. A mutual recognition by their peers for a job well done or a project successfully completed may be sufficient. A brief recognition of their success by the top executive goes even further as a motivator!

Keep Your Employees Happy
There have been many such surveys published, but none that I have found have ever identified what I believe is the most important factor in successful employment:

Enjoying the job . . . enjoying going to work!

How many people do you know that sincerely like to go to work in the morning? How many people do you know who would say they honestly like their job? We all know people who have worked all their lives at jobs that they have not enjoyed. Considering that many men and women spend 35 percent to 50 percent of their waking moments at work, not enjoying that time would be very depressing.

So, how do you make an employee's work something that he or she enjoys? It is called involvement! Keep your people involved. Consider the following:

1. Communicate with them. Make them aware of company business that might affect them, either directly or indirectly. Make sure they know about new products or services, give them copies of new company brochures, and tell them about negotiations for new health insurance. They have a need to know.

2. Reinforce their contributions to the company's objective. Informal discussions are needed to bring the employees up to date on their role in the business. Annual performance appraisals offer an excellent chance to involve the employees in company affairs in addition to letting them know how effectively they have been working.

3. Solicit suggestions for positive changes, whether in customer service, new products, manufacturing processes or administration. Often, the employees who are closest to a problem will come up with the best solution. Involve them in problem solving and operational improvements. A lot of good ideas have come from a suggestion box and those ideas should be rewarded with recognition and monetary rewards.

4. Encourage a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of a successful effort. This is much like being a part of a winning sports team, an experience that is never forgotten.

Martin E. Davis, CPA, has owned and worked extensively with small businesses. He is the chairman of the Northern Arizona chapter of SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business," which is an organization of experienced business owners who offer free support to small-business owners across the United States.