Finding Quality Associates

One of the key challenges for many businesses today is finding help, especially quality associates. Everywhere you look there are help wanted signs and job fair posts. They are posted on doors to retail establishments, advertised in social media and splashed on billboards along with signing bonuses and starting pay. Many of the positions being advertised are for front line workers—cooks, waiters, retail workers, health care positions, and many more. These are often considered turnover jobs—they are low paying (relatively), with unpredictable schedules and few opportunities for advancement. While they may work for students, they probably don’t pay a mortgage. How can we attract more quality associates that show dedication to the job?

While higher pay has been the short-term answer, it is not what will change the dynamic. According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. Author Zeynep Ton suggests we need to create systems of “good” jobs, and the article, “The Obstacles to Creating Good Jobs” outlines what he calls four false orthodoxies that foster the continuation of “bad” jobs.

  1. “Our business model won’t support higher investment in people.”  We have had to be “lean and mean” in the last few years as we valued cash and cutbacks during Covid, especially in the service industry where there were many business casualties. The question is how much value is there in front line jobs? In some organizations the perception is that there is not much. “Labor is a cost to be minimized and market pay is the right pay, even if it is not a living wage.” In others they are viewed as critical to customer satisfaction. “The founders and CEOs of companies with good-job systems have a mental model different from that of most others, in that they believe value is created by being the best at delivering for customers.”
  2. “We can’t trust frontline employees.” Bad jobs, where little value is expected of employees, often foster undesirable behaviors with absenteeism, low morale, and general productivity. There is a saying in baseball, that if you believe you will hit the ball or if you believe you won’t, you are right. In other words, leaders at companies like Four Seasons, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and others known for “good” jobs, believe that people rise to the level of trust you impart to them. They focus on hiring and training those who want to succeed. According to Ton, at a call center when stricter attendance policies were announced one associate stood up and clapped. Those who had been coming into work were picking up the slack of those were less reliable.
  3. “Our financial analysis shows the investment won’t pay off.” While for many it is obvious that motivated people will perform at a higher level which in turn should benefit the company, when spreadsheet analysis is performed not everyone agrees that approach pays. Are associates an investment or expense? If we just assume expenses go up when we raise pay, and we don’t correlate any performance improvements caused by higher expectations and greater motivation, then offering more money seems doomed to fail. However, if turnover is reduced, productivity rises, and customer experiences are improved, could it be justified? One company discovered that the question for them was not if they could afford to do it, but could they afford not to do it? The myriad of issues caused by turnover were having significant operational impact which in turn did not satisfy customer needs. In other words, look at the financials through a systems approach and a long-term view.
  4. “Implementing system change is too risky.” Companies have proven they don’t need “good” jobs to grow. The author argues that in tight labor markets and highly competitive situations where customers have alternatives, the bigger risk long term may be not having “good” jobs. This assumes of course that employees rise to expectations and improve the front-line performance in a way that can differentiate the company. It is much more “context-dependent”.

Like most approaches that challenge traditional thinking, it is something to be considered. Raising salaries doesn’t automatically produce improved performance. Only if you are committed to developing a system that includes the right people, in the right jobs, with the right tools and the right culture will you realize the desired result. But if a company can develop that kind of system, they may be surprised by how powerful it is—in creating loyalty, dedication, improved performance, and better business outcomes. It isn’t a one-off idea—it is a transformative one. It is not for everybody. Is it for your company?

If you would like to read the article you can find it here.

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