Expert Q&A: How to Deal with the Grueling Interview Process

The biggest mistakes, what to look for in interviews, and how to keep top talent.



From Left to Right: Donald J. Zinn, Managing Partner, Exigent Search Partners Inc.; Luba Sydor Founder and CEO, Person 2 Person LLC; Gregory J. Chartier, Principal, The Office of Gregory J. Chartier; Richard Greenwald, President, The Concorde Staffing Group; Annette McLaughlin, Program Director, Human Resource Management, Manhattanville College School of Graduate and Professional Studies, Joseph Di Carlo, Senior Vice President, WESTMED Practice Partners

 

Unless you’re a “solopreneur,” you’ve been through the grueling ringer that is the hiring process—getting inundated with countless resumés, interviewing, re-interviewing, and interviewing once more for good measure. Sifting through all those resumés and trying to choose the best candidate after just a few conversations can seem like a daunting task. And for good reason: it is. 

Worse yet, it’s all a bet. After all the time spent searching and, in turn, training, the hiring process is one big gamble. What if your new hire is not a good fit after all? Or what if he or she is a good fit, but only sticks around for a few short months? 

To ease those worries, and to allow you the best chance of stacking your chips before going all in, we gathered some of the County’s foremost hiring experts. We sat down together and talked about the hiring process—the biggest mistakes to look out for, what to look for in interviews, how to keep top talent, and more—to make sure that huge bet gives you even bigger returns. 

Robert Schork: What do you think is the single biggest mistake employers make when hiring new employees? 

Gregory J. Chartier: With small and mid-size companies, the biggest mistake they make is hiring people because they’re right there in front of them and not because they're the right person. 

Richard Greenwald: One of the horrible mistakes employers make is that they don’t actually understand the role they want the person to fit into in terms of the job description and the corporate culture; they might be hiring someone just to fill the void at that moment, and that’s the reason [some] people don’t work out.

Robert: So you’re saying that the employer has incorrectly defined the position? 

Gregory: Exactly. 

Donald J. Zinn: Every time you have an opening, you have a brand-new opportunity to re-define your business needs and requirements. What do you really need now? If you start with that, you end up getting a menu for the individual that you need. You also need to look at all the dimensions—you have to look at the skill side of it, which is innately where American employees tend to focus. But the other side of it is the behavioral requirements, and that ultimately becomes the bigger predictor of success. Skills we can learn; behaviors tend to be stuck with us. 

Joseph Di Carlo: That is a great point. We’ve seen an over-emphasis on hiring just for skill. What we’ve done at WESTMED is put an equal emphasis on passion and motivation in the process. So, in a way, it’s 33 percent equal—skill, passion, and motivation. If you have more passion and motivation, we will teach you the skill—we have people to do that. 

Annette McLaughlin: Candidates often surface who do not match 10 out of 10 criteria for the job. That’s where you have to reevaluate—if you can train them on the skill, and if the fit is right for the culture and the organization. And that also is in line with compensation—sometimes candidates surface during the process [who ask for more] than what you thought you needed to pay, and you have to really be open-minded. 

Luba Sydor: The largest mistake is force-fitting someone into a role just because they have the technical requirements. Companies really need to look at the functional fit and the job fit, as well as the organizational fit. And the organizational fit includes doing a lot of the interviewing, the soft skills—do they really fit the mission and the value? Do they exhibit those core values? 

 

Robert: So employers tend to neglect the intangibles: the personality, the culture?

Annette: The soft skills; exactly. 

Richard: Your soft skills are equally, if not more, important than the technical skills. You can teach somebody debits and credits or IT stuff. You can’t teach somebody how to be a good employee—how to show up on time, how to have energy, and how to have a work ethic. That is an innate thing. 

Joseph: Culture is so critical. For example: Every position at our organization needs to have an entrepreneurial spirit. What that means to us at WESTMED is that whether you’re a physician or someone who takes phone calls, you will be successful in that job if you look at that job and say, ‘How can I do this job better and more effectively?’ And that type of mindset is what separates the real stars and the strongest staff from the folks that aren’t in the top echelon. 

