A Trade Magazine for New Age Retailers

Employee Management for Small Business

Ihave a problem… I like everyone! Initially, when I interview candidates, I imagine how they would work in the business and how they will shine with all the skills they bring with them. I imagine them making my job easier, and in a year we all have drinks in celebration of a job well done as I praise them for their perfect performance. I hire the fantasy and not the person. I used to do this at performance reviews and professional development plans too. I hear exactly what I want and gloss over the parts of the conversation where they tell me who they really are and if they are a good fit for the job. I am quite skilled at fitting people into the role I think they can play for me and then I am heartbroken when it doesn’t work out.

We want our staff to show up, work hard and make our lives easier, yet it takes a lot of effort to get employee management to a place where it seems effortless. This year will be twenty-eight years in business for me and in all that time, I must state that managing employees is the hardest part. I can fix slipping sales, manage debt, create new products, but I cannot control people. Each employee brings a new bag of experience to the table. Some are skills to help us grow and some are drama filled to keep us off balance. Five years ago, I set out to become a better employer. I have been taking classes, working with consultants and trial and error with my staff. It has been worth every grey hair and wrinkle.

“I can’t find good employees.”  “It’s like I have to babysit my staff!” “I didn’t go into business to spend all my time on managing staff.” “Why can’t they follow directions on even the smallest thing?”   “What ever happened to common sense and work ethic?” As business owners, we have all said these things. We all talk about the classes, books and advisors who tell us the same basics repeatedly.

Staff issues crested to an insane level in 2019. My take away after all the forensics was employee management is really culture management. Of course, from my perspective, I had an amazing culture. I mean, I do make magic here. I teach empowerment and focus on personal growth in my marketing material. But what I realized is I created that for my customers experience and not my staff’s. Once I got rid of the myopic perspective that I am the most important and hardest working person in my business I could see what culture I had defaulted to. Inside the four walls of our store wasn’t what I projected on out to the world. I realized I had work to do.

My new paradigm is that I am part of the team, and the more my company grows, my value in the team changes, possibly making me less valuable. I don’t make candles, ship the boxes or answer the phone. Those jobs belong to the most valuable members of my team, the ones who execute the reason why we are in business. When I lead from the place of creating culture, everyone wins. It’s also a long game and it takes an investment in time and emotions to build a sustainable culture that makes employee management easier. My long game consists of a few key elements that we are still working on perfecting over at our store:


Your Systems Set the Standard

In 2013, we formally recorded many of our processes in impressive ISO 2000 standard documentation.   We had an interview, on boarding and training process that was impressive. Our accounting was to the penny and our marketing message was slowly being standardized. Then we hired new managers that had experience in the type of growth we were experiencing and the expanding team we needed to hire.

We were so impressed with the credentials of our new managers, that we went a bit hands off and let them create new systems that were easier to manage. The decades of work we put in got packed away. The exec team focused on marketing and relationship building, and we left the management team to support our growth. The reality was, the new managers were much freer with their systems than us and chaos started to build. The hiring was without interviews, products were made without a reason and there were no controls on labor. We were drama filled to keep our drama addicted manager in her comfort zone. Our accountability was slowly dismantled by lack of teamwork. This allowed the greatest error of all to happen. We didn’t see that our shopping addicted manager was embezzling from us.

Once we got through that crisis and re-instituted our systems, with improvements, everything quickly turned around. Surprisingly, the biggest turnaround was with staff contentment. Once we held true to the system we desired and took to the time to explain the big and small pictures of our business, they settled down. They are happy to have clear instructions and expectations. This is powerful because they are the foundation of the systems that support the stability we enjoy today.

Everything you do in your business needs a system. Formal and informal, the way you deal with or avoid the needs of your business is your system. Your staff will fall right in line with the system you enforce, even if what you enforce is inaction or stress. Your staff craves consistency and you have to be the consistent one. Staff that is not in line with your culture and systems become apparent and will self-select out one wat or another. Your systems become the standards you set and the tone for your company culture. It’s full circle – start with a good culture, build mindful systems and you will get a higher standard of work. In turn, your team will keep those standards for you. For your team to be able to understand and follow your system and find the consistency they need, you must document it.


