What every residential integrator and business owner needs to know to manage and care for their staffs.

Most residential integration companies are small businesses that don’t have the resources, or perhaps even the need, for a dedicated human resources professional on staff. However, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to the personnel and work issues that plague larger companies that are equipped with an HR staff to handle those issues.

Angela Johnson, director of human resources, New Era Technology

Angela Johnson, director of human resources, New Era Technology

As director of human resources for New Era Technology, a commercial integration firm, Angela Johnson understands the trials integration firms face from a personnel and lifestyle perspective, and has some ideas on how residential integration business owners and managers can institute some solid HR practices within their companies.

How much of the employment laws do small business owners need to know?
Angela Johnson: Even if the law doesn't affect you because you're a small company, you want to try to follow the guidelines of the law as best as you can. Hopefully you're doing well and you're going to grow, and you're going to end up growing past the threshold, and then you don't have a bunch of changes that have to be done.

[Integration firms] should definitely know the wage and hour law — understand what's exempt versus non-exempt; when does someone qualify for overtime; what does qualify for overtime. Those are the kinds of things that you should know no matter how big or small you are.

How much paperwork is necessary to keep on each employee?
The I-9 is super important, as is the signed offer letter — not that it's a contractual agreement, but it covers an awful lot of the details, including job title, start date, whether the position is exempt or non-exempt, the wage, and the description of what the primary duties of the job are, which should directly correlate to what you posted the job as.

The I-9s are a huge thing right now, especially under the current presidential administration. As a smaller company, you're going to be barely on the radar, but it's still not a bad thing to do. If you are really niche, you might want to have a non-disclosure agreement or a non-compete on file, but, if you're a company under 20 people, you're probably not going to be too worried about those things.

One of the big challenges facing the industry right now is finding qualified people to join staffs. Any advice on hiring?
Hiring is a problem across the board right now. The economy's doing great, but employment rates are extremely low — which is a good thing for people, but is really hard on an employer. I struggle every single day trying to find people in general, let alone the right people.

The biggest thing you can do is highlight the benefits of what you can do and what you are offering that stands out. Right now, the easiest way to get people is to pay for them, but if you're a tiny shop, you may not have the budget for a salary that is high enough to get somebody to leave their current employer. Frequently, you're getting the “browsing person” — someone that is not actively looking — so creating a job description and an application that highlights what you can offer may catch their eye.

For a small company, Facebook might be a good way to get something out there — social media, in general, works well for recruiting. People don't know about your company, so getting your company in front of people, marketed well, and shown in a positive light is a good thing. Just put it out there — “Hey, I'm a small company. Would you be interested in learning more about us? Here's one of the things that we offer…” — because you're more likely to get somebody who is a passive job seeker rather than an aggressive one.

Once you find someone, how can you get them trained without disrupting the shop’s workflow?
I find the number one thing with training is that not everyone is a good trainer. Identifying the person or people who can do the correct training the first time and not let it interrupt their workflow is key. You're going to have some employees who just simply don't train others well, and then it's going to take you more time on the other end trying to fill in the gaps.

Also, the employee who is training them is the first person that's going to give the new hire a peek at the culture and the job happiness that they have. You wouldn't want to put them with your most crumbly employee just because that person has the spare time. You need somebody who has a positive outlook on the business and who can still handle their workload without getting flustered.

I would also say you need to set realistic expectations. If you have more of a realistic timeline in training, I believe you will have a more positive outlook and, like the employee, the new hire is going to have a better time coming on board.

Without a dedicated HR person, are there ways that a small company can keep an eye out for any mental health issues for their staff?
One of the things that we see the most is people who are overworked, and a lot of times that is because they voluntarily take on too much because they want to save the day all the time, and then they eventually hit their boiling point. It gets to the point where you have to tell them, “You're taking time off, and I don't want to see you for a week.”

You should be proactive and make sure that you aren't overworking your people. We all have busy times, especially when you have tight timelines where you might have to put in long days, but you could balance that out on the other end. If you're hitting a timeline where this has to be done in the next two weeks and so you have to put in long days, then give them a long weekend when the job is done without forcing them to take a PTO day.