Robert: Has the Great Recession made it easier or more difficult for employers to recruit and hire top talent? Is it really a ‘buyer’s market’ for employers right now?

Annette: It is much more difficult, because employers perceive that the talent is out there and it’s a buyer’s market, yet with culture and making the right fit in regard to organization and the entrepreneurial spirit, that is harder to find. 

Gregory: There is an old saying in HR: ‘How you treat them in the bad times is how they treat you in the good times.’ The good people, the talented people, know they are good—they know they can get a job and they knew they could get a job even in the depth of the Great Recession. For them it was more a matter of, ‘Where do I want to work?’ and not, ‘Can I work?’  

Donald: We use the term ‘passive candidates’—people who are happily and gainfully employed, because if they are going to make a switch, their level of commitment is very different; they’re making the switch because they feel there is a better level of opportunity for them. With someone who is unemployed, the potential is they are taking it because it’s a port in the storm, so there is always a danger in that. During the Great Recession, we’ve seen this seismic shift in employer mindset—seemingly because there are so many resources available—‘We’re going to keep interviewing until we get a 97.5 percent fit.’ And somebody who comes in and is 95 percent there, ‘Well what if the next person who comes in is 98 percent?’ I grew up in a world where we hired for potential, and we looked at people who were an 80-percent fit for the job—that 20-percent gap was your challenge as the employee. Who wants to do a job where I’ve done 98 percent of it in the past? Over the last year and a half, it has become a ‘candidates’ market’ again; the good people are back at work and it is very competitive out there. 

Richard: Most of our clients have been hiring people who are employed. And some of these jobs are very specific and the company needs that position filled. So the perception years ago was you can hire someone at 40, 50, 60 percent of what the normal salary range was. But if they did that, they would get burned because those people, if they were good, would be jumping a year later to another job, so they are hesitant to re-fill that job at the same level—they realize they have to raise the level and the value of the employee also. 

Robert: It sounds like the recession really has ‘polluted’ the applicant pool with fewer additional qualified or non-qualified people that you have to sift through. 

Gregory: There are so many resources out there—LinkedIn, Craigslist. They are getting inundated with 5,000 resumés. So they are thinking, ‘Oh my God! I need a 99-percent fit.’ It’s taking so much longer to fill a job. 

Donald: Finding the pool is no longer the challenge. It used to be, ‘Oh, I’m looking for a needle in a haystack.’ Now you’re looking for a needle in a pile of needles, and it may be harder to do that because you don’t really understand how to go through it. If you’re getting inundated with resumés, how do you make a decision on who is the right person? How many am I going to see? It is a cloudier path today than it was. 

Joseph: There are so many great tools out there. Our ability to be greater ‘hunters’ in the recruitment process is probably greater than it has ever been. The way I look at it, the Great Recession has caused the really talented people to pause before they leave a company to take a new opportunity. 

Robert: Because of the uncertainty in moving on? 

Joseph: Exactly. Right now they may want to take an opportunity to grow for responsibility, but the economy has caused them to take a pause.

Annette: It has made the recruitment process more complex. Recruiters need to be much more in tune in seeing how to work the candidates through the process, and with the employer—keep them engaged. That’s the other thing we see, how long a search takes, because they’re interviewing 10 more candidates when they already found three great candidates looking for that 98.5-percent match.

 

Robert: So employers’ expectations can be unrealistic in assuming they can find that ‘perfect employee’ in this market, and that is belaboring the process…

Luba: Companies have downsized so significantly, yet still have the same amount of work that needs to be done. They’re probably going through several processes of re-organizing and re-scoping roles, and, if the jobs are changing significantly, they’re probably changing the skill sets and competencies that they’re looking for. So the job as it existed a year ago may be completely different today. A lot of employers feel that they now can selectively try and find the best fit for their organization as opposed to just force-fitting someone into a role. 

