Hiring for the Holidays

Don’t pout, don’t cry, but do use these tips for hiring temporary help for the holiday selling season-before Santa Claus comes to town. It’s hard enough to find good employees who know jewelry-a highly specialized product-and the tight labor market makes hiring temporary help for the upcoming holiday season especially challenging. Moreover, because jewelry is easily stolen, it’s important to hire staffers who are honest as well as able.

Craig Rowley, vice president of consulting for retail markets for the Dallas office of the Hay Group, a public relations consulting firm based in Philadelphia, says all retailers-not just jewelers-will be competing for a limited number of qualified applicants. “Every retailer I talk to is worried about how they are going to staff their stores this Christmas,” he says.Jewelers interviewed for this story agree.

“It’s very difficult right now because of the economy,” says Victor Hellberg, owner of Hellberg Jewelers, Marshalltown, Iowa. “Some who apply are unemployable, and some just don’t want to work.”

“The market is very difficult for permanent and temporary help,” adds Dale Perelman, owner of Kings Jewelry, New Castle, Pa. “Over the past year it’s been a bear trying to get qualified people in general, let alone part-time people.”

What to do? Rowley cites a number of strategies retailers can use to find quality help for the season. One is to hire friends and family. “The old adage used to be, don’t hire friends and family,” Rowley says. “These days, there’s no choice.” Hellberg also uses close family friends to help out during the Christmas crunch.

Knowledgeable help may also be as close as the other side of the counter. “Some of your best potential salespeople are your best customers,” Rowley says. “Some retailers will approach them and ask if they would like to work for them.”

Another method of finding quality help is to poach good sales associates from competitors, says Rowley. “Some people work the mall they’re in. If they see very good people in various stores, they’ll approach them,” he notes. “The jewelry business has a competitive advantage in recruiting because the margins are higher, and therefore they can afford to pay people more.”

Perelman says his most successful strategy is to use retired persons for part-time help, particularly around Christmas time. “We found that to be a great avenue,” he says. “They’re more patient with customers and willing to work hard. We love to use more seasoned people.”

Rowley says stores can improve their chances of attracting quality candidates by offering discounts to temporary employees and by allowing flexible scheduling. But he also notes that flexible scheduling makes a store manager’s job “a headache.”

Kate Peterson, co-owner of Performance Concepts, a jewelry consulting and sales training firm, suggests that retailers solicit staff referrals. “Ask current employees, who have you shopped with recently that’s been really good? Who should we look at?”

Regular temporary help. Most small retailers don’t hire temporary help for sales. Instead, temps support the sales staff already in place, says Peterson. Many jewelers would rather pay their permanent employees to work overtime, and many workers welcome the extra earnings. The trend is for jewelers to look for temporary staffers they can use each year. “The cost of hiring, training, and the hourly pay is not a lot different than having a staff year-round,” Peterson says. “To a certain degree, hiring cashiers and gofers is what typically happens with seasonal sales help. They work year after year and are gone from January till November.”

Hellberg, who has seven full-time persons (including himself and his wife) working in his 3,300-square-foot store, says he doesn’t use part-time help to sell jewelry. He says salespersons develop relationships with their customers, and he’d never jeopardize that relationship with part-time sales help. “When I’m beefing up for the holiday season, I usually look for high school kids to do gift wrapping so salespeople can move from one customer to the next,” he notes.

Perelman hires 30 to 40 extra people for Christmas, but he prefers using those who have previously worked at the store or who work part-time at the store on a regular basis. He says that having experienced part-time help provides better customer service and is more cost-effective over the long haul. “An awful lot of our temporary help we use every year,” he says. “We don’t look for somebody to use just during Christmas. You really can’t hire anyone part-time during Christmas other than a gift wrapper or cashier. If you have someone selling who doesn’t know the `four Cs,’ how can he sell a diamond? You get yourself in trouble.”

Rowley notes that jewelers who do use part-timers as salespersons must make sure their full-time, year-round staff doesn’t lose out on business. “The challenge is to work on an incentive and commission plan that ensures that regular and full-time staff as well as temporary help are properly compensated,” he says. “It’s the busiest time of the year and they [regular, full-time help] miss sales. You need to think creatively and design an awards program that’s sensitive to the impact on the staff.”

One area some jewelers fail to staff properly is the repair area, Peterson says. Using inexperienced employees to take repair requests from customers invites the same problems as using inexperienced salespersons. “If the person’s job description is to take in repairs, that person needs to be adequately trained,” she says.

Advertising for help. Retailers should consider seasonal recruiting a full-time job, says Rowley. “Just placing a help wanted ad in the paper doesn’t get the job done,” he says. Nor will a sign in the window attract many candidates.

Peterson suggests that jewelers advertise for help using the same medium they use to attract customers. “If you mostly advertise on radio, you would be foolish to use a newspaper ad,” she says. “We’ve found that tagging a message on a radio spot is very effective.”

Hellberg says he’s planning to use a method of advertising he learned about at a recent seminar. Instead of placing classified ads in the local newspaper, he’ll place a display ad for help, most likely in the newspaper’s society section. He says he hopes this will draw candidates who are interested in the jewelry business. “I may be able to attract persons who would like to see what it’s like to work in a jewelry store,” he says.

