Becoming an Employer of Choice

KayeBassman97thConfLogoBecoming an Employer of Choice

by Kaye/Bassman’s Managing Director Marty Shapan

When I started in this business 13-years ago, six months into it, I started to wonder why people changed construction firms and why is it some firms are more difficult to recruit from? I soon realized that most hiring was done, not by hiring someone with the right personality, behaviors and ability to be strategic, but most of the time based upon being tactical and reactive, looking purely at industry experience and immediate need.

This explained why there would be good retention in the beginning, but did not explain why retention amongst successful construction firms was also so high.

It almost seemed like construction firms turned into places to join in order to learn the business, so that one day a person could leave and go to a smaller firm, the owner’s side or strike out on their own.

I observed this to be not only true of my clients but also the industry. From 2008-2011 there were major reductions in force, and lay-offs became the norm, and the days of the Rolex watch for 25-years of service were quickly coming to an end.

One generation saw their parents’ generation give their heart and souls to a company, only to watch that company lay them off due to lack of work or for a less expensive alternative. Since 2013 the employer driven market ended and with it the workforce has become more mercenary, where the covenant of employment has forever changed.

Companies would no longer guarantee employment for those who did their job well and people would no longer be thought wrong for looking at alternatives and changing jobs periodically. Since the mid-1990s the pendulum has simply swung back and forth between being a candidate/employee driven market and an employer one. The war for talent is constant but with differing times and duration of the battles!

In spite of this though there are winners in this war and those are the organizations that secure and retain the best and brightest by becoming an employer of choice and creating a great place or even best place to work environment. Engagement, enrichment, satisfaction, fulfillment, community, and ironically highly profitable are all descriptions of an Employer of Choice!

In the public sector, people think of companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple to name a few winners. These firms have an esprit de corps and this translates to employee retention and shareholder return!  These organizations are not created by some magic elixir and do not engage in any practices that other businesses cannot. They simply have chosen to make creating a culture of retention a top priority and then develop programs and practices that promote this. It does not matter if you have 50,000 employees, 500, 50, or 5.

Every workplace can be a great place to work or a great place to find disgruntled talent to place elsewhere.  There’s no difference between a search firm and any other business in that inspiring, engaging and retaining top talent is what is necessary to build an Employer of Choice and create a business legacy reflective of this capability.

The principles and best practices that I share with you are built on studying many organizations and leaders, and then executing and implementing many programs at our organization. We all drink from wells dug by someone else and the success of Kaye/Bassman is reflective of that fact! Becoming the largest single site search firm in the world and winning the best company to work for in Texas for three consecutive years were the results of the constant and continuous dedication to becoming an Employer of Choice.

So, what I want to share with you is a summarization of the best principles, practices, programs and policies that I believe can make any firm an Employer of Choice and consequently a great place to work. The first area I would like to address is Mission, Vision and Values.

Do the people in your firm know your mission, vision and values?  Can they write them out? Can they articulate them?

When a team/company has aligned their attitudes, priorities, and behaviors to a set of shared values with a common mission and vision, they become self-policing and this alignment increases commitment and employee retention.

Every person should have an answer to the question “ WHAT IS YOUR WHY?” and since a company is nothing more than a collection of people dedicated to a common WHY, so to should every organization ensure that this why is not only known but also “lived” by all at the firm.


If it is the former, then one should not be surprised when one joins or leaves solely for money. If the organization is not enrolling people in something bigger than themselves individually then I suspect it should not be a shocker when the only thing a person thinks about is oneself.

When I moved into leadership a few years ago, I remembered that we had built our Construction and Real Estate Practice on client retention. If we could really SERVE our clients well by working with them in the way that was best for THEM then they would always use us no matter if they needed to hire twenty people in a year or just one! If we could keep those clients and just keep adding a few good ones each year, the practice would grow. If we could not, then we would simply trade one good old client for another new good client, if we were lucky, we would maintain rather than grow. So, we decided to SERVE those that our practice hired and trained the same way we did with our external clients. The construction firms I worked with were replaced by internal customers/team members.