Richard: Conversely, on the candidate side, because being on LinkedIn is kind of putting your passive resumé out there, you have more opportunities if you are a good candidate—companies contact people. You also have more things coming at you at one time, which clouds the process of maybe taking another job—which you think is pretty right for you—and, all of a sudden, another company comes along because they found you on LinkedIn. So the recession has just allowed people to get used to using these other tools a lot more.

Gregory: There is one thing to remember: It depends on the size of the firm. Smaller firms tend to do things a lot differently than larger firms do. They see it as a crapshoot, even if they’re organized. They still see it as rolling the dice.  

Donald: Small companies aren’t hiring every day, so it’s not a regular activity. They aren’t seasoned interviewers—it becomes a crapshoot because they really don’t know what they are doing and they aren’t confident. They don’t understand how to ask questions on a behavioral interview. The other thing is that if you interview one person at a time under the idea of, ‘When I find the right person, I’ll know,’ it becomes a very difficult process. If you organize the way a search firm organizes—talk to 150 people in order to interview 12 to 15 people face-to-face, in order to generate a panel of five finalists—the best result is that they can’t make a decision among the five. They can whittle that five down to two people they want to bring back a second and third time. Now, all of a sudden, even small firms can make a good decision and feel comfortable.

Joseph: The interview process is really an art form that requires training and pre-created questions, not simply looking at a resumé and making it up as we go. Part of what we have done is train managers how to interview. There are 5,000 books when you go to Barnes & Noble on how to beat the interview, but you will not find one book written for someone who is actually giving the interview.

Robert: With the recession, there has been a lot of over-qualified candidates applying for jobs. From the perspective of the employer, if you have a candidate who is over-qualified and you can get them at the same price point as someone who is mostly qualified, it’s tempting for the employer to shoot for the over-qualified candidate so they can get a bigger and better bang for their buck. 

Gregory: The idea of being ‘over-qualified’ to me is degrading to the candidate and to the employer. ‘You are too qualified for the job’ or ‘You are too good for the job’—if you know what you’re looking for, then none of that gets in the way. It’s not about over-qualified or under-qualified—it’s just about who is the right person for the job.

Donald: But Greg, I think the issue is if somebody was earning $200,000 a year before, and they are unemployed now, and they are prepared to take a job at $115,000 a year…

Gregory: That is a price point—it’s not about qualification. 

Donald: Yes, but you’re hiring a more senior person, a more experienced person, at a lower price point. Getting more talent than you need is the greatest luxury in the world, particularly for smaller companies. Bigger companies need people to sort of fit into the box. Smaller companies, if you bring a VP of sales who also understands marketing, that’s a great thing. But the big problem is if you bring in somebody who was making a lot of money before and they’re taking a huge pay cut—the next time somebody offers them more money, they’re taking it. So you have to be very careful in understanding their motivation. The tragedy is when you hire somebody and go through that process and then they leave six to 12 months later. The turnover costs is nothing compared to the opportunity costs of just having to go through the process all over again.

Annette: I agree; you’re either qualified or not qualified. And in going back to what Joe said earlier about the skills, interests, and motivators, those are the three most important things. You’re taking someone who was making $200,000 and has been out [of work] for two years and at a point where they need the benefits, they’re willing to do the work, they’re motivated. As an employer, you seriously need to go through that process, but consider them as a serious candidate. I’ve found a lot of people from the coaching perspective are very dedicated, motivated, and committed to that job when they are taking a $50,000 to $60,000 pay cut and they really appreciate that new employer, having been out of work for two years. 

 

Gregory: You go into it with your eyes open. Most employers think in terms of ROI. ‘What is the ROI on this candidate?’ They’re going to take a $50,000 pay cut, but if I can get nine months, 12 months, 15 months out of that person, maybe it’s worth that chance, even though there is an opportunity cost of losing that person. 

