October 23, 2012

Hiring Your First Employee: An Introduction

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Rising to the Challenge




By Marcia Pennington Shannon

You started your own practice, you landed a few good clients, and you've been building up your business ever since. So far, you've been able to handle things pretty well on your own. However, it's becoming clear that if you're going to take on more work, you have to get some help.

You've now decided that to grow your practice further, you need to hire an employee—your very first. Hiring an employee is a big decision, but it's one that can allow you to use your time more efficiently and cost-effectively. Approaching this process in an organized and strategic fashion will ensure greater success in selecting the right individual for the position. Here are guidelines for how to proceed.

The Pre-Hiring Stage

Begin by asking yourself these questions: "What type of help do I need?" and "What kinds of skills and experience should my prospective employee possess?" Be as specific as possible. If the perfect person walked in your door, what would he or she do for you that would allow you to spend more time on the things that will enable you to be productive and build your practice?

You may find it easier to write down over the course of a week the tasks you are doing that could be done by someone else. Add any other responsibilities to the list as you think of them. Next to each entry, record the skills or experience necessary to accomplish the task. Once this is complete, you have the makings of a job description.

Next, think about what salary, benefits and work hours would be appropriate for this job. Determine how much you will be able to pay an individual. If you cannot pay the current going rate for a full-time person, consider hiring a part-time person (at least for the time being). Having created the job description and calculated factors such as hours and salary, you are ready to seek potential candidates.

Identifying Your Candidates

There are several means by which you can locate individuals to apply for the new position. Networking with other lawyers, bar associations and friends often yields the best candidates. In addition, you can advertise the position in local legal and regular daily newspapers, or with secretarial or paralegal schools nearby. There are also agencies that help in screening candidates for support staff openings. Be aware that while these agencies can be quite helpful, they usually charge a fee of 15 to 20 percent of the individual's first-year salary for finding and placing an employee with you.

Once you begin to receive candidates' resumes, be sure to take the time to evaluate them thoughtfully. Remember, the resume itself is a sample of the applicant's work product. Has the individual proofed the resume and cover letter for typos? Is he or she describing skills and experience relevant to the position? Or, has this person just thrown together an application without much thought to the kind of information you requested? Your time is valuable and limited, so when deciding who to schedule interviews with, only select resumes that meet your criteria.

Conducting the Interview

Determine whether you will interview each applicant only once, or if you will narrow it down to a couple of applicants who you will call back for another interview. For screening interviews, you should set aside 30 to 60 minutes. If you plan to interview applicants only once, set aside more time to have a thorough interview.

Be well prepared and develop your questions ahead of time. "Winging it" during the interview process does not yield the kind of valuable information you need to make an informed decision. Look at the experience and qualifications you detailed in the job description and create questions that elicit information in those areas.

Do not ask questions that can simply be answered with a "yes" or "no." Ask open-ended questions as well as ones that ask the individual to describe specific experiences. Here are examples of effective questions:

  • What aspects of your current job do you find the most interesting?
  • What aspects do you find the least interesting?
  • Would you describe for me a situation where you had to deal with a difficult individual?
  • What are you looking for in a new job?
  • What s your experience in setting up organizational systems?
  • What qualities do you believe you possess that would make you a success in this position?

Treat the interview as if it is a conversation between two people, and demonstrate an interest in the candidate. Show energy and enthusiasm for the process. And try to create a relaxed atmosphere. The more relaxed the candidate is, the more information you will gain.

As soon as you complete the interview, be sure to make specific notes about the individual. Does this person meet your selection criteria? Does he or she have the necessary skills and experience? Would you be able to work well together? If you answer "yes" to these questions, then you have made it to the next crucial stage of the process.

Checking References

It's amazing how often potential employers don't check references, only to learn the hard way that it would have been a very valuable step in the hiring process. Plan on checking references (two to four) for any individuals you are seriously considering for the position.
People who are currently employed may feel uncomfortable giving their current supervisors as a reference. In that case, you can ask for references from past employers, while stating that if an offer is made, it may be contingent on speaking with the current supervisor.

If the individual is unable to give you the names of past supervisors and only willing to give personal references, such as friends or family, this may be a red flag. Certainly there are some who have very little work experience, but they should be able to provide the name of a teacher or school administrator who knows their abilities.

When you phone a reference, begin the call by asking for basic information—job title, dates of employment and general responsibilities of your candidate. Follow up with open-ended questions such as these:

  • What are the candidate's strengths?
  • What are areas in need of further development?
  • How does the candidate interact with clients? With colleagues?
  • How does the candidate handle feedback, both positive and constructive?
  • Why did the candidate leave your organization?

You'll also want to ask more specific questions that relate to the types of responsibilities the candidate will have with you. If the references check out and you decide to extend an offer, consider the elements of the offer—salary, hours, benefits, vacation—and which of these you are willing to negotiate.

Starting Off on the Right Foot

Your offer has been accepted and you've successfully hired your first employee. Wonderful! Now, to begin your working relationship on a good note, be sure to plan your new employee's first day with the same care you used in planning the recruitment process. Some of the following are tips that others have shared about getting started with new employees:

  • Make sure to have a desk and supplies ready for the individual. The computer should be set up and ready to use.
  • A plant or flowers waiting for the person is a nice touch.
  • Plan an orientation for the person. The first day is always the most uncomfortable, so having an organized schedule planned can be very helpful.
  • Last but not least, discuss your working and supervision styles. Explaining how you approach things and how you would like to work together can alleviate a lot of issues and miscommunication in the future.