Our leadership team had to SERVE them the same way that we served those companies that paid our fees. To do so, we determined that there were THREE main pillars that we needed to provide. These pillars are like fires that need to be constantly stoked, that are all equally important and critical in creating an employer of choice.
The first of these was and is RELATIONSHIPS. This is about creating a workplace where people can grow personally and spiritually as well as professionally and financially.  This is about creating a culture where people GET to go to work every day rather than HAVE to go to work.

The second pillar or fire to stoke was and is INFRASTRUCTURE.  No recruiter or employee should ever be able to say, “I would have been more successful had they only provided me with more____ or a _____!”  No one should ever be able to fill in that blank. Computers, phones, office, marketing, training, quantifiable career path, models for growing the business that they want are all part of this area.

The third and final one is Economics or money. Compensation, benefits, equity programs, perks are all part of this. People want to know that their income is controlled by their actions and that their income will be directly proportional to their achievements.

These three pillars or fires require the constant “Wood” that needs to be constantly added to each of these three fires in the form of new programs, approaches, and efforts. Relationships or Culture, Infrastructure or systems, and economics or monetary reward are not three choices.

Some firms pick one pillar while others pick two but they are not mutually exclusive going from good to excellence is constant and continuous.

One person can look at a Picasso and try to find the one brush stroke that makes it a great painting, but it’s the sum of years of hard work that make it a masterpiece. It’s much like trying to dissect a game and find that it was not that one play that won the championship, but the entire effort that allowed the opportunity for that one great play.
There are recruiting and retention best practices woven throughout each of these areas.  It is not important what category you place a possible practice or program but that a perpetual focus is placed on continuous improvements in each category.

Since retention is critical to creating a great place to work, I will share 10 immediately implemented best practices that apply to all three pillars.

Retention Best Practices (adjust based on size):

1) Individual annual plans-with professional development section – Each year, every employee should create a professional plan that lists out essentially what they need from the organization and what the organization can count on from them. Goals, objectives in all area and domains of one’s life could be on the plan. If every leader had a plan on everyone that they lead then not only will they be better able to understand each person that they lead but better able to help that person accomplish what it is that they declare.

2) Clear and quantifiable career paths based on meritocracy – What career path is available at your firm?  The act of not creating a true career path is the equivalent of saying in order to advance you’ll have to join another firm or start your own.  This may require significant changes but as Einstein said, “We cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” The more quantifiable and realistic to achieve the better. Think of the expression “open to everyone but guaranteed to no one!”

3) Corporate surveys – Whether you have 1 associate or 100 a survey can provide you with great insight.  Ask questions related to every dimension of your business/team and get feedback.  Technology, training, tools, culture, leadership, operations, marketing/branding, hiring, compensation, etc. are all facets of a firm that can be improved.  By giving people a chance to weigh in you get an opportunity to see potential problems and solutions and have them ultimately buy in.  Too many people won’t ask questions because they subscribe to the Ostrich Theory of “if I do not ask then I won’t have to consider fixing anything”.  Remember, recruiters are trained to explore  what  people don’t like about their companies, leaders, etc. so to think that recruiters do not do this to themselves or each other is in and of itself the ostrich theory. Oh and by the way, ostriches burying their heads in the sand is a myth!

4) Retention and exit interviews – Retention: conduct a meeting with each team member and ask them a series of question to get at why they like being there and what may cause them to leave.  These are tough questions but it is imperative to uncovering someone’s unhappiness before it is too late. If it is too late and the employee is gone have them complete an exit interview written and or verbally and create a space where they can complain without fear of having burned the bridge if they care.

5) Onboarding programs – Establish a program where every hire has someone else that is their accountability partner.  Each partner shares with each other what they can count on from one another and what they need from the other person. If one of the people if off track or feeling disconnected, the buddy can step in to help course correct or get those involved who can. This should not be a direct supervisor but ideally a peer. Corporate newsletters are great for larger organizations and for smaller ones maybe just an email to all or even meeting where new person is introduced with a picture and bio detailing the persons favorite books, movies, food, place to travel, family situations, birthplace, school, etc.

