Smart staffing can save your business

Right now, you have your pick of willing workers. Making wise choices pays off.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(Fortune Small Business) — My maternal grandparents, Minnie and Izzy Grubman, owned a ladies’ undergarment and accessories shop called Grubman’s, on Springfield Avenue in Newark. In July 1967 the city was rocked by six days of rioting, fueled by unemployment, poverty and corrosive racial inequity. The rioters attacked both white- and black-owned businesses. But when the smoke had finally cleared, Grubman’s was unscathed.

Mr. and Mrs. G., as they were known, had always hired employees from the local community and were celebrated for their fairness and generosity. When trouble came, staff and neighbors protected the store.

My point: Good hiring decisions can save your business. Okay, it’s easier said than done. So what are the ingredients of successful hiring? Think of it as a sequence of double-layered decisions. On top is the conventional wisdom of hiring individuals who are right for the job and compatible with your company’s culture, values and needs.

But hiring also reflects deeper-level predispositions in making decisions and building relationships. As we form new relationships, we tend to unconsciously seek out and rediscover dynamic elements from significant early ones (like those with parents and siblings). For some people this creates a pattern of similar, recurring train wrecks. For others it generates constant relationship R&D. At best this unconscious patterning will attract you to individuals who balance, inspire and bolster you.

Consider Joe Saba and Stewart Winter, co-owners ofVideoHelper, a successful New York City business that provides music for TV and film productions. When we spoke in their high-tech studio, the partners had recently plowed through 400 applications to fill one full-time composer slot. They devote considerable time and resources to their hiring process, which they described as “brutal and stringent.”

Saba and Winter started by whittling the initial herd down to 10 finalists, whom they subjected to a series of increasingly intense interviews and tests. These probed not just technical ability but also the way each candidate handled criticism, praise and pressure.

This work pays off: VideoHelper enjoys a 95% talent retention rate, and most employees have been with the company for at least seven years.

Few entrepreneurs reach this high standard of psychosocial savvy. I briefly consulted with Bert, as I’ll call him, a guy who tended to make tone-deaf staffing decisions. Bert’s hiring credo was something like “Trust no one, and only hire people you trust.” Unsurprisingly, he had a lot of trouble keeping help.

Bert’s chronic mistrust was understandable, given his traumatic childhood with an abusive father. After just a few sessions, however, he suddenly decided that he couldn’t trust me either. In a flash I fell victim to the very dynamic I’d been engaged to cure.

Like anybody who has ever been fired, I pondered what had happened and what could have gone differently. Based on my own experience and that of my clients, here are some tips that will bolster your hiring chops.

Study the Past. History holds important clues to your relationship patterns. Analyze recent hires/fires for information about your hiring predilections.

Don’t Get All Testy. Personality tests have their place, but they can’t capture inflection, gestures or other nuances of communication. Nonverbal cues can be more meaningful than what’s said.

Do Your Homework. Avoid “going with your gut.” Instinct has limited utility in the hiring arena.

Follow Through. Hiring employees is only the beginning: It takes time, attention and, most important, good communication to retain quality employees. It’s crucial to monitor your reactions to frustration, disappointment and other interpersonal dynamics.

Bottom Line. The more you understand about yourself and the underlying forces that pull you toward or away from somebody, the better equipped you’ll be to make sensible hiring decisions.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.