When You Need to Hire Workers, But Nobody Likes the Work
Some jobs are just plain unpleasant. You know the type. Monotonous tasks that don’t end until it’s time to clock out. Dealing all day with customers who are unhappy, unappreciative, or rude. Fielding nonstop complaints. Hard labor. Outdoor work in extreme temperatures.
You can convince people to take these jobs when they have no other choice. But right now, for a variety of reasons, they do have other options. The avoidance of undesirable work is one reason why half of all small businesses are unable to find workers right now.
Pay raises and other perks haven’t always done the trick, either. This has left many employers with no good way to incentivize job seekers to apply or convince dissatisfied employees to stay. After all, the work is the work, and there’s nothing to be done about it, right?
Employers have some control over what the work is, how it’s done, and under what conditions it’s done. Not limitless, of course, but there often are ways to make unpleasant work more bearable, if not genuinely exciting.
If you’re among the half of small businesses struggling to fill positions, and you haven’t had any luck with other measures to entice applicants to apply, consider what changes you could make to the work you need done or to the overall work experience at your business. Here is a set of steps you could follow:
Step 1 – Identify the Unfun Parts
Create a list of all the unpleasant aspects of the job you’re having trouble filling or keeping staffed. Include both the work itself and the conditions under which it’s done. Try to be as comprehensive as you can. You won’t be addressing everything you write down, but the more things you can include, the more you’ll have to work with. If you’re not sure what to include, consider an anonymous poll of your employees or review job descriptions and mentally walk through the day-to-day tasks that are required of your workers.
Step 2 – Determine What You Can Change
For each aspect you’ve written down, determine whether it’s something you can directly change, indirectly do something about, or if it’s entirely out of your power. You don’t need to come up with changes or solutions at this stage. Just note whether it’s something you have some control over, however little that may be. For example, you can’t change the weather, but there may be things you can do to make extreme temperatures more bearable.
Step 3 – Think a Little Harder About What You “Can’t” Change
Now that you’ve categorized the job aspects, reevaluate the items you indicated you had no control over. Give each one some thought and challenge your assumptions. Do you really have no options as far as these aspects are concerned? Keep an open mind and take some time later to think about them. You also may get ideas when you’re implementing other changes later.
Step 4 – Brainstorm Improvements
Now think about what changes you could make. Don’t worry about the logistics or the costs just yet. Here you’re just considering options. For example, if you’re worried that extreme temperatures are keeping job applicants away, you might look at uniforms that offer more comfort, additional or longer breaks, and ways to provide shade or cover from the elements. If the work is emotionally taxing, you might consider easing up on performance metrics, providing longer lunches, or allowing employees the flexibility to step away and decompress when they need it.
Increased freedom and flexibility might be another option. Standing desks for those who want to stretch their legs. Seats for cashiers who would prefer to sit. Ergonomic headsets for those on the phone. A second computer monitor for those who have to stare at small print. Job sharing to minimize monotony. Customer swapping to stop harassment.
Employees also appreciate knowing that their employer has their back and won’t put up with their being mistreated by customers. Posting notices about acceptable behavior and giving employees permission to step away from an abusive customer can really help in creating a psychologically safe workplace.
Step 5 – Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis
Any change you make is going to have a cost. In this step, do your best to estimate the implementation costs and analyze whether the cost is worth the benefit. That may not be clear right away. If your solution to physically or emotionally taxing labor is additional paid breaks, employees will be spending less time working. Less time working could translate into assignments taking longer to finish or fewer orders being completed. Then again, well-rested employees may be more productive, able to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. Time will tell.
To conduct a cost-benefit analysis, compare the estimated costs of making changes to the costs of having a labor shortage or higher than average turnover. Consider too that there are no guarantees the changes you make will be successful. You’re taking a risk, but the bigger risk may be in doing nothing. It could be a while before the labor market becomes more favorable to employers.
Step 6 – Make the Changes
Depending on your situation, you may decide to try all the changes at once or one at a time. The latter may be more helpful if you want to be able to measure the success of each change, but the former may have a bigger impact in the short term.
Step 7 – Advertise the New Awesomeness
Shout from the rooftops. For some, this step will be the most challenging. Your employees will immediately notice the changes you make, but job seekers won’t. You need to tell them. Talk up the efforts you take to make the work experience more pleasant. Share photos on social media. Most importantly, tell a compelling story in job ads, your careers page, and everywhere else job seekers can find you.
Stories can be a powerful and effective way to change behavior. In your case, you want job seekers to take a job today that they were unwilling to take yesterday. You have to convince them to cast aside their doubts and believe in you. A well-told story can be very persuasive.
The story you should tell is not about you, however. It’s about them. About the experience they’ll have. Definitely don’t sugarcoat that experience. If the work is rough, they’ll learn soon enough. But sharing what you’ve done to make the work less taxing tells job seekers that you care about your employees and want them to have a good work experience.
Step 8 – Evaluate the Outcome and Adjust Accordingly
Did the changes you made help? Were you able to fill open positions and keep them filled? How do your employees feel about the steps you took to improve the work experience? If you’re not satisfied with the results and they’re not satisfied with the changes you made, think about why and discuss solutions with your employees. What could have been done differently? What surprised you?
This process will take some trial and error, and there’s no guarantee it will work, but it is an option to consider if the jobs you need done aren’t especially attractive and measures like pay increases haven’t gotten you more applicants.
Kyle Cupp is an HR certified professional author, editor, and researcher. His writing has appeared in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Week, and elsewhere.