Getting the "Work" Back into Work-Life Balance – Priming America's Productivity Pump

Recently, we had occasion to hire a new part-time person at my kayaking business – Outdoorplay.  (See the footnote at the bottom for information on Outdoorplay.)  This is usually a difficult experience given that the labor pool in our small resort town is (a) limited and (b) largely populated by people who’ll abandon their posts at the drop of a hat if it’s a good powder day up on the ski hill.  (Note, I’m not that much of a curmudgeon, but things DO have to get done!)

Anyway, it was with trepidation that I posted the position on a local online classified ad website.  The results were unexpected, exhilarating and heart-breaking all at once.

Can WOW! be an understatement?

The job posting went live at 6:00 PM.  By 8:00 AM the next morning, we had 15 applications.  We immediately pulled the ad but still received over 30 applications.  Prior to the economic downturn, we could wait for weeks before getting even one application.

Sorting through the applications was an exercise in wonder.  People from all walks of life were applying.  The resumes contained heavy-equipment operators, construction laborers, office staff, first-time job seekers, the gambit.  Remember, this was a job that paid about $950 per month before taxes! 

We selected the six most qualified candidates to invite in for interviews.

A Straight Path Wanders

The morning of the interviews, we received another application. This was from a woman we knew.  She had worked for one of our vendors before being laid off in the downturn.  She had been out of work for six months and just wanted to get back to it, no matter the job.

Catherine (no, that’s not her real name) was not a fit for the position we were hiring, but we had a very high opinion of her from her last job.  So we fit her into our schedule to explore her background and skills.  We were considering … but back to the interviews for the warehouse position.

The first candidate set the bar very high.  He was just a year out of high school, was a local guy, had taken a year off to wander the earth, was considering starting school at the local community college in the fall, and was the son of an owner in another local business like ours.  And did I mention that he’d reviewed our web site and knew a great deal about our business?  And did I also mention that he walked into the interview with a copy of his resume in his hand … just in case?  We could not have scripted a better candidate and interview, but there were others to meet.

The next several candidates were qualified but unremarkable.  I think two of them had looked at our web site and knew the nature of our business.  Two years ago, we would have jumped to hire any one of them, but Candidate #1 had really impressed us with his preparation and alignment with our needs.

The last candidate to interview was the heart-breaker.  He was an out-of-work construction worker.  He was married with a young child, living in the basement of his in-laws house.  He hadn’t worked for 18 months and was just itching to do something to be of use and to support his family.  It pained me to see the commitment and earnestness in his face for a chance at our entry level part-time job.  He said we were the only company who’d even interviewed him in the last six months.  Ouch.

The Agony of Too Many Choices

As the last candidate left, we turned to the hard work of making a decision.  First, we discussed the warehouse position and agreed that Candidate #1 was the right person for the job.  We also all agreed that we’d hire the last candidate if we could even though we knew he’d leave for a higher paying job when the opportunity arose. Alas, there was only one warehouse position available – a part-time one at that.  Candidate #1 got the job.

Next, we took up conversation on Catherine.  Throughout the day, we had talked in snippets about her skill set and our longer term needs for the company. She clearly fit the bill for a core role in the administrative part of the business.  Another bonus was that she was known and liked by our current folks, which suggested an easy transition.

With her value established, we turned to affordability and the impact hiring Catherine would have the team’s salary increases over the short term.  When asked, our General Manager stated very clearly that the current team members were happy that their jobs had yet to be truly affected by the downturn and that they’d welcome the help Catherine would bring to the over-worked group.  (We’d frozen hiring 18 months earlier leaving the existing people to wrestle with the ongoing demands of the business.)  The decision was to offer Catherine a position as well, which she took.

Lessons Learned

Both of the new hires have settled nicely into their roles.  The team is thrilled to have the support, even with knowledge that salary increases are now clearly dependent on how quickly the economy recovers. 

My lasting impressions from the experience are:

  • Americans Love to Work.  When the economy was soaring, there was a lot focus on work-life balance.  The underlying premise was that people wanted to work less.  Though downturns are never pleasant, nor do I wish financial hardship on anyone, my view is that people are hungry to get back to work.  In fact, the perspective on work-life balance may have balanced itself out a bit.  Work is a part of life, a good part.  The sense of entitlement that was developing over the last decade was destructive to the very people forming those opinions.
  • Productivity is a Good Thing.  Turning away from the media-hyped stories of corporate greed and the too-big-to-fail bleating by politicians and CEOs alike, it’s good to have Americans at work.  The sense of accomplishment and belonging are hugely valuable, not to mention the ability to provide for your loved ones.  These basic tenets get lost today in all the hysterics and finger pointing.  I was reminded of it during those interviews.  People just want to matter again.
  • Hire for the Long Term Even if it Hurts a Little Now.  Dennis Snow, 25-year veteran at Disney, talks about recruiting all the time so that when you have a need, you’ve already identified a good pool of candidates.  Most companies hire out of emergency – when someone leaves or something similar.  Admittedly, that’s what we were doing.  However, I would like to pat ourselves on the back for engaging in another good hiring practice:  Hire the right people, even if you have to create the position early.  Both Candidate # 1 and Catherine are great people.  We had a job for one of them and we accelerated an opening for the other.  They’ve been a terrific fit and we’re seeing the benefits of the decision already.

My expectations at the outset of this hiring adventure were that we were rolling the dice.  My experience was that there are a tremendous number of able and willing people looking to get the American productivity engine back to a steady purr. 

(Footnote:  I am a co-founder in Outdoorplay, an online retailer that sells kayaking gear.  It’s been 12 years in the making and we have a fantastic team of people who make it happen.  My greatest source of pride is to have been a part of its success.)

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