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Hiring Outside the Box

Finding new employees in nontraditional ways

Have you seen the television commercials for one of the large chain store in which there is a senior citizen, someone sitting in a wheelchair, or someone who is mentally challenged working as a greeter or visiting with customers in their stores?

The commercials do not sell any products, but instead work to give a "feel good" message about the store. Other than the usual, "that's nice", you may have thought, "Of course, they can do it. They are a big company, and have stores with lots of employees. They can take one of those people and find something to keep them busy."

Maybe so, but the concern we express for a gift shop owner or manager is that you may be missing out on a great opportunity. Not the "feel good" idea, but missing out on the opportunity of having a fantastic employee. While the media is trying their hardest to tell us there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, most retailers will tell you they are still having as hard a time today locating help as they did in the 1990's. They will also tell you how hard it is to keep an employee, or how difficult it is to motivate, educate, and promote employees. The problems, and their details, can be endless no matter how big or small your gift shop is. This is why we are suggesting that when you are looking for new employees that you consider hiring outside the traditional "box" for a new source.

Because of the differences in the hiring and education procedures, we are going to look at this source of staffing in two groups: those potential employees who are retirees, and those employees who have challenges - whether they be mental, physical, or emotional.

With each of these groups, we are considering employees who, for the most part, do not have the traditional needs and wants of other employees. Retirees are often looking for something to keep them occupied as well as providing them with opportunities to utilize the life skills they have obtained throughout their years.

With employees who have nontraditional challenges, the objective is as varied as those you will be interviewing for the job. There will be some who are working toward returning to the work force. You could find yourself considering someone who had previously been a stockbroker, but is now desiring to relearn skills which can be taught with an entry level job.

You could also be considering a person who is physically disabled from their traditional work, but will be an excellent worker for your business. There may also be potential employees who will only be able to handle tightly regimented tasks. Tasks which often turn out to be the jobs that have a high employee turnover rate because traditional employees may consider the tasks to be beneath them.

For those deciding to consider retirees, pick up your phone and immediately call your local chapter of the American Association of Retired People (AARP). While you may think AARP is only busy publishing a magazine, promoting senior citizen discounts, and arranging for charter groups of their members to travel around the country and world, they are also busy promoting many of their members as excellent employees.

From the experiences of this writer in his store, seniors were one of the best sources of talent. We had people from management, professional trades, military, and many other walks of life. For the most part, the money these people earned provided them with an extra amount of spending change.

These employees wanted to work to prove to themselves their talents were not fading away, for the chance to meet and visit with other folks, and simply to keep themselves busy. Scheduling these retirees to work was much easier than most other employees because their time restraints and outside commitments were considerably less.

In our area, the local AARP chapter even had a grant program available so that our store would be reimbursed for up to 40 hours of the retiree's pay as we integrated them into our work force.

In our area, our business had a good reputation for having a number of retirees working for us. Because of this, we found an occasional individual approaching us with an explanation of their plan to retire from their job in the next year and their wanting to come to work for us. They were telling us a year early so they could get their "name in the pot" for the next job opening.

I remember asking one of our local AARP contacts what was the hardest part of their job. The answer was the task of convincing a business to try a retiree. In our business we did experience the problem several employees and customers told us we would - the concern of the retiree moving "too slow."

However, the number of times this happened was probably less than occasions it occurred with traditional employees. And we never received a call from one of our retirees who could not make it to work that day because one of their children were sick or because they "just didn't feel good" or had some other problem.

Our business worked so closely with AARP, that we were often receiving a call from their office telling us they had a new candidate that looked real good and the AARP wanted our shop to know about it first.

Before providing information for hiring the second group of nontraditional employees, we should begin with resolving some of the frequently mentioned concerns. From a survey conducted of those currently utilizing employees with challenges by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, they found that 70% of those businesses said the disabled person had a favorable effect on their other employees. An even higher percentage of responses said the workers were hard workers, and even more respondents said these employees were dependable.

