Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Finding the Right Person for the Job
by GEORGE JOSEPH
IT WAS Michelangelo who once said, ‘Many trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.’ Of course, the 16th-century Renaissance master was a different kind of painter. But his astute proverb applies to virtually any skill or discipline. The secret of success is in the details.
No one knows this better than Tony Severino, who is a leader in the field of restoration contracting. As president of Professional Painters, Inc., based in La Grange, Illinois, Tony has spearheaded the restoration and preservation of hundreds of historic homes throughout the Chicago area and in southern Wisconsin, as well as in such places as Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Tony has more than two decades of experience under his belt. Like any professional business manager, he recognizes the importance of hiring the right person for the job—something he learned through tough experience. “When I started,” he says, “I had up to 25 employers, all of them college kids. We had to do most jobs twice to get it right.” Before long, Tony realized that success or failure often hinges on the hiring process, and that ultimately it is the employer who must assume full responsibility for his choices. “You deserve who you tolerate,” Tony says. “Water fills the container you put it in. As a manager, you create the shape of that container, and your employees will conform to that shape—whatever it may be.”
DECO recently spoke with Tony Severino about how to get reliable, skilled people for the job—and how to ferret out the rest.
How many people have you employed over the years?
All told, more than 300. But I have to admit, I learned my lessons the hard way.
What was the problem?
Early in my career, I would hire whoever came in for an interview, but then the next day they wouldn’t show up for work. Or, in one case, this guy came in for his first day of work, went up on the scaffolding, painted three feet of board and came down. He said he had to go to the bathroom, so we sent him off to a gas station. He never came back.
Is this what led you to pay more attention to who you were hiring?
Yes. In general, hiring is a very painful and dreaded process. But I’ve developed a system that I follow to the letter, and it works. Anytime I deviate from the system, I find myself with a problem employee.
Let’s talk about your system for hiring. If you could isolate one quality that you view as most vital for a job applicant to have, what would it be?
The main thing I look for is someone who will follow my directions. On the job, both the employee and I will have to put our egos aside and work together to deliver quality results to the customer. We both have to sacrifice part of ourselves to get the job done. So I’m looking for someone who is okay with accepting instructions and who is willing to paint the way we paint at our company.
Why is that important?
Because you can’t have someone fighting you on your procedures, methods, or product selections, especially when you know that these are the very things that have made your company successful. That’s not to say that we don’t want leaders and independent thinkers who come up with new ways of doing things. They just need to be able to present their ideas in a professional manner, and certainly not in the middle of a job where we’re contractually obliged to follow already agreed upon specifications.
How do you weed out the type of employee who won’t follow directions?
As I mentioned, I’ve created a detailed system that works. First, I put an ad in the Chicago Tribune. The heading of the ad reads Painting Craftsmen Needed. This already sets the stage for the type of quality person I am looking for and dissuades the riff raff from applying. In the ad, I ask anyone who’s interested to send me a resume.
Why submit a resume rather than, say, contact you by phone?
I believe that asking for a resume gives me a higher quality candidate right from the start. The applicant has to be serious enough about getting the job to put together a resume rather than just pick up the phone. And I have the person send the resume to a post office box, not to my home address or to my business address. The ad doesn’t include my phone number, either, because I don’t want to get hassled by overeager candidates.
What type of applicant do you hope will respond to your ad?
The best situation is if an employee quits a job for the sole purpose of coming to work for me. Admittedly, that’s rare. More often, the person is out of work—which is fine, as long as he’s unemployed for a good reason. For example, many companies are slow during March and April, so people are out of work through no fault of their own. We do much of our hiring during those two months. And I’ve found great employees from companies that have gone out of business.
What do you look for in the resume?
I’m looking for someone one who has good work habits, someone who can hold down a job. One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that it’s critical to be aware of gaps in employment.
What does an employment gap mean to you?
It suggests that someone has been sitting on unemployment or possibly working jobs for cash. Of course, they won’t tell you that. To explain gaps, many painters will say that they were working on their own. So you have to ask for homeowner references, or even to see some of their jobs.
Let’s say you get what looks like a good resume. What happens next? Do you schedule an interview?
Not right away, no. First, I send the person a six-page application. It includes almost two dozen yes-or-no questions that the applicant has to respond to, and he has to agree to comply with our company regulations. It also means that he agrees to a drug test. The application also states: “It is a requirement of this job that we run a criminal background check on you. Will you comply with this requirement?” Putting this in the application has saved me a lot of headaches in the long run.
How is that?