Honesty is store policy. Jewelry-valuable and easy to hide-is a temptation for those who are less than honest. Jewelers and consultants say honesty is a top priority when evaluating prospective employees, but it’s also a difficult trait to determine.

A recent survey conducted by Checkpoint Systems, Thorofare, N.J., shows how difficult it is to find honest help. Of 20,000 randomly selected job applicants who completed Checkpoint’s questionnaire, 22.6% were deemed “high-risk” hires based on their own admissions of prior dishonest acts and on their attitudes about honesty. According to the survey, 4,525 high-risk job applicants admitted to stealing a total of $174,570 worth of merchandise and money. Apparently, the dishonest are honest about their dishonesty.

Peterson says all employees should be evaluated in the same manner without regard to length of employment or specific job. Sophisticated evaluation systems are expensive and time-consuming, and store owners may be tempted to forgo the process for part-timers. Peterson says that’s a mistake. “They should make sure the standards are practiced whether they are full-time or seasonal employees,” she says.

John Kennedy, president of Jewelers’ Security Alliance, says the trick is finding the balance between “the need for relevant information bearing on a candidate’s honesty and integrity” and the “various fair employment and other laws that can impose legal liability or other penalties if they are not followed.” (See “Avoiding the Legal Pitfalls of Hiring and Firing,” JCK, June 2000, p. 306.) Kennedy has 10 suggestions for employers to follow when screening candidates (see sidebar).

When hiring temporary help, particularly for store assistant jobs, the time and money needed to do a thorough search isn’t always available, Kennedy says. He advises jewelers to put in place a quick and cost-effective screening system. “We try to look for the cheapest, fastest, and easiest thing that can be done in evaluating new hires,” he says. “You’re going to have to do something, because the person you bring into your store for the holidays could do a great deal of damage.”

Kennedy suggests having all candidates-even candidates with resumés-fill out an employment application. “It’s important to have his name and signature on the bottom,” Kennedy says. “A resumé doesn’t really provide a reality check. And if a person lies on an employment application, you can fire him.”

Kennedy also advises employers to get personal information on applicants-such as past names, social security number, and driver’s license number-and make copies of all the documents.

One inexpensive but effective method for finding out about an applicant is to contact past employers and references. “It’s the single best and cheapest way to check up on somebody’s background, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it,” Kennedy says.

Be sure to ask former employers what the applicant’s title was and if the person is available for rehire. You also can ask about job performance. Even if the employer refuses to answer such questions, his or her tone of voice or any hesitation can say plenty.

When hiring temps, retailers should perform credit and background checks, which are relatively easy and inexpensive, Kennedy says. For as little as $4, the United States Mutual Association (USMA), a Tulsa, Okla., firm that specializes in employee screening for the retail industry, can run a search to see whether a person has been charged with theft. For $15, USMA can run a criminal history search for the counties the job candidate has lived in for the past seven years. Call (800) 860-0343 or visit www.usmutual.com.

Another company that performs an inexpensive screening service is Employees U Trust, Leawood, Kan. For $19.95 ($9 for Jewelers of America members), this company will provide an automated screening technique called TeleScreen. Through a touch-tone phone, an applicant answers 132 questions on topics such as employment, substance-abuse history, and past performance. The test takes 15 minutes, and a few minutes after the test taker hangs up, the employer is faxed a report listing “red flags.” Call (888) 873-6935 or visit www.emploutrst.com.

In Search of Honest Employees

John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, offers 10 suggestions for screening new hires:

  • Have all candidates fill out a written employment application. Focus on questions relating to the candidate’s ability to do the job, including prior employment and education. Try to obtain as much personal information as possible, including other names used, previous addresses, social security number, and driver’s license number. Make copies of as much of this information as you can.

  • Avoid discriminatory questions during interviews. Don’t ask questions about race, religion, gender, age, prior arrests (criminal convictions are acceptable), sexual preference, national origin, marital status, pregnancy, children, disability, type of military discharge, height, or weight.

  • Get permission to confirm information. Before making an offer, have applicants sign a release permitting you to confirm information by contacting former employers, schools, and other sources.

  • Run a credit check. Before making an offer, run a credit check and prepare a separate release for the applicant to sign. Use an attorney to help draft the release statement.

  • Ask for two to three personal references. And call them. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t do it,” says Kennedy.

  • Call former employers. Confirm dates of employment and job title and ask if the candidate is eligible for rehire. If you ask questions about the candidate’s job performance, don’t be surprised if the former employer refuses to answer. But listen carefully to the tone of his or her voice.

  • Confirm prior schooling. This is especially important if the applicant lists jewelry-related education, such as courses from the Gemological Institute of America.

  • Check for prior histories of retail theft. Contact United States Mutual Association (USMA) for this service at (800) 860-0343 or visit www.usmutual.com.

  • Bring a candidate in for a second interview before hiring. It’s well worth the extra time.

  • Make employment conditional on background checks. If you must hire a candidate before the background process is complete, inform him or her that continued employment depends on the results of the background check.