Document Everything

Remember those ISO 2000 documents?  When we had to reconstruct our systems, we literally went back to the book. In all honesty, they were written in a very technical way that was hard to follow, but we had a base to recover from. We are currently updating our procedures to be more visual and to incorporate our values, mission and vision and realize they will always be a work in process. What we proved in our recovery is when we tie our processes to our values, mission and vision, the team understands how they affect the overall health of your company. When you show them their intrinsic value in the business, they either become invested in everyone’s success or they self-select out.

When I refer to the documentation each time there is a process issue, I am showing my team how to solve the problem. That there is a foundation they can lean on when things don’t look like they should.

In December of 2019, my father passed away and while my sister (who is also my business partner) and I were pulled away to grieve with our family, my staff used the documented procedures and policies to manage some big customer service and production issues. That right there was a miracle and gift.

A lack of documentation is a bottle neck that can keep your business from growing. Imagine if you have an uptick in foot traffic to your store, you needed to immediately hire more staff, and you don’t have a recorded process on how you want your customers greeted and sold to. What horror you would feel if you watched prospective buyers get ignored to the point they walk out, or maybe the tragedy of shoplifters having free reign in your store!

Documenting your training process, job duties, expectations and review process empowers your staff to know the most important part of their job. I just wanted to cry when I’d get the “no one ever showed me that” answer when resolving an ongoing issue. I got so fed up I created a few training checklists where not only the manager trains and tests them on it, so do their co-workers.  The unexpected consequence of this documented process is that everyone got better at their jobs. When you want to master something, create it then teach it!

When you have your processes in place, you can use them during employee reviews. You will be able show them how they will be evaluated and what your expectations are. Your employee will see in black and white how they can help the business grow and opportunities to help themselves grow too. If you don’t have a standard, it will be almost impossible to measure their success on the job.


Communicate to Empower

Leadership that inspires is based on communication that empowers. No one wants to be talked down to and yet as the owners and managers we often fall into that trap without realizing it. When you have explained something 10 times and they still don’t understand or get it right, you just want to ask them if they are stupid. That action is frowned upon in every management training program.

If there is a disconnect between you and your employee the solution lies with you. Are your training documents clear? Are you communicating expectations?  Can you staff member actually do that job?  I use the philosophy from Traction by Gino Wickman, “Do they get it, want is and are capable of it?” That has helped me re-assign many staff members and validated me when it was time to free others up for their next opportunity. Sometimes we hire the wrong person for the job, sometimes we have someone in the wrong department. Once you have your team in the right seats, it’s time to take a good look at your formal and informal methods of communication.

The formal methods of communication are your daily reports and other measurables. Periodic reviews that are not tied to compensation allow you to coach and set goals for improvement and education. Those take time to develop and are powerful tools to keep in existence for your team.

The informal methods of communication (the side conversations) set the foundation of the emotional culture of your business.

At our store,  we have a no-blame policy. It has taken years, but I have everyone reminding each other that we don’t blame, we problem solve when mistakes are made. I have to put this in place because staff members were hiding their mistakes and not telling us when something broke. When candles with the wrong scent in them went to a customer, I knew it was time to start a paradigm shift in our culture.

Listen to your team! Do they throw each other under the bus? Do they argue, talk back or let their teammates fail? If they do that to each other, they are doing it to your business x3. They are also probably mimicking your informal communication. You set the tone. It was a tough day for me when I realized that I was always looking for a scape goat and my staff made sure they passed that pain to anyone else. I see this happen in so many businesses, especially when the owner or manager is really stressed. Remember what rolls down the hill and you are the hill. Everyone talks about everyone else – acknowledge it and make it part of the process. Gossip is never healthy so make sure you don’t do that.  How you react to stressful situation is how your staff will react to. Hold yourself and them accountable to the same standards of communication.


