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Employee Turnover — Don’t Keep Swinging a Broken Axe

May 11th, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

We recently had a major personnel change at one of our sister companies — a key person left for greener pastures. That’s a interesting term, “greener pastures.” You know what keeps pastures green, right? I mean besides rain. These things happen. I’m all for change now and then, for companies and for workers. I ran impounds for one company for almost 12 years and believe me, that was enough. I changed companies and moved into management within a year, and after eight years of managing that was enough. Jobs are sometimes like boats — the two happiest days are the day you get it and the day you get rid of it. For this person who decided to move on, someone I’ve worked closely with for five years now, it was a happy day. Will we be able to replace him? Yes. It won’t be exactly the same. Each individual brings different strengths, skills and work habits to a company, so when a key person leaves it changes how the company operates.

When I left my management job, I wondered how the company would survive without me. It seemed to me that I was keeping the boat afloat. Of course, when I left, things went right on like they always had. In a way that was a testament to my results, because I had developed, trained and nurtured a lower management staff precisely to do just that: take over when I left. Five years later, the company is still prospering and I expect they will for a long time. Even though I was a key person, I was just one out of a team of 50+, so unless I had my finger in the dyke, it wasn’t going to be doomsday when I left.

Employee turnover continues to be a major concern in the towing industry. One thing I did before I left that management job was to call in a staffing agency to assess our operation and to see if they could help us. The agency rep was quite candid when she pointed out that she couldn’t provide a single qualified candidate for the open driver positions we had based on the average wage of our drivers. We just weren’t paying enough to get and keep good people. Because our drivers were on commission, the experienced, motivated drivers could do quite well but the entry-level drivers struggled and inevitably left for the afore-mentioned greener pasture. Developing the skills to become a high-producing commission driver was a difficult proposition for us as a company — if the driver didn’t do well within a few months of being hired, he would start looking elsewhere. And if he could take a $10 an hour job and do better, who could blame him? So we often just hoped we would find the driver who already had what it took to be a high producer.

Employee turnover was probably my number-one headache when I was managing that tow company. I don’t think I ever learned to accept it. And maybe that’s what would have helped more than anything else. I’ve heard the analogy of the axe that was kept by its owner for 25 years and used every day. After 25 years, it was on its fifth handle and third head, but it was still the same axe. That’s a pretty good analogy for a tow company. Don’t keep swinging an axe with a broken handle or a dull head, or both. Replace and retool when necessary.

I used to be a fan of the TV show The Apprentice. In fact, I dreamed of firing one employee every week. I thought I could make it one per month, just to make it more workable. Think about how much that would raise the level of performance for the employees in the lower half of the scale. If, no matter what, one employee were fired each month, most people would do almost anything to not be that person. I think it would really expose the potential of many workers who seem to guard that very closely.

I’ve been hearing the same statement for years: “So many people are out there looking for work when there are plenty of jobs available.” Maybe people are too picky, or maybe they are not looking in the right place. Every job I’ve ever had — and I mean every job, except for two hours when I washed dishes in a restaurant in Caldwell, Idaho — I got through someone I knew … family member, family friend, former colleague. I’ve tried to find work through classifieds,, whatever, but like many things in business, nothing beats the efficiency of networking. I think that job hunters sometimes bypass this simplest and most effective of approaches. Conversely, some of the best recruiting I’ve ever done was via networking, asking friends and employees and colleagues to recommend someone they knew. There are a lot of reasons this works so well, not the least of which is trust. When you interview someone you don’t know, and you don’t even know anyone they know, there are a lot of things you will not find out until later down the road when circumstances bring them to the surface. I often called the manager of top competitor to ask for an unofficial reference on an applicant, and he did the same with me, because tow truck drivers seem to cycle in and out of many different companies in a single market. I encourage those of you who do the hiring to do the same. And be honest when someone asks you for a reference. You don’t want to contribute to any surprises. What comes around goes around you know.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper