Business Writing Sample #5: Human Resources

By Mike Johnson
July 95 Convenience Store Decisions
(Trade magazine for the convenience store industry)

The Field Generals (Monthly Column)
"A Failure To Communicate"

Terminated. Fired. Axed. Canned. Resigned. Quit. Outta here. The terms vary greatly, depending on which side of the employee separation you're on. But each and every one means the same thing -- a failure to communicate.

And once employee turnover strikes, equally nasty words begin to crop up.

Overtime. Shortage. Sales decrease. Low morale. Followed closely by more employee turnover.

Like faulty relationships (which is exactly what employee turnover is), what began with so much promise has deteriorated into either employer or employee -- and often times both -- failing to communicate expectations clearly, truthfully and frequently enough to keep the relationship alive.

Asking The Right Questions

That's one reason why Wawa, Inc. has chosen to take a fresh tack. Instead of using interview processes designed to hire those with the least number of weaknesses, they've turned to "behavioral interviewing," a process that looks for specific strengths. By choosing people with key behavioral traits -- say, good interaction skills, or the ability to cope when the going gets tough -- Wawa hopes to maximize the number of relationships that work for everyone.

Area Supervisor Lou Moyer explains: "The store manager first looks at the current team and determines the traits a new employee must have to best fit in with the others," he says. "They then seek applicants who have those specific traits."

Store managers consult an interviewing guide that offers headings such as "commitment to task," "attitude," or "team building." Under each are two or three questions that will help determine if the desired trait is present.

Moyer's advice carries weight -- he's been with the chain 15 years and his first-quarter turnover rate is just 11%. In addition, all nine of his store managers have longevity, having advanced through the ranks from entry-level part-time associates to their current level.

Creating an enjoyable working atmosphere is a key to the TEAM (Together Everyone Accomplishes More) concept employed by Linda Bowman, district manager for eight Handy Way Food Stores in central Florida. Her fully staffed group consists of 80 employees whom she strives to "treat the way I'd like to be treated."

Roger Jevne takes this philosophy even further. He oversees five territory supervisors as the director of marketing for SSG/Auto Stop Store, a chain of 37 stores in the Wisconsin and Minnesota. "We (management) consider ourselves support, not superiors," he says. "And this attitude is passed down the line to the managers and all employees."

Broadcasting the proper attitude certainly helps create the applicant's initial attraction, but specific actions are where the relationship bonds are forged. Orientation, training, feedback, raises, incentives, advancement and recognition systems are all important in building employee relationships. So are "open door" policies and progressive counseling sessions when things get off track.

"I'm always available to talk," explains Linda Bowman. And when it comes time to discipline, there's a way to handle that. "We're there to help, not to turn over people."

In the exit interviews she conducts, employees' most common reasons for separation come from feeling overwhelmed by the job, not listened to by managers or not feeling like part of the team.

Her solution? "Empathy, patience and support," she says. "You've got to help them, make them feel important, let them know they're a key part of the team."

Roger Jevne achieves that level of ownership by making sure his store managers assign specific store sections, like automotive, to employees. It's then their responsibility to clean and stock the section.

"Then they begin to say, 'My store has this,' and 'My store has that,'" claims Jevne. "Some even come in on their day off to check their section."

The Five-Minute Manager

Providing employees with the big picture -- revealing how their efforts contribute to the whole -- is also important. "We share the company's numbers with the store managers and encourage them to share them with their employees," Jevne reports. "They only see thousands of dollars going into the register and don't see all the bills that must be paid. They appreciate a five minute explanation of how it all works."

One of Jevne's most successful retention programs has been the addition of "Senior Assistant Managers." He actively recruits positive, energetic people he feels will one day be able to manage a store. Past c-store experience is not necessarily a requirement. "Every place I go I spend time recruiting. We hire for personality. We feel our system accommodates the paperwork and merchandising training and all the rest."

Over the past year, seven Senior Assistants have been promoted to store manager positions and not one has left the company. His payoff for good employee relations? The vicious turnover cycle has not only slowed, but started to turn the other way. "Now," Jevne says, "the good people are calling us."


Making The Marriage Work

Employee retention must be worked at like a marriage. How does your "marriage" stack up?

Application: Potential employees reveal their interest in you by applying. This is a huge compliment. How many applications are you receiving?
Interview: The first date. Both parties learn the expectations of the other and determine if they can, and want, to fulfill each other's needs.
Job offered: The proposal.
Job accepted: The marriage.
Orientation/training: The honeymoon. You get to know each other better. Show how to meet each other's needs. Domestication begins.
Communication: Are you approachable? Do you look for jobs done well -- or done poorly? How good a listener are you? Do you accommodate scheduling needs? Try new ideas? Accept suggestions?
Performance review: An honest, heart-to-heart talk. The more truthful the communication, the greater the bond.
Pay/benefits/promotions/incentives/attaboys: Your way of saying 'I Love You.'
Positive attitude/good productivity: Their way of saying 'I Love You.'
Verbal/written warnings: They're in your doghouse.
Employee late/unproductive: You're in their doghouse.
Cutting their hours: You're having an affair. You're sick of them and don't tell them why.
Theft: They're having an affair. They're sick of you and don't tell you why.
They're fired: You're divorcing them.
They quit: They're divorcing you.
Overtime/cost of hiring new employee/negative reputation: Alimony.
Recruiting: You're in the "personals" again, looking for a new mate.

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