Employer of Choice

Bill Hunter, CGCIO, Director, Communications and Information Technology, County of Roanoke, VA
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Bill Hunter, CGCIO, Director, Communications and Information Technology, County of Roanoke, VA

What does it take to be an “employer of choice” and why is it important? The idea is really not a flavor of the month, but something that has been around for a while. It’s just getting verbalized now because the employment dynamics are changing for both employer and employee. When I was growing up the expectation was to get a job, work there until you retired, and collect your pension along with the proverbial gold watch. That expectation has changed though, and new employees are seeking different things depending on where they are in their lives and in their careers.

In looking for an actual definition I found: Becoming an Employer of Choice means that applicants are eager to work for you, that people envy your employees, that you receive unsolicited resumes, and that your most talented workers stay with the company throughout their careers. It's the Holy Grail for every employer—I’m now here near that bar, just so you know.

The Baby Boomers started retiring in 2010 and for the next twenty years or so will continue to be replaced by Millennials and Generation Z. Have you adjusted your strategy to attract and keep them?

 Surround yourself with people who are positive and uplifting people 

Years ago, I went to work for a local car dealership. One of my coworkers is still there today, having worked his way up to Parts Manager. What caused me to leave and Danny to stay? Though they really didn’t use the term, the dealership was an employer of choice. They offered competitive pay, insurance, retirement, and profit sharing. They had regular employee meetings and a lunch ‘n learn program for those who wished to attend. While there was opportunity for growth, you had to be in it for the long haul. I was young and impatient—go figure, a Baby Boomer sounding like a Millennial. I started getting calls from dealerships in faraway places like Midland, Texas and Artesia, New Mexico. I accepted an offer and set off for bigger and better things. I got my wish for rapid promotion, but found myself again asking what was next? At the ripe old age of 25 there were no more moves in this career path, and without a college degree there were no more moves in this industry. I had to take a chance and make a big move.

I joined the Air Force and it was probably the smartest thing, career wise, I’ve ever done. Additionally, as I look for qualities that make an employer an Employer of Choice, the Air Force really meets the criteria. Crazy I know, but consider this: The military offers quite a few things that fall in line with our Employer of Choice criteria. Promotion opportunities, thirty days’ vacation, empowerment, job security, performance culture, and recognition. Why doesn’t everyone stay if it was as great as I thought it was? Why did so many leave me like I left Danny, moving on to perceived greener pastures?

We, at the County, began discussing succession planning when we discovered that my department had thirty-four percent of staff who could retire over an eighteen month window and an additional twenty percent would be eligible within twenty-four months. We were focused on these upcoming retirements, yet my first loss was unexpected—and didn’t have anything to do with retirement or dissatisfaction. I lost my Web Master and when the search to replace her began, so did the real process of thinking about being an employer of choice.

I’ve seen quotes from Jack Canfield to Donny Osmond that says something along the lines of: “Surround yourself with people who are positive and uplifting people. If you surround yourself with negative, depressing people they will drag you down.”These are true for your personal relationships as well as your workplace environment. We have been getting staff involved in the hiring process for a couple of reasons. It gives them a vested interest in the new team member and they are the best to determine if the candidate will be a good fit within the team.

We all know you can’t “fix” your geography, but there are other things you can do to attract the best employees for your team?

1. In local government, many times you are hamstrung by salaries, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Get Human Resources involved and get started on a salary survey. If you can’t match the big boys, at least see where you are in the ball park.

2. What is your work environment like? Is it dark and dungeons que or is it bright and friendly? Everyone can’t have new facilities but there are a lot of things you can do to provide some updates. Keeping facilities clean and in good repair tells folks you care about their environment.

3. Know your people. I saw a “Motivation Plan” in a program I attended recently that had some interesting items included on it.

a. “Family Data”—most of us know who’s married, number of kids, but do we keep up with that? Family dynamic, and this applies to your single team members too, has a direct bearing on employee performance.

b. “Hobbies/Interests”—do you know your folks’ hobbies or interests? I bet if they share a common one with you, you do. I’m a baseball fan and I know who is pulling for what team—even down to the custodial staff, and they aren’t even in my department.

4. Evaluation and Recognition Programs are important too. I lumped these two together, as to me they are equally important. Over the last few years many local governments were unable to give raises, and, if they did, they were barely cost of living increases. Because of that many places suspended or quit writing/presenting annual evaluations. Evaluations are the very best way to let your staff know how they are doing, what your expectations are, and let you know what their long term plans are. Recognition Programs just take this a step further and provide public recognition for a job well done. They can be as simple as locally printing certificates that recognize individual or a team effort during installation, repairs, or upgrades.

Now it took me nine months to replace my Web Master and we’ve also been very fortunate to pick up some staff members because of some departing industry, but luck should never replace strategy. Look around at your organization and question what makes folks want to be part of your team and why they want to stay part of your team.

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