Why and how to find employees you can trust.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series on growing your small construction business.
In part 1 of our series on growing your small construction business, we talked about the all-important issues of knowing and managing your costs. This installment covers the equally important topic of hiring the right people.
Easier said than done. But you can’t grow a business without good employees you can trust.
“Even if you’re a very small contractor, you need to have some key people that you can rely on who will have your best interest at heart,” said Tom Aldrich, a counselor at the South Palm Beach chapter of SCORE Association, which provides free mentoring to entrepreneurs. Aldrich spent years in various engineering and construction roles before joining SCORE.
“As you grow, you can’t be on every job yourself 100 percent of the time, otherwise you’ll never be able to bid a job or continue getting work.” And someone needs to watch over your subs. Your right-hand men or women must be competent enough to get the job done and also be your eyes and ears.
“One of key things for a foremen or superintendent is the ability to work with subs and get them to do their job and not cheat or scrimp,” said Aldrich.
Aldrich offered the following tips.
Use word of mouth to identify candidates. Often, your subs will know who’s looking and who’s good. Your suppliers may have suggestions, too. It’s even worth asking your customers.
Look for red flags. One of them is frequent job changes. “You see guys who jump over from one company to another; it could be for a million reasons, not all of them good.”
Ask to see their tools. “If all they’ve got is a hammer in a toolbelt and maybe a tape measure, they’re not a carpenter. If you’re looking for a mason and he doesn’t have his own equipment, like trowels, he’s not a mason.”
Think twice before hiring relatives. “It’s never a good situation. They will either take advantage of you or will be resented by the other employees due to perceived unequal treatment.” And when you have to fire or lay off a relative, family gatherings — and even your own dinner table — could get unpleasant. “When you get home at night and your wife hears from her sister that you fired her husband, it makes life miserable.”
Test them out. Chances are, not every hire will turn out to be a good one. “It doesn’t take long to figure out if they know what they’re doing,” said Aldrich. “In a building boom, anyone who owns a hammer thinks they’re a carpenter, and half of them don’t know which end of the tape to use.” If they can’t perform, out they go. “You’ve got to be careful not to let them go too long because they could do a lot of damage.” If at any point you see that an employee is not working safely, despite having been trained on your safety policies and the proper use of PPE, fire them, advised Aldrich. “It’s too much liability for your company.”
Plan to train them up. If you need a superintendent, for example, you might train a foreman for the role. “On a small job, you start off with someone as a foreman and you train them on how you want the job to be performed. If you hire a superintendent off the street, you’ve got to be very lucky, unless it’s someone you know or have worked with on other jobs.”
Monitor them closely in the beginning. Since you can’t be on every job yourself as you grow, said Aldrich, “You need to get to point where you are confident in your own mind that that person can be trusted to work by themselves or with crews on a job. That’s a risky situation to start off with, so you’ve got to monitor it very closely.”
Dangle a carrot. To help fill key leadership positions, considering offering the chance for partial ownership or profit sharing if things work out.
Treat them well. Good employees are hard to come by. “Typically your true, loyal employees are the ones that start with you at the very beginning, and you have to always remember to treat them right,” said Aldrich.
Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.