Donald: The greatest pushback we have gotten recently with the price points with ‘over-qualified’ candidates is that they’ve been leaving. They came here and sold you up the river that they were going to stay in a job for two years, but maybe you got a year and a half out of them. Now the company might not want to do that again; they might want to get somebody within that salary structure that they have right now. 

Gregory: Part of the ROI is how long you think that person is going to stay anyway. Nobody is coming to stay for 10 years—nobody believes that is happening. So if you get two or maybe three good years out of somebody, maybe that’s a great ROI. It depends on the situation, but nobody is sticking around for 10 years anymore.

Annette: The average I think is 18 months.

Gregory: The talent is not only hard to get, it’s hard to keep. 

Joseph: And if they do stay 10 years it’s almost a red flag now.

Robert: So it all comes down to the interview.

Joseph: Something we have tried to put in our managers’ minds at WESTMED is to probe with an unyielding curiosity that borders on skepticism. When we interview candidates, we want to know their past mistakes. We want them to be transparent with us, because, frankly, we don’t hold our existing staff mistake-free. We expect people to make mistakes, so if you can’t in an interview process name a mistake, that means you are probably fabricating…

Gregory: You mean they’re lying…

Joseph: They’re lying! Really probe, probe, probe. Because if somebody has been with a company for a long time, that could be great! But that also could be very bad. 

Luba: I think it depends on the kind of role that you’re recruiting for. If somebody has been with the same company for let’s say eight or 10 years, but over the course of those years they have shown progressive career growth and development, that may be the ideal person. Long-term tenure with a company can be good as well as skills, responsibilities, their commitment, their loyalty, their leadership. 

Robert: What are some of the biggest red flags you think employers should look out for, or are there any yellow flags that may surprise that employer during the vetting process that could be potential deal-breakers for the candidacy? 

Gregory: I’m a natural cynic, unfortunately. I go into the interview process on the assumption that they’re all lying. And they are going to lie about something. Even though the obvious thought that it is about salary, it is almost never about salary. It’s really about why you left your last job. That would be the first thing I would focus on. And I like to connect that to salary if I can. If the job is great but the money did not come along with it, then there is some disconnect there. 

Luba:  Someone not providing a reference of a direct supervisor for me is always a red flag. Again that goes to your point—probably why they left the organization. Perhaps a supervisor would not provide positive feedback on their performance. You should always be able to provide at least one or two people that you reported to directly. 

Richard: One of the red flags is that they left all of them for the same reason. If there are four jobs over the last 20 years and it is the exact same reason, it is going to be an issue at your company at some point in the process. That is a big red flag for us if we get that consistent answer over a period of time. 

Gregory: The most common reason people give on why they’re leaving is for some version of a better opportunity. That is why you want to pursue, ‘What is that? What does the better opportunity look like?’ 

Joseph: You just left a company with 30,000 people—there were no opportunities there? 

 

Annette: And that gets to the motivation, too. I always ask the candidates, ‘What would be your ideal next step?’ and, of course, they always say ‘This job.’ But then you dig deeper and probe more, and get really specific to make sure that it’s going to be the right match and the right time. Because you might have a great person and the culture and the fit might be great, but the timing is off on either side. It is very important for employers to constantly be interviewing and have a talent pool and have a flow of candidates at all times, regardless of what you have open—this market changes from day to day and week to week, and you really need to have a pool.

Gregory: One more thing about red flags, on resumés especially: I think the number of adjectives and adverbs are a red flag. The more adjectives and adverbs, the worse, because they don’t tell you anything. So people who are ‘exposed’ to things, it won’t tell you anything.

