This is the second part in a series of blogs discussing the various trials and tribulations that you may come across whilst running a small business (SME – Small to Medium-sized Enterprise).
As mentioned in the first blog, I started Cornerstone Projects in 2004 as a one-man band operating out of a spare room in my house; we have now expanded to a staff of 13 and turnover approx. £1.5m / year. This blog expands on the challenges previously noted with employing staff over that period.
Staff – Our story so far
I’ll try and keep this bit short but hopefully it’s useful to give you some idea of how we got where we are.
The early days of starting and running a small business are of course relatively easy as regards staff – there’s often only one employee which is you! Whilst this means that you have to rapidly become somewhat of an ‘expert’ on a wide variety of issues such as IT, accounts, sales, marketing, customer relations, processes, etc. at least you can maintain control and keep a grasp of product quality.
Any issues / problems are also more easily addressed; you caused them and guess what – you have to solve them!
One of the downsides for me was the hours that it quickly became necessary to work – I was often sitting at my PC at 6.00am (sometimes in my underpants – luckily Cornerstone Projects is web-based…) and working till late in the evening. It also made holidays somewhat problematic; fortunately I had several friends that could fill in for a few days occasionally.
Hopefully, if you’re doing all of the above reasonably well, the company will grow, more work will come in and you’ll have to look at employing your first member of staff. Where do you find this mythical being? What should they look like? At this point I have to hold my hands up as I didn’t have to look far.
The Cornerstone office at the time was in the box room of a house I had recently bought and was renovating mostly by myself in and around my proper work. Helping me with the renovation part-time was a Building Surveying student; it seemed sensible when the renovation was completed to continue employing him to work for Cornerstone.
As we continued to grow our next two employees were also no-brainers – a friend’s son and another friend (both who I already knew socially and who were also degree qualified) gave me a trusted and very qualified workforce. Any one of us was capable of doing any of the processes required to provide utility search packs to the customer. This was around 2009 i.e. 5 years after I started.
Growth and the associated increase in employees then continued through two office moves to the present. New employees were (and still are) mostly selected after online advertising and interviews. We currently have 13 staff; one of the original group of 4 is still with us in a senior role and others have left to pursue other goals.
Our recruitment policy has always been to employ intelligent staff who we can train in a variety of roles. Many, but not all of these have been undergraduates; many have not had any work experience prior to Cornerstone. We would rather pay well for someone with brains, who we accept may decide to move on after several years, than someone on minimum wage who is less able, less interested or less motivated.
I believe this gives us the best chance of consistently providing a quality product as quickly as possible. Recently we’ve been using the Indeed website to do this which seems to give a fair number of suitable applicants at little cost.
As noted in my previous blog, the downside is the number of CV’s we have to sift through; many of which seem to be auto-generated with little that is actually relevant to the post advertised. It’s also possible that we are missing out on other candidates that could be superb, but I guess this is true of most recruitment processes.
We’ve started doing brief telephone interviews prior to inviting candidates to a formal interview. This seems to weed out a surprisingly large number of applicants who, despite applying, don’t actually want a job.
You can draw your own conclusions from this but as noted in my last blog, might it have something to do with the government’s requirement that people need to be seen to be actively seeking work to claim job seeker’s allowance? Or perhaps they are just job voyeurs!
Interviews – everyone’s idea of fun (not)! As we’re a small company we have all three senior employees in the room for interviews which could be a bit intimidating for younger candidates. The idea is to try and ensure that we pick the person best able to fit into and work within the current team although they don’t have to be similar – sometimes a fresh approach is great.
Having passed the CV screening they should be able to do the job without a problem as it’s not that difficult and we have a fairly rigorous training programme. We’re also looking for people who are willing to put up with what can sometimes be quite boring and repetitive work without dropping the ball. How you are supposed to glean this information though in an interview is tricky to work out.
We try to be objective but with it being many candidates’ first job there is often not much to compare and you have to rely to a large extent on gut feeling. Judging by the last few employees we’re getting better at least!