Well, at first I would ask employees to sign a release form for a criminal background check. Some would lie and say they were clean, but then later the report would come back with problems. Now that we alert the candidate right on the application—“it is a requirement of this job that we run a criminal background check on you”—many simply don’t return the application. That saves me the $35 fee that I would normally be charged for a report. In any event, I want these cards on the table even before I meet with the person. The application is a kind of test in its own right.
What are you looking for when you read the application?
Again, I’m really testing the applicant’s ability to follow instructions. I reject some applicants because of their answers. For example, if they don’t agree to comply with some of our policies, they’re out immediately. Or if they respond poorly to certain questions or if they don’t complete the application—these ones aren’t granted an interview.
What kind of background experience do you look for?
I’ve found that the best painters started at around 16 or 18 years old. There’s something about starting at that age. It gets in your blood and you usually really enjoy the work if you stayed with it from an early age. These are rare finds, and almost certainly they will be the best painters in your company. If you took a poll of painting contractors you’d find that many of them started painting when they were 18. What does that tell you?
Is having years of experience always a necessity?
Not always. I hired someone two years ago who had never painted before. But I could tell that he was the right person for the job, because it was obvious that he could be trained. He turned out to be a superb employee with an excellent attitude. He passed my screening process. He also was a candidate that quit his current job to come to work for me.
Let’s say you like what you see on a job application. What happens next?
I’ll call the applicant on the phone and I’ll ask him questions that I need clarification on. I’m listening to hear how well he expresses himself. If he’s not clear on the phone, he will not be granted an interview.
Suppose someone actually passes the ‘phone test’ and is granted an interview. What are you looking for when he walks in the door?
First, I should say that there’s only so much you can tell from this first interview. The only way to be absolutely certain about someone is to try him out on the job and be ready to fire him within the first four weeks. Otherwise, he can claim unemployment against your company and your rate goes up. Having said that, on this initial meeting there are certain things I look for. The applicant should look presentable. He should have a decent vehicle and should be able to communicate clearly with me. He must be able to find the location of the interview—perhaps a coffee shop—and he should show up on time. It pays to be attentive to the person’s attitude. Obviously, if he’s yawning I don’t want to hire him. But if all is going well, I’ll show him our 100-page policy manual and go through it with him. I’ll tell him to take it home and read and call me if he’s still interested in the job.
Do all who come for the first interview express a desire to take it to the next step?
By no means. In plenty of cases, I’ve never heard from the person again. And to be honest, I’m not disappointed. At that point, I’m actually trying to scare them away! I’m getting all of my expectations out in the open so there won’t be any surprises if they come to work for me.
What typically happens with an applicant who does want to come back?
If I believe there’s potential, I’ll invite him to a second interview. On the second visit, the applicant will be required to sign off on accepting the policy manual. There are a number of papers to sign.
Does that intimidate the applicant?
It can! I usually make a joke to lighten the mood. I’ll apologize for all the paperwork and say that it’s like signing up for a mortgage. I hired a painter last week who had served in the Navy for six years. After I gave him my mortgage line, he said in a friendly way that he was signing more papers with me than he did when he joined the Navy. I took that as a compliment, as a sign that I’m doing my job well.
Is there anything else you require of the applicant at this point?
Yes, I’ll have him paint a six-panel door, and we talk about the exact procedure of how I want that door painted.
Again, it’s about following directions.
That’s right. We’ll talk about how in my company we follow all the Craftsman Operating Procedures, which I helped develop with The Craftsmanship Forum of the PDCA. I make sure that he’s going to be okay with following these procedures, even if it’s not what he’s used to.
So far we’ve focused on work skills. But how important are interpersonal skills for a job applicant?
Interpersonal skills are highly important. The painter needs to be able to communicate not only with fellow workers but also with the customer. He has to let the customer know what he’s doing and help with their color decisions. There are forms that he needs to help the customer fill out—work forms, prior damage reports, and so forth.
Does the applicant understand his responsibilities with regard to keeping on good terms with the client?
It’s right in the contract that they sign. For example, point Number 29 in the Professional Painters’ Conduct and Work Rules Agreement states: “It is the customer that is paying our salaries, and that makes the customer everyone’s boss. All employees are expected to be courteous and pleasant to all customers. Your workplace is someone’s home and you must treat it with the respect you would want for your own home. Each 100% satisfied customer leads us to the next referral.”
Do you ever find that a highly skilled painter lacks interpersonal skills?
It happens. The fact is that there are some top craftsmen who are not that great with words. They would rather let their work speak for them. I have known artists to be like this, too. It can cause problems in your company.
What kind of problems?
I’ve had painters quit over simple misunderstandings. They have a difficult time with conflict resolution. Some of them are too proud to stay on even when I’ve tried to intervene and reconcile their differences. After several attempts, it seems that their only option is quitting instead of trying to work it out.
