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18 road-tested ways to recruit, retain and reward your staff

No shortage of consultants will tell you how to find and keep crackerjack staffers.



1 Hire for attitude first; skill second
This simple rule has worked incredibly well for Shawn MacGillivray, owner of the No Frills in Stratford, P.E.I., during his three decades in the business. Not only do employees with the “right” attitude exude the kind of spunk customers and other staff appreciate, their energy and enthusiasm actually makes them easier to train than someone with expertise, but a lacklustre outlook. The bottom line, says MacGillivray: “Some people have the skill but the question is, do they have the will?”

2 Create a “refer a friend” program
One bad hire can send your store’s unique culture into a downward funk. One way to make sure you don’t mis-hire is to rely on those who have already drank the company Kool-Aid, so to speak: your best employees. Let them recommend people who they think would be a good fit for the team. That’s one of the ways Vince’s Market hires, says Sabrina Greco, HR administrator at the three-store southern Ontario independent. “When we have an employee who is already a good worker, and they recommend someone, we already feel at ease about that person,” Greco says. Plus, if the new recruit is working out after a three-month period, the referring employee gets a cash reward.

3 Did we mention you’ll work weekends?
The first question John Briuolo, partner at Quality Foods in B.C., asks potential new staff is if they are prepared to work evenings and weekends. “I tell them that this is a very hard question and I want them to think about it and give me an honest answer because nobody wants to work nights and weekends,” he says. “They all say ‘yes’ obviously, until they get hired.” Now, Briuolo writes down the weekend and evening clause in the conditions of employment and gets the newbies to sign it. “ I can tell them this is what agreed to.”

4 Be a full-time recruiter
The chances of you finding the best possible employee the same week someone quits aren’t good. So always be on the lookout for people you might want to hire. For instance:
➜ Online: Vince’s Market has a spot on its website ( explaining what kind of people it is looking to hire (“loves food and people,” “friendly and hard working”). “We also try and use social networks like Facebook and Twitter,” says Greco, because when asked how they found out about a job at Vince’s, many applicants now say online.
➜ At the mall: Some people are just really fabulous at customer service and you’ve probably met them in the form of waitresses at restaurants or super-helpful employees working in clothing stores, bookstores or home-improvement stores. Remember these people and when you need to hire, ask if they would be interested in working in your store.
➜ In the schoolyard: Stay-at-home moms who are just starting to send their kids off to elementary school are often looking for part-time work. The good news is that these moms already have plenty of other work experience, and after dealing with little kids, you know they can multi-task and handle the pressure.

5 “People who are older with more work experience tend to be a little more sure of themselves. They have more life experience, and they’ve been in a work environment before, so they know what to expect, and they tend to be employees that will stay around longer.”
– Scott Logan at Village Food Market in Sooke, B.C., on his preference to hire those who are both older and eager.


6 Meet often with your rookies
New staff tend not to speak up, even though their ‘freshness’ means they often see many ways for improving the store and their own jobs.. That’s one reason Holly Chmelyk, store manager of Pete’s Frootique in Nova Scotia schedules performance reviews 30, 60 and 90 days from the employee’s start date. Rather than ask broad yes-or-no questions, she asks specific ones about all aspects of the business, including a few about product knowledge. She also lets employees identify their weak spots themselves, with questions like, “How do you feel you’re doing in ?”

7 Pay attention to newbies. They’re your future managers
Quality Foods’ partner John Briuolo takes the time to mentor promising kids. “Now they are managing stores, they’re department managers. I’ve watched them grow and they’ve made this their career,” he says. Another good idea: Briuolo says he encourages all his employees to continue with higher education. And he’s quick to rehire those who want to return to his stores after they’ve finished school.

8 “When you compliment an employee during a job review, don’t wreck it by immediately adding a ‘but’ and something bad about their work performance.”
– Holly Chmelyk, store manager of Pete’s Frootique in Nova Scotia.

