Part-time workers offer distinct advantages for retailers, despite the full-time challenges they pose. Follow these suggestions for hiring and retaining the best.
BY PHILLIP M. PERRY
Part-time workers are critical gears in the retail machine, performing many vital duties on the sales floor, on the delivery truck and throughout your company.
“The business world is going in the direction of shorter-term work assignments and the hiring of people for specific projects,” says Barbara Glanz, a management consultant based in Sarasota, Florida.
No secret why: Business owners are feeling the heat from rising labor and benefits costs. Why add more full-time workers—the reasoning goes—when part-timers can do the job just as well?
Then there’s the advantage of greater flexibility: Employers can add or subtract part-timers in response to variable—and often unpredictable—sales levels.
Part-timers offer distinct advantages at retail, and maybe you’re enthused about your own team. But are they returning the favor? Are they happy about being with your company?
If the answers are negative, your sales and profits may suffer. Bad attitudes are contagious: Customers who encounter unhappy, unmotivated part-timers will take their business elsewhere. And part-timers often are the first—and only—contact the public has with your store.
“Customers don’t care if an employee is part time or full time,” Glanz says. “People judge your business by how well they are treated, not by how many hours the employees are putting in.” Customers will be treated well only if your part-timers feel good about what they’re doing.
How can you build a staff of happy part-timers? Start by hiring the right people in the first place. “The most important decision you make is whom to allow in the door to take care of customers,” says Mel Kleiman, director of Houston-based Humetrics, an employment consulting firm. “The biggest mistake business owners make is not taking part-time hiring as seriously as full-time hiring. You have to realize the importance of part-time positions and not short circuit the hiring process.”
Smart hiring means not only curating the applicant pool, but also forming a clear vision of what you need. “You don’t go grocery shopping without a list,” Kleiman says. “Before you leave home, you look at a recipe to see what ingredients you need. Take the same approach when hiring part-timers: What ingredients will you need to make your hire successful?”
And don’t wait until the last minute. “It’s a mistake to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry,” he says. “You buy the wrong food. In the same way, don’t start looking for part-timers when you need them. When you’re forced to make a fast decision, you end up hiring great applicants instead of great employees.”
There’s a critical difference between the two categories. “Great applicants can start work today or tomorrow. Great employees are working someplace else and want to give their current employers notice,” Kleiman says.
Day One duties
Attracting the best part-timers is one thing. Making sure they don’t jump ship to a competitor is something else. It’s important to design a smooth transition into your workforce so the new arrival feels welcome, Kleiman says.
“Realize the new part-time worker is important and invest the time to bring the individual on board,” he says.
Your goal is to make the new hire an evangelist for your store. As Kleiman says, “Every new employee at the end of the first day will be asked one question by everyone, ‘How was your day?’ We know what we want the answer to be: ‘It was terrific. It was the best decision I ever made.’ ”
Creating such enthusiasm begins with the arrival of the part-timer to your workplace. “The first hour should not be just sitting in an office looking at videos and filling out paperwork,” Kleiman says. Instead, make the first conversation about the employee, discussing the person’s goals. Remember that the very nature of being a part-time worker involves two distinct duties: one to the job and the second to a personal life. Your job is to understand the latter and make sure the two loyalties don’t end up in conflict.
One way to bring the two into productive engagement is to involve families in business activities whenever you can. “Part-time employees are probably giving up family time to put in hours that are needed,” Glanz says. “Find ways to involve the families in some way and show they are appreciated.”
Here’s an example: One employer sent a gift certificate to a worker’s family, explaining the importance of a certain project and how grateful the company was that the family member had contributed. “Here is a check,” the card read. “Think of something to do to celebrate.”
As mattress retailers, consider rewarding part-time workers and their families with pillows, protectors and other sleep-related products, with a message about wanting both them and their loved ones to sleep well.
Try to help part-time workers reach their personal goals, even if they aren’t connected with work. Suppose someone says, “I want to get my college degree.” Express admiration for the ambitious goal and offer to assist in specific ways. For example, you might say, “We are going to be flexible in work scheduling so you can attend classes you need to get your degree.” The part-timer will value this kind of assistance and will likely stick with your company rather than take an alternative job that offers more money but less flexibility.
Break down walls
While getting off on the right foot is critical to success, you also must follow through. Make sure new part-time workers quickly feel like part of the team. Start by erasing the imaginary wall that divides them from the rest of your staff.
“Your company will be much healthier if you don’t make a distinction between full- and part-time workers,” Glanz says. “Treat all of your employees like valuable team members. Change the mindset from ‘us versus them’ to ‘all of us together.’ ”
Promoting a sense of teamwork will keep your part-timers from feeling isolated and ineffectual. “People need a sense of purpose—to feel that they are part of something bigger,” Glanz says.
Being part of a team is essential: But does one person’s job make a difference? The answer is yes. As a manager, you need to communicate how each task contributes to the valuable mission of your store.
“Don’t just tell people what to do and how to do it, but why they do it,” Kleiman says. “We don’t do things for the what and how—we do things for the why.” The why is the value that the employee’s actions give the larger mission of your store: to improve the lives of customers by selling them a great mattress.
This advice applies to employees throughout the ranks. “The lowest-level jobs are often the most important ones in satisfying the customer,” he says. At these positions, it is especially vital to make sure the employee knows the answers to the question, “Why is what I do important?”
That sounds like a communication challenge. And it’s true that managers with great communication skills are the most successful at making a compelling case that each employee is an essential part of the larger retail business whole.
An engaged part-time worker is a critical gear in any retail business. To keep the machine running well, it has to be maintained: Follow through on your hiring practices by continuing to take an interest in your part-time workers’ personal lives. Communicate with your part-timers regularly, monitoring their attitudes and soliciting suggestions on store or customer-service improvements. Pay special attention to feedback during performance reviews when workers may bring up issues they have kept to themselves.
Remember that competing employers are looking to snap up the best workers from your part-time pool. Maintain open communications to preserve your investment in training and keep your peak performers on board. “Employee engagement is not something that can be taken care of during one day or week,” Glanz says. “Employees want to be appreciated and engaged all year long.” O
Finding the best part-time workers
Why hunt for part-time workers when you can get them to come to you? Under the best circumstances, you’ll have some top-quality people lined up and waiting before you need them. Building a reputation as a great place to work is one way to do that. Another way is to make your application process visible where the best applicants are looking.
“You always want to be asking: How do we make it easy for the best people to get into our hiring process?” says Mel Kleiman, director of Houston-based Humetrics, an employment consulting firm. One way is to connect with the right Internet sites. Craigslist is one of the most popular sites for connecting with part-timers. Kleiman also recommends becoming familiar with SnagaJob.com.
Understand, too, that there’s a move away from more commonplace Web-based job boards to mobile platforms.
“Many part-timers are no longer looking for work on their computers, but are using their smartphones,” Kleiman says. He suggests looking into Jobaline.com, a Seattle-based hourly worker Internet marketplace designed for maximum compatibility with mobile platforms.
“We have observed that most applicants prefer to apply via mobile services,” says Luis Salazar, chief executive officer of Jobaline.com. “So making your search mobile friendly, including allowing text messages and phone calls, helps you reach out to a broader and richer base.”
Make the application process smooth and easy.
“If the job-application process treats them well, then the workers will be motivated from Day One,” Salazar says. “On the other hand, if there are too many barriers to applying for a job—like a lengthy application process, distracting advertisements or a lack of mobile options—then companies risk alienating potential part-timers.”
Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning writer and syndicated columnist specializing in business management, workplace psychology and employment law. Based in New York, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-274-8694.