What about the flip side of the coin? Can a painter be too people-oriented?
Oh, yes. I’ve had very talkative painters who want to talk all day instead of work. They seem to want to set up a smoke screen so nobody notices that they aren’t getting much done. I usually prefer the quiet ones who have confidence in the quality of their work. We just recently incorporated a set of Craftsmanship Rules, and one of them is “Let your work speak for you, not your mouth.”
When it comes to interpersonal skills, do you try to set the example for your employees?
All the time. They see me talk to the customers, not just about painting but about all sorts of things. And they see me just being friendly. I also make it a habit to thank the painters every chance I get—even in simple phone conversations. The key is to be fair and friendly while holding your workers accountable for their actions. About a year ago, a foreman told me that he was trying to use my methods when dealing with his painters. I asked him what he meant. He said, ‘You know, being nice and saying thank you.’ The point is that I try to teach interpersonal skills by setting the example.
Does your company have policies dealing with interpersonal skills?
Yes, we do. The obvious one is the policy against harassment. We also have a policy that says no one can talk about another worker if that worker isn’t present to defend himself. In other words, if you won’t say it to their face, don’t say it at all.
Can you detect an applicant’s interpersonal skills—or lack of them—during the interview?
Sure. The interview is very informal, like a casual conversation. While he’s talking to me, I’m sizing up the applicant to see if I would want him talking to my customers. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Will he get along with my other workers?’ One surefire test is to ask yourself, ‘Would I feel comfortable having this person to dinner with my family?’ or even better, ‘Would I feel comfortable leaving him alone in my home to do work?’ If I’m not comfortable with him, how can I expect my customers to be comfortable with him?
What about work ethics? What impact does this have on a job applicant’s chances of being hired?
We’re very strict about ethics. As I mentioned earlier, the applicant gets the policy manual during the interview, and this provides an excellent opportunity for us to talk about what’s expected with regard to work ethics. In fact, right inside the policy manual they can see the suspension forms they’ll receive if they violate any of our policies.
What about punctuality?
My policy is that if you’re late for work, you’re not allowed to stay late to make up hours. My customers judge my company by lateness, so I have to demand this of my employees. I check the payroll records to see if anyone is missing work or short on hours, suggesting possible late days. Our policy manual suggests that you arrive 15 minutes before your start time so you won’t be late.
What happens if a worker doesn’t show up on time?
On the first instance, we issue a warning. On the second instance, we give a one-day suspension. It’s very uncomfortable for us to do that, but we have to be extra tough on the new hires so that we can weed out the future troublemakers.
How long does it take to find out who is a troublemaker?
Six months seems to be the breaking point for a problem employee. By then, the late and absent forms have accumulated, along with all the standard excuses. I had a streak one year where as soon as someone started working for us, their Grandmother would supposedly die. One guy even had three grandmothers!
After a person is hired, is he being evaluated for his continued employment?
Yes, and that’s something he agrees to when he signs the job application. To quote it right from the form, “If hired, I understand that for the first 90 days of employment I will be considered an introductory employee, during which time I will not be considered a regular full-time employee. An introductory employee is an employee whose performance is being evaluated to determine whether further employment in a specific position or with Professional Painters is appropriate. I will be considered a regular full-time employee after I have successfully completed this introductory period.”
How do other contractors feel about your thorough screening process—from resume to application to interview?
Some of them have said that I’m crazy! They say there’s no way their painters could even fill out the application I’ve devised. But that’s my point. These contractors are having major problems with their employees, whereas I’m not. I get a lot of calls on the phone from painters who are looking for work. Through experience, I’ve found that hiring people this way usually doesn’t work out. I think they are good aggressive job finders because they are seeking me out, but they are not necessarily good job keepers. When the going gets tough, they quit because they know it will be easy for them to find another job. What I do now is I follow my policy with them. I mail out an application and then, if they return it and I like what I see, I start the interviewing process.
Obviously, you've learned through experience the principles of effective management. How would you summarize it in a nutshell?
My quick definition of effective management is in three parts. First, carefully explain what you want your employees to do; Second, give them the tools and training to do it; and Third, go back and check if they did what you wanted them to do. Many managers fall down on that last part. I try to drill into my foremen the need to check over the job when it's supposedly complete. And if you don’t have a production supervisor, then you as the owner of the company have to go and check on the work. If you don’t check on it, you can be sure that your customer is going to. And if the work isn’t perfect, you can be sure you'll get that dreaded phone call. Or worse yet, the client will simply never call again.
In the next issue of DECO: “Finding the Right Person for the Job,” part 2.
Posted on 12/17 at 01:45 PM