Joseph: Greg makes a phenomenal point. There are three areas that we probe for. One of them is, ‘What has happened in the last five to 10 years?’ People generally work in teams. What we found candidates are doing is portraying what they have been exposed to in a team environment to their own intellectual property. So part of the goal is to expose what the person’s individual skill set and background is verses that of a team environment. And two other areas I like to probe for: Explain what the worst possible day would look like for the candidate. Here is the worst possible day that you could have at WESTMED. If their response is, ‘Awesome, sign me up,’ that is generally not a very good thing. We're looking for things like, ‘How will I measure it? How will I be given the tools to be successful?’ And the last thing we ask is, ‘What are the last specific development areas from your last performance review?’ If we get back, ‘I just care too much,’ generally that’s not what we’re looking for, and that’s a big red flag because everybody has performance reviews and generally everybody has development errors. 

Donald: Interviewees have gotten very sophisticated in knowing the questions we all ask and have their pre-command answers. This is part of the burden on the interviewer now—you really need to ask them questions that get them outside their comfort zone. You have to ask different kinds of questions and get them to a point where they weren’t prepared for it. In the course of employment, they are dealing with things on the spur of the moment because that is the way the world works—the email that comes in that changes your world, the phone rings and it changes what your day was going to be like. We want to be able to evaluate what they’re like under fire. 

Joseph: Exactly. The interview is so valuable. You have to listen because when you interview someone, they are going to give you information, even if they might not know they are shooting themselves in the foot. But if you spend too much time coming up with questions while someone is sitting across from you, you are not really listening that well. 

Robert: What about social media? Do any of you investigate candidates via social media? 

Richard: We do, because we’ve had situations where we got burned when we didn’t do it and the employer found a blog or a Twitter account or some inappropriate situation from two years ago. There is definitely times now where we get down to the nitty gritty to make sure that they are clean. 

Gregory: I look at everybody online. If it’s in the public domain, it’s okay to look at it. What you don’t want to do is ask people for password or tech information—there is a reason for the password. But if you want 160 million strangers to see it, it’s okay for me to look at it. 

Annette: Google the candidates. I tell candidates to Google themselves to see what’s out there because if you’re on the market, you have to clean it up. Perception is reality for people. 

Luba: Agreed. If it gets to the point of extending an offer, we have several employers who do very thorough background checks—criminal history, all of those types of things. 

Robert: Earlier, you had mentioned people being unemployed for a while, and that has been a phenomenon with the Great Recession. There has been talk in the media that some employers are electing to not hire those who have been out of work, say a year or more, because they feel that their work habits and skill sets might not be up to snuff. Do you think that is a valid concern? 

Annette: The employer really needs to ask the candidate, ‘What have you been doing with your time?’ If they have been volunteering, going to school, getting additional education, trying to keep their skill set current, then you want to dig further. It’s a concern; you need to probe.

Richard: The employer wants the right candidate for the job—whether out of work for six months, a year, or currently employed. As long as they have been keeping their skills sharp, I think that an employer will definitely take a good look at that person who might have been unemployed for a while. 

 

Gregory: You cannot look for a job for 40 hours a week. You have to be doing other things. If you’re not doing other things, then that is a problem.

Donald: The candidate cannot be defensive about it, either. You are who you are; your background is what it is. You need to explain it, but you should not become defensive. 

Luba: Some of the candidates I’ve worked with have been unemployed for quite a while. What I have always encouraged them to do is explore temporary, contract positions. It helps them keep their skills current, it gets their foot in the door in various organizations—that can lead to full-time employment. 

Robert: A few of you touched on the younger generation—recent college grads. Do you have any observations or generalizations you care to make or share about the current, recent graduates coming into the workplace? 

Richard: They have short attention spans in terms of commitment to companies. The average expectancy for someone at a job is 18 months, because of access to jobs and new companies coming into the market. It’s a totally different world. They always think they’re going to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Zuckerberg. 

Joseph: With the millennial generation, whatever role they’re in, they have to be engaged in doing project work that is based in thinking out of the box and less about turning the widget the same way everyday. It becomes the responsibility of the organization—know who you are playing with and put them in roles that tap into that, because, if you do that successfully, then you can get everything that they have to offer. 