That's going above and beyond, and employees are going to know that you're looking out for their best interests. They're going to be able give you extra hours when you need it, and they know that they're going to get it back on the other end.

There are also a lot of people, with the age of the cell phone, who don't turn their work off when they walk out the door. People are starting to get fed up with that, where they say, “I love my job, but I want it to be from eight to five,” and getting back to that will not burn people out so fast. That also helps out with federal labor laws, like if you have an hourly employee and they're voluntarily checking their email and working on a project at night after dinner. You do owe them that money, even if they're not reporting it. That's still your fault because, as an employer, you're supposed to be aware of what your employees are doing, and you would have to litigate that and pay them for damages and lost wages.

Personally, coming from the HR side of things, if my HR coordinators respond to my email at night, I immediately text to say: “Please turn off your phone. I'll talk to you in the morning. There's nothing that has to be done right now. If it were important, I would have asked you to stay past 5 o’clock.”

It is up to managers and the owners of the small company to enforce those rules.

Related: How Are You, Really?

You mentioned litigation. What should owners know to protect themselves from being sued by their employees?
For starters, have your ducks in a row and understand what is and isn’t a protected class under federal law. If you have somebody from a protected class, then you have to be extra cautious when you let them go.

Also, you should try to document any warnings. If the person is late, I'm going to document that and he/she is going to sign off on it. If they are late again, then they will know they were fired because they were late. You can use multiple warnings, but having as much documentation as you can will definitely help you.

Any tips on increasing productivity for small staffs?
A company’s culture is going to start from the top. You can't have a family culture if you're the one that never takes off time for your family. Putting down a written policy or just a blanket statement during the hiring process of your culture doesn't mean anything unless the employees see that happening. Management and ownership have to really understand it and be on board with it.

As far as productivity, if employees are engaged, they like what they're doing, and they feel that they're being rewarded for the job they're accomplishing, then they're going to be more engaged and productivity is going to go up. If they're disengaged employees, productivity is always going to be low — for example, if they don't like what they're doing or they're being called out on mistakes every day and never being told when they did a good job. A thank you doesn't have to be a bonus or a gift. It can be as simple as saying, “You did a really great job, thank you.”

What kind of human resources tools would you recommend for business owners?
Most regions of the U.S have local HR associations — I am a member of the Mid-Atlantic Employers Association (MEA) in King of Prussia, PA — so if you can find your local HR association, they're going to be there for you, and it doesn't matter if you're a five-man company or if you're a hundred-man company.

I would pay the monthly dues to have them in your back pocket because most of them offer 24-hour hotlines or at least normal-business-hour hotlines where, if you have a compliance question, there's somebody to call. They're also going to help you with understanding the local laws. They'll help you write policies. They'll help make sure you get law updates so you're not searching the internet trying to make sure you're up to speed.

Any advice on performance reviews?
Culturally, performance reviews are changing in the U.S. Rather than it being 20 questions where the employees are rated on a scale from 1 to 5, it has changed to a more basic structure. Now managers have to do three strengths and three areas for improvement, or less, depending on the employee. You don't do more than three, though — we don't want to hammer somebody.

Then you work with the employee to set a goal with a specific timeline: 30-day, 60-day, etc. The goals are worked on with the employer, the manager, and the employee. We make it so that the employees are brought in right from the beginning. They're working toward a goal that they want to work toward. If the employees have buy-in on the goals, and they can see how it is going to help the business, you can get more out of people because they feel that they can have an impact on the company.

I still think that 90-day reviews are helpful because 90 days gives you a pretty good idea of how of how they're doing in the job.

Any final ideas or tips that you would like to add?
The only thing I would say, especially in today's market, is that, when hiring, don't base everything on the face value of a resumé. We sometimes have to look outside of the norm if we want to meet our expectations. You might need to mold them into what you need them to be, and it could actually be a benefit to you because you're going to teach them your way right from the beginning.

So if the resumé does not have a glaring problem, sometimes just picking up a phone and seeing what you might be able to find can help you fill positions.

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