So now we’ve got our fresh new employee and we get to put our training regime into action. It generally takes us about a month to get someone trained up to a level where they don’t require constant monitoring; by the end of this they should be able to do a variety of process roles depending on workload, holidays etc.
We also hope that by the end of this time they aren’t so disenfranchised that they want to leave… fortunately this has only happened twice.
One employee started but left within a couple of weeks citing the job as ‘not being for them’ despite warnings in the interview that it could be monotonous at times; another got offered a different job that they’d applied for before starting with us. It’s disappointing having wasted the training time but obviously we can only be a performing team if everyone wants to be here!
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So the disappointments (or lucky escapes?) so far:
1) The above mentioned employees leaving after a few weeks
2) A new employee that was good at the job but had such poor personal hygiene that no one else could stand being in the same office – that was one of the hardest one-to-one chats I’ve ever had!
3) A great new starter who not unreasonably asked to leave when another employee had a more than friendly relationship with his (ex) girlfriend (all outside of the office I hasten to add – they already knew each other)
4) An employee who was not great at their job, unreliable, often off sick, and then resigned citing constructive dismissal when asked to come to a meeting to discuss this, instructing us to communicate only through their solicitor (we never did find out who the solicitor actually was)
5) A good employee having to leave as their ill health made it impossible to continue working
6) Several others that have left us that, although were OK as employees, we always had a feeling could be replaced by someone better.
7) Younger staff – we seem to have got to point in society where everyone has a phone but under 25’s only use them to communicate by text / messages etc. We’ve had several staff who are reluctant to talk to customers / suppliers on the phone in our open plan office because they don’t like being overheard.
On the positive side we have had (and still have) many great employees who it is a pleasure to work with. Others of those who have left have gone for the right reasons – mostly back to University or to work with family companies – and with our best wishes for a successful future.
Overall, so far over the last 16 years we have employed I think 30 employees of whom 13 are still here. I’ve no idea whether this turnover is good, bad or indifferent compared to similar businesses but as noted above it may be influenced by the type of employees that we take on who we are well aware may move on after a few years.
When starting up it’s obvious who should be manager – it’s you! I’d previously had experience managing as a civil engineer both on site and in the office which helped a lot as the team grew. With more staff though I needed someone else who could take control when I wasn’t there; as time went on this defaulted to the longest-serving member of staff.
Unfortunately, as we grew further it became apparent that they lacked the skills required to be a manager. A lot of this is my fault; as they hadn’t previously worked in any other industry I was the only role model they had as a manager and I must have been a failure at this! I’m only too aware of my weaknesses as a manager anyway but these seemed amplified in this particular employee.
Eventually, after about 13 years, with other employees on board that I knew were capable of being a better manager, I had the difficult discussion with the employee who admitted they weren’t happy in the role anyway and wanted to leave to pursue other interests. Which was the best result I could have hoped for! (Although there have been further developments since this which have been disappointing to say the least – I’ll just say don’t assume everyone has similar morals to yourself)
Having a good manager is vital to a growing business particularly if, like me, it’s not your strongest point. It not only leads to improvements in overall working processes and practises but takes a lot of pressure off me as the business owner, freeing me up to look at other parts of the business (such as writing blogs!)
Currently, I’m glad to say, I think we’ve got the best team we’ve had for a while and long may this continue – It certainly makes life easier! We’ve also got to the point where we now have cover for all holidays; this can be a difficult balancing act for SME’s as it’s expensive to overstaff but as you grow to around 12 staff there’s nearly always someone on holiday.
Employing staff has created some highs and lows along the way (and I’m sure there will be more in future) but at least it’s interesting!
If you’re still here well done and thanks – I’ll be doing another blog soon.
Duncan’s first utilities search was completed from his spare room back in 2004. He came up with the idea of offering Underground Utility Searches whilst managing a small engineering design team in his previous role. They regularly had to contact the utilities for their plans and he soon realised how much hassle and time this took. He quickly turned this idea into action, and with over 57,000+ searches completed to date, has built systems and internal processes that are the envy of the industry.