Luba: The younger generation doesn’t really seem to have that much concern about career growth and progression in the long term. They’re really looking more towards relationships and having a social interaction in their work environments and making sure that the people whom they work with are all great people to work with.

Joseph: They are less apt to climb that corporate ladder.

Luba: Yes, exactly! 

Joseph: When I started out 15, 16 years ago, everybody seemed to be on that bandwagon. 

Luba: Right, getting to the top. 

Robert: Less ambitious now? 

Luba: I wouldn’t say less ambitious. It’s just not as important to them to be VPs or top executives—it’s more important to have satisfaction in the workplace and the relationships that they build.

Richard: They’ve also grown up in a generation where they have seen their parents lose jobs, and they’ve seen the companies have less of a commitment to the parents.  

Annette: The landscape is very different. It’s now a rock-climbing wall—you have to go up, sideways, down, forward. It’s not the corporate ladder—there are very few corporate ladders. 

Donald: There are very few role models anymore whose corporate ladder has been a straight path. Today’s generation grew up in an environment where learning was very different than ours. They get a video game and they never read the instructions. They learned by failing, and then they went back and they played the game a second time until they got two steps further, and then they failed again and went back and did it. For them, failure is the first step towards succeeding in a bigger way. 

Joseph: In a way, Don, you have to define for them what is ‘okay failure’ and what is failure that is going to hang everybody together. 

Donald: There are Capital F failures and there are small F failures—the little F’s are okay…

 

Robert: What are the peculiarities about Westchester that either make it easier or more difficult to recruit or find top talent? What specific benefits or challenges to the labor market do you encounter here in Westchester? 

Gregory: The cost of housing…

Richard: In Westchester, you have a more mature population, which is probably more reflective in the many small to mid-size companies. The younger population tends to go into Manhattan where there’s a lot more going on at night. With the higher taxes and the high price of homes in this area, some of the better-priced talent might be leaving to go to other areas. 

Joseph: The cost of living is so high that what we call the mid-level white-collar type of job has really left this area to go live in a more conducive cost-of-living area. So it’s finding top talent at that price point that is still here—that could be very, very challenging for everybody. 

Gregory: One problem we have that is different from other areas is that it’s harder to relocate someone here because of all those reasons that we just listed. If you want to bring somebody from Chicago, it’s very expensive because the cost of living is so different. So somebody who you want to keep here—they have to have lived here. They have to be here and know what it’s like to really make that work. 

Richard: I think the companies are reflective of what is going on. It’s few and far between where you have the MasterCards and the Pepsis of the world, where years ago you had many multi-national companies within this region which helped attract more people to the area. 

Luba: I think specifically what employers could do is to consider market adjustments to salaries or hiring bonuses or even offering some flexibility with telecommuting or flexible schedules—just really trying to make themselves employers of choice. It could be costly, but it’s worked for some companies.

Donald: There are great companies in Westchester who can be price-competitive with New York City companies. And if you draw a 40-mile radius around us, there are communities that are cost-effective to live in. Ultimately, what Westchester has in its benefit is that as people mature and make more money, it’s a desirable place to bring up a family—so you may not have your 25-year-olds here, but you do have your 35-year-olds coming back to the County and raising their families here. 

Robert: So what about the retention of the employees—once we have found the top talent and hired them, how do we retain them? Do employers have a false sense of security because of the recession?

Gregory: People are starting to pay more attention to retention than they did a few years ago. The intangible cost of turnover is maybe three or four times more than the tangible cost. They’re starting to realize that the cost of replacing somebody is greater than they realized. ‘I interview 26 people, I hired one of them on—do I want to do this two years from now?’ The answer is no. At the same time, some people are fungible—there’s maybe 15 percent of the population that I need to keep. You need to treat your better people better. You shouldn’t treat your ‘not better’ people bad, but you do need to treat your better people better—whatever that means. If that means you need an extra week’s vacation, we’ll give you an extra. Those things are going to be more valuable—the intangible kinds of things are going to be more tangible than the dollars. You can take every Friday afternoon off or something like that—I think that is going to be really more important to that talented person than the money. 