6) Corporate Consciousness/charity and wellness programs – Demonstrating corporate consciousness by allowing the organization to unify around charity is a great opportunity to give back, create alignment, and add to the corporate meaning. Try a casino night, auction, party, golf tournament, day of volunteering, bake sale or maybe even a “jean day” each week (if you don’t already have one every day!) that requires a small donation. Additionally consider starting or add to your existing wellness program. Healthy people are happier and more productive.  CPR and first aid courses, blood drives, 5k runs, fitness assessments, dietician presentations, screenings, etc. all encourage health and wellness.  They demonstrate caring about the whole of the person and not just their production.  Plus they just may save or extend a person’s life in the process!

7) Physical environment reflective of culture – Space should reflect culture, structure and the organizational mission. The highest executive down to the administrative personnel should theoretically have the same chair.  What does it say to the team when the leader has the nicest chair and the rest have second-hand chairs?  Is your comfort more important than everyone else’s?  If so what message does that send?

8) Life milestones and corporate celebrations – While this may sound obvious, not enough can be said about the importance of recognizing people for important events like birthdays and anniversaries or for achievements. Sometime they should be individual and the more personal the better! Try actually hand writing a card! Some are better in groups and promote togetherness and camaraderie. It does not matter if it is pizza and bowling or a trip to Europe, the key is to create opportunities for togetherness with your team members and their families.

9) Awards, contests and recognition – Contests can be done in any area in a firm and are done to drive behavioral change. Sometimes contests are really more of incentives and a way of simply promoting certain behaviors on an ongoing basis. Give an award for the embodiment of the core values as a way of reinforcing their importance. Read or send out emails when someone is praised by an internal or external client. Recognition is critical and as such catching people doing good things and then letting others know about them is one of the fastest ways to demonstrate appreciation and make people feel valued.

10) Equity or profit sharing programs – This is the one that makes many owners nauseated or uncomfortable at the least.  The argument usually goes something like, “I started this and took all the risk and now I am supposed to give others some of the business. I won’t be pressured!” If you want people to have a true sense of ownership then what better way than by providing a vehicle to actually have it. The program should be well thought out and allow those who deserve it to have simply an opportunity to use their money to invest in the company that they spend so much of their lives serving. There are some programs that I hear others tout called phantom stock programs. defines the word phantom as “an appearance or illusion without material substance, as a dream image, mirage, or optical illusion.”  So why not the illusion stock plan? These plans are simply a way of paying more compensation the firm or person performs. Great! So call it a profit or revenue sharing plan and offer those too! Not all organizations need to have these plans and by no means should all employees deserve this but it is much easier for those to buy into a vision when one was literally bought into it!

As a bonus tip:
Enter best place to work or company to work for competitions. Some local and some national. Some public and some private.  By bench-marking yourselves against others you create opportunities to conduct a gap analysis compared to an ideal organization as well as other ones of similar size. You give people a chance to express themselves and celebrate their achievements in ranking high and course correct the deficiencies in very low ranking.

In the end not every program will be right for every person or every organization. The art of situational leadership is about learning what will be right for the people and company that you serve. The platinum rules states to do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Keep this in mind as the golden rule assume others will want what you do. Creating a next level workplace is a journey. There is no destination. There are milestones. There are achievements to celebrate and setbacks to learn from but in the end it is simply a perpetually dedication to continuous improvement in all facets of an organization and by doing so with a mindset of abundance and a philosophy of special treatment for everyone.
But to try and search for the one magic ingredient at an Employer of Choice would be the same as trying to identify the one paintbrush stroke that really made the Sistine Chapel or the one chisel that made the David so special. Ironically, their creator Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Most organizations are far from such masterpieces but it is our job to chisel, discover, create and uncover every day in the journey of the creation of our legacies.

Happy sculpting and best wishes for a great 2015!