Leave Room for Creativity & Autonomy

Daniel Pink, a career analyst, talks in his award-winning TED Talk[1] about what drives people at work. It’s not money, it’s the autonomy to contribute to the overall health of the company and be recognized for it in small and large ways. You would be surprised at what your staff can do when you challenge them and believe in them. They are your ground game with your customers and business. You may think you know best overall – they know best in the microcosm of their job.

I was struggling to rearrange our space for efficiency and production. My staff did not like my proposals. I took a breath and said, “ok, the goal is to get 400 more molds out on the production floor.  You have these 3 tables you can add. I am taking all the managers into a planning meeting. I’m excited to see what you can do.” In two hours, they did it and created even more space for us. The unexpected outcropping is that their productivity went up and they keep it cleaner. They own the production floor and I love it. Your team may not be able to make the really big creative pushes but find the ways they can own their job and their engagement will increase.


Take Care of Yourself Before You Take Care of Everyone Else

As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first. In 2017, I lost my ever-living mind at work. You know the story, I was stressed, managing a lot of crisis’, not communicating well, and not keeping my staff accountable. I blew. It was not pretty. People quit over it. I was not taking care of my own emotional, spiritual, and mental health and I was the problem. If you have not gotten there yet, you will in your own way if you don’t take care of yourself. I have a therapist, and I love it. I have someone who listens 100% and calls me on my crazy. I have a trainer. I go sweat out the stress. I have a few other ways I do self-care, and these are sacred times, and everyone respects it. They know that my self-care makes me a better leader.

When you are taking care of yourself, you create room for being a healthy manager and inspiring leader. You have healthier boundaries and the energy to deal with the drama and chaos that will always creep up. You will have the energy to learn new things and more patience to apply what you learned.


Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Full circle, managing and engaging your staff starts with the interview process. Interviewing is an art I am still learning about. We hire as a team. All new recruits meet everyone. Even if you only have one other employee, make sure they spend time getting to know the candidate. Later we talk about the prospective new hire. This way we all learn how to recognize desirable skills and character that will strengthen our culture. Other strategies and rules for interviewing we abide by are. Never hire the same day as an interview. Always set up tests to see if they can do the job, invite them to spend the day with us. Do not hire in desperation. Make sure the candidate talks more than the interviewer, take our time until we find the right candidate. That last one is the most important. Hire slow.

A bad hire costs you more than the cost of their training. It involves the cost of your time, your energy, your staff’s energy and can even destroy the culture you worked so hard to build. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average cost for each bad hire can equal 30 percent of that individual’s annual earnings. A bad hire who makes $13.00 an hour and puts in 35 hours a week can cost you $7000! YIKES!! Once they are in your employee and you know they are a bad fit, fire fast.  Keeping a bad fit on staff keeps you from actively finding another staff member. Make room for the right hire to be found. Good fits that suddenly become bad fits are even more dangerous. They can cause a lot of chaos that you really can’t afford. One disgruntled employee can destroy teams, reputation, good will, property and steal from you. Fire fast! It is tempting to micromanage.

Business owners often fear the shortcomings of their own staff, not trusting that they will do the job. This will cause you to believe you need to control everything and in turn exhaust and potentially turn you against your staff. When you put a system in place that is measurable, the amount of energy you spend on constant supervision decreases. Effective systems have measurables so when you check the numbers, they tell you a story about the key areas in your business. When you have a formal system with training checklists, schedules, regular check-ins, it creates a culture of accountability, trust, and professionalism. When the rules are known by all, the game is much more fun to play.






Jacki Smith
Author: Jacki Smith

Jacki Smith is the co-owner of Coventry Creations. Her passion for personal empowerment and small business has been the driving force in her success and her journey of lifelong learning. Jacki is a regular contributor to the magazine and loves sharing her experience, successes and cautionary tales.