Donald: We went through a period of time—the past four or five years—where people were not leaving their jobs. There’s this huge pent-up demand of people who are absolutely miserable in their jobs who have overstayed their current positions. If employers think that the last 18 months’ or two years’ worth of turnover is typical of what is to come, they’re wrong. The next 18 months, you’re going to see turnover at triple what it has been the last 18 months. The sad fact of the way work works is that they can accelerate more by leaving. 

Richard: The retention point obviously is vital. I mean, if you are on LinkedIn, you essentially have a passive resume on there. A miserable person who is good at their job and just doesn’t like the company is going to be easily accessed by anybody out there. If you see somebody tweak their name or changed their title on LinkedIn, you know they are looking at this point. That’s tantamount for companies to stay competitive within their marketplace—to retain your top talent.

Annette: In order to retain them, you have to keep them engaged in great projects—growing and learning. Then the flexibility—having the ability to offer flex time, days, more vacation. People stay in organizations because they like what they do, they like the people that they are with, and they are motivated. 

 

Donald: Joe laid out a really nice formula for what they are looking for in a candidate—someone who is passionate, committed, motivated. Whenever you use the word ‘commitment,’ you have to understand there is a reciprocal part of that. If you’ve hired that person and they are two years into their job with you, you have to figure out if you’re giving them enough to remain passionate and motivated and committed. 

Joseph: To have good retention means you are going to be an employer of choice. First, compensate fairly. Being a real ‘paid for performance’ culture means that your top people will make more. The second part of what we say is create a healthy environment. People leave because they don’t like the boss most of the time. If you’re giving somebody a reason to leave because they are vastly undercompensated, they may start to look because they know they are being grossly underpaid. But fair management practices are just as important to us because people will leave a company 90 percent of the time because they just don’t like their boss. And the third part of that engagement is making it fun. We tell people: Celebrate more. We don’t celebrate enough. By integrating a sense of celebration in the work that we all do, you get employee buy-in and employee loyalty. At WESTMED, we had our executives scoop ice cream for a few hours last month. Little things like that go such a long way and it gets a lot of bangs for your buck.

Luba: Definitely strengthening employee engagement in your organization—things like job design, giving people more autonomy. On the compensation and performance management side, give them feedback—really giving them recognition, whether it be formal recognition or informal recognition, goes a long way.  

Richard: But you have to know your employees. I have some employees who say, ‘How much money am I going to make?’ So you set them up with a compensation package that is going to allow them to make the max. The other ones you get a feel—you know they like the buy in, they like the parties, they like the ice cream socials, they like the breakfasts and everything else we do. You have to really know who you are dealing with on a moment to moment basis.

Gregory: There are really two types of retention. There is retention of the guy who wants to eat ice cream because the CEO serves it to him—and that is a great guy! He’s a good employee, but I can replace that person tomorrow if I needed to. The real retention is really about the 15 percent or so—the top performers, the ones who make the place go. What is really important is understanding who they are before we even talk about retention. It might be the marketing analyst who is impossible to replace, or it might be the equipment technician or it might be that salesperson in Ohio. So once you know who those guys are, you can develop a program that is appropriate for them. It isn’t always your senior people that you want to keep. Sometimes it is ok to let that senior person go. 

Donald: You need to exercise the simple tests. If you lose sleep over somebody leaving, then it’s somebody that you want to make sure that they don’t. This is something that big companies are beginning to adopt and that small companies really need to formalize. 

Joseph: It is critical to know who your top 20 percent is. One of our most important metrics is really not voluntary turnover percent anymore—it’s keeping track of your top talent turnover percent, because that is a more accurate representation of the health of your human capital. If your top talent percent is higher but your overall voluntary turnover is okay, or lower, that is not a good thing.