Lynne Curry: Hitting the big time with a federal contract

THE WORKPLACEAugust 18, 2013 

Q. Our family business is about to double in size. We're in the running for a federal contract that would require us to hire 30 to 45 new workers.

We've never mass hired before. In the past we've relied on referrals from those who knew we had an opening. We called a local employment agency that wants to charge us 20 percent of each new employee's first year's salary to help us find the right people. We've decided this is too expensive.

Since we'll have to hire quickly and may need to take aboard some people who are less qualified than we're used to, what do we need to watch for? Also, we're proud of our company and don't want to lose its "family feel." It's pretty informal here without a lot of rules, regulations and structure. How do we avoid losing what we have when we grow so rapidly?

A. Accepting federal money brings your company under the oversight of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, also known as OFCCP. Read every part of your contract carefully.

The OFCCP will scrutinize your hiring decisions to make sure you're not discriminating against applicants from protected categories such as age, race or gender. Last year the OFCCP fined shipping giant FedEx $3 million when a routine desk audit discovered that FedEx preferentially hired men rather than women and Caucasian rather than African-American or Hispanic applicants.

You'll need to keep statistics on both the applicants you hire and those you turn down. You may be required to proactively seek out minority or other categories of applicants not statistically represented in your current employee group. If your current employee group is statistically biased -- for example, if all your employees are white males -- your practice of referral-based hiring may pose a problem if the result is mostly white male applicants.

While you can get around this by advertising or other applicant search devices, this often opens the door to a landslide of unqualified applicants. Provide every applicant an application form, review them all to find qualified candidates and keep a statistical count on the applicant categories the OFCCP considers important.

To speed applicant review, ask every applicant to respond in writing to a list of 10 to 20 questions such as, "What puts you in the job market?" and "What will your current/former supervisor say about you when we check references?" Don't let your hiring rush stop you from thorough reference checking; a problem employee can cost you much more time and money than the hour you spend calling each top candidate's last three employers.

You'll also need to develop your employee handling and operational infrastructure. How do you plan to orient these new employees so they won't make safety or other costly errors? Do your supervisors have the time and experience to manage a larger number of new employees? Or should you hire a couple new supervisors or promote some of your best workers as supervisors? If you promote them, how will you train them? Is your payroll department equipped to process twice as many paychecks?

Although you don't want a lot of structure, you may want to upgrade your employee handbook or develop written standard procedures that outline how you want employees to handle calling in sick or asking for leave at certain times of year. When a business adds one new employee at a time, it's easy for the new employee to learn the ropes by informally asking questions. An influx of new employees can overwhelm this informal transfer of information, resulting in confusion and employees making innocent mistakes that cost time and money.

Finally, to keep your company's "family feel," make sure you invite your new employees "into the family." Unless you're careful, a sudden doubling in size may result in a two-tier company in which the long-termers treat the newbies as second-class citizens. You can prevent this by carefully training your supervisors, through company-wide meetings and potlucks, and by helping your new employees quickly onboard so they feel and act like full team members.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.

 

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