While many of these businesses were in buildings which were already compliant with American Disabilities Act (ADA), no business reported they had to make any changes to their facility as a result of their having hired a physically disabled individual.

Yes, there are tax benefits available to your business as your hire these individuals. And no, you are probably not going to get these employees for a discounted rate. Within the retail industry, we have spoken with several businesses, all of which report very favorable results with their hiring of disabled individuals.

In locating candidates for employment, you should begin by contacting organizations such as the local chapter of a mental health agency, the handicapped training centers, your newspaper and even the Chamber of Commerce. As you begin working with an organization, you will likely be assigned a placement specialist who will spend time with you and your business in an effort to understand your wants and needs. The specialist will then have an understanding of the job and your facilities. This person will likely continue to be your contact as you employ their clients.

The shop owners we spoke with stated that the physically disabled individuals they hired often became permanent employees. We were also told that the disabled individual was usually very creative in finding ways to complete their assigned tasks, and within a comparable time frame. Employees in this category demonstrated the same capability of handling jobs, although all were support type jobs, that any other individual might attempt.

Working with employees that are mentally or emotionally disabled, the businesses we spoke with stated these employees were utilized to complete many of the basic tasks - checking in merchandise, stocking shelves, and answering telephones. One of the positive comments we heard from these retailers was that their disabled employees did not display a "this job is beneath me" attitude.

They also made a point to explain that these disabled individuals are not unintelligent, but some do require a regimented job sequence because they are easily distracted. The "traditional" mentally or emotionally handicapped person is between the ages of 25 and 45. In the case of the emotionally handicapped employee, their previous vocations may surprise you. One retailer told of an employee who had previously been a master chef, but had "broke down" and was now attempting to rebuild their life.

As you might imagine, it is unlikely that these employees would be assigned the task of waiting on customers, but one retailer mentioned they have had disabled employees who have been able to answer the phones for the business. One retailer we visited did have an employee that did wait on customers.

The employee, who had a form of palsy, struggled to speak such that it was very difficult to understand. However the product knowledge they displayed, made it worth our while to allow them to continue their sales efforts.

Perhaps these positive results are due in part to the tremendous efforts put forth by the case worker from each agency. In addition to the initial work done by these people, case workers have often made suggestions for "job carving" - a situation where they take the one job and divide it among two or more of their disabled clients so as to provide you with the completed task you need.

For some retailers, the agencies have even provided an extra benefit. On the rare occasion where the disabled employee is unable to work, the specialist has provided a replacement individual or even offered to come and perform the job themselves.

With many of the agencies, the disabled employee is a part of an ongoing educational program. There may be a time limit as to how long the disabled person can work at one business. Often that time frame is six months. However, as you might think, "Just when I get this disabled person trained to do the job, they are yanked out of here", remember it is the case worker from the agency that is doing the training for you. It is the case worker's job to provide you with a seamless transition from one person to the next.

While it is not the usual situation, there have been disabled people who have left the agency program and continued to work at one place. Case workers we spoke with said this situation constitutes less than one percent of all cases.

With all or any of these nontraditional employees, is this a possibility for every business? Depending on which type of person, retiree, physically handicapped, mentally or emotionally handicapped, you may answer "yes" to one or more of the categories. Giving it a try was highly recommended by each of the retailers we spoke with. Again, according to the Mason-Dixon survey, more than 38% of businesses have already tried it. And of that group of businesses, 87% said they would encourage other employers to hire a person with a disability.

Hiring any of the individuals in these categories does have the positive features like that "big box" retailer we mentioned at the beginning of this article. And the person you are hiring is also receiving benefits from the opportunity of working. And because an agency may be involved, you are also contributing to creating jobs for these people.

Hiring the nontraditional worker is not just for economic times when unemployment remains in the lower single digit area. It is for anytime that you are willing to look outside the box.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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