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Recruiting and Retaining Front-Line Employees

How to find the entry-level employees that will stick around


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Your front-line employees are arguably your most important asset. They’re greeting your customers face-to-face, soothing irate customers on the phone or working shifts on the manufacturing floor. They deliver your customer experience, and they produce your products.  They’re frequently the first, and sometimes the last, employee your customer will encounter. By sheer number, they’re often the bulk of your organization.

And unfortunately, front-line employees are also some of the least motivated, according to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study. Turnover rates among entry-level employees are as high as 73% in food service, 60% in retail and 50% in hospitality. Turnover is expensive, costing an average of $9,000 for a $15 an hour employee, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.

The importance of recruiting and retention is strategic, especially with front-line employees. Unfortunately, these employees often receive the least amount of attention and resources from your talent acquisition and talent development teams.

I believe front-line talent is so important, I’ve written a two-part series on how to hire and retain these essential workers. I’m focusing on recruitment first, to help you lure more engaged and potentially more loyal front-line employees.

Here are four simple strategies to improve your recruitment efforts:

Rethink Where You Recruit

Too much reliance is placed on efficiency and volume. Hiring is dominated by applicant tracking software, which scans resumes for keywords. Designed to screen out as many applicants as possible, as fast as possible, such digitized approaches often throw out the baby with the bathwater. A more efficient approach to recruiting is job fairs. Your talent acquisition team can quickly and more accurately spot potential talent (and soft skills, which are responsible for 80% of job performance) than electronic recruiting software.

Employee referrals are another great resource for discovering top-performing employees. Forbes reports that 80% of jobs are found through networking, and multiple studies indicate that referrals generate the highest return on investment of all your hires. Employees who refer their friends are more likely to be engaged and enthusiastic employees, and they also provide a better peek into the employee experience, setting better expectations. Referrals are more than twice as likely to be retained as non-referrals and are faster to hire, less expensive to hire and are higher quality hires.

Rethink How You Recruit 

Unfortunately, many hiring decisions are made through a process that doesn’t necessarily predict whether someone can perform the job. A study from the online job matching service The Ladders estimates that the average recruiter spends just six seconds reading a resume, and fifteen minutes or less on an interview.

The problem with a cursory review of a resume is that often a recruiter is looking for past experience (and applying it to the current job). However, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Just because an applicant has done it before doesn’t mean he’s good at it. And just because an applicant hasn’t done it before doesn’t mean she won’t be good at it. When I’m recruiting, I look for relevant experience and transferrable skills, as well as socio-emotional attitudes like having a growth-mindset to make a successful match.

Many employers are shortchanging themselves during the interview process as well. A downside of rapid-fire interviews is, again, the baby can be thrown out with the bathwater. Too often, the interviewer forms a first impression based upon the candidate’s ability to talk about himself or herself. Shy applicants tend to warm up more slowly and find it difficult to promote themselves. And unfortunately, shy employees might be just what you’re looking for. Especially in roles like IT, production, accounts payable or data-entry where the steady, detail-oriented employee is often the better fit. In many positions, a task-based interview that includes a writing sample or a coding sample, for example, is more helpful in finding the right hire.

Rethink What You Say in Your Recruiting 

As recruiters, we read roughly 200 job descriptions a week. Many are confusing, and some are downright contradictory. For example, a position might be described as entry-level, but require two years’ industry experience. Or a job description might require a college degree, but the duties are not commensurate with a college education.

Requiring a college degree is often just an easy way to screen out, rather than screen in, candidates. This practice also works against diversity and inclusiveness. Unnecessary requirements are often simply biases masked as credentials.

Write clear, consistent job descriptions, focus on relevant tasks and skills and remove unnecessary credential requirements.

Think Outside the Box

Get to know your employees, who they are and where they’ve come from. You might be surprised who your highest performers are. For example, one of our financial service clients historically looked for young college graduates to fill financial service roles but has discovered that their ideal candidates came from food service. They found that someone who worked as a bartender, for example, was a great fit because they know how to establish instant rapport, understand customers’ needs and think quickly on their feet. 

Now that you’ve gotten the right people in place, your next job is to keep them. Next, I’ll offer simple strategies to increase retention of your front-line employees.

Helen Young Hayes is founder and CEO or Activate Workforce Solutions, a talent acquisition agency that creates pathways to self-sufficiency through successful, sustained employment. 

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