9 Meet the need to be up-to-speed
The best way to retain staff (besides money, of course) is to keep them in the loop on store operations and sales performance. It’s a reminder that they are part of a larger team with a common goal, says Bob Jantzi, manager of Zehrs Markets in Listowel, Ont. Twice a day Jantzi holds a staff “huddle” in which all employees who can spare the time are invited to attend. “We go through sales a little bit and talk about any kind of special events or community things that are coming up,” says Jantzi. “We also ask if anybody’s got any problems or issues they’d like to discuss.”

10 Teach staff about the products you sell
Longo’s considers itself a lifelong learning organization for employees. And as part of their continuing education, staff are regularly dispatched to suppliers to learn everything they can right from the source. Several times a year staff will visit strawberry and lettuce farms in California; salmon farms in New Brunswick; and artisan cheese manufacturers in Quebec. Spokesperson Rosanne Longo says the trips invigorate staff, fills them with a new passion for their jobs and helps them give customers knowledgeable information about the products sold at Longo’s.

11 Lead by example
Sometimes the best tips are the simplest. Darryl Hein at Market on Millstream in Victoria says he, his wife, Christine, and their kids, regularly work weekends, nights and statutory holidays. “It’s just an environment of do what you need to do to get the job done. I know this sounds corny, but we talk to our staff, we are very friendly with them and we treat them with respect.”

12 Give seasonal staff a cold, hard reason to stick around
At the Grocery Store in Whistler, B.C., Sue and John Adams usually rely on younger people taking a year off school to work during ski season. Some used to leave by February, even though ski season continues into April. The solution: a “stay bonus” in which employees are paid a bonus worth 70 cents to $1.40 an hour for staying the course. And most of them now do.

13 “If something gets spilled, I’ll grab a mop and clean it up myself. As a boss you earn respect, you don’t just get it.”
– Shawn MacGillivray, No Frills owner in Stratford, P.E.I., explaining that when employees see store managers doing the grunt work they are more likely to repeat the same behaviour.


14 Encourage innovative thinking
Holly Chmelyk at Pete’s Frootique knows that a store’s greatest resource for great new ideas is staff. To ensure employees think up ways to improve the business, staff at Pete’s are organized into committees that tackle specific problems and think of ways to display or market products. “The committee that has the best idea will win, for example, a pizza party.” Chmelyk also puts up questions on a board for staff to ponder. For instance, “How could we increase basket size?” or “What is an item that we currently don’t sell at the store that you think we should?”

15 Recognize top performers
➜ Stong’s Market in Vancouver
has a program called “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty.” Management and staff write down the name of someone who has done a great job and pop that name and the reason for the accolade into the nomination box. Once a week store manager, Dane Robertson, randomly draws a name and rewards the staffer with anything from a gift card to Starbucks to a “wow” prize such as a sending a group of 10 staffers to a suite at a Vancouver Giants’ hockey game. “That comes back in such a positive way at work and we try to develop that family culture and camaraderie whenever we can,” Robertson says.
➜ Likewise, at Farm Boy stores in eastern Ontario store managers use something called a “recognition” log. Each day, they write down the name of an employee in every department who went out of their way. Maybe they provided exceptional customer service, or came in on short notice when someone called in sick. The employee is then commended at the next day’s staff meeting, says Gilles Groulx, director of human resources.

16 Make the holidays special
Harried Christmas shoppers hunting for the perfect turkey and figgy pudding are enough to stress out everyone on staff. The antidote to this annual Yuletide downer is to put on something fun and festive for employees. For example, Ottawa’s Farm Boy holds a special Christmas tree cutting day where staff and their families can pick out the tree of their choice (courtesy of Farm Boy). The rest of the afternoon is devoted to sleigh rides, games, food and hot chocolate, says HR director Groulx.

17 “Once a month, we draw a name of a staff member and reward them with a $200 gift card to be used on anything they want in the store.”
–Darryl Hein at Market on Millstream in Victoria.

18 Hold fun events that are also team builders
Most companies have some sort of formal team-building program, but Mark Vickars, CEO at Choices Markets, likes to make things quirky and fun. This past winter Choices rented a rink and took staff curling. In the summer, Vickars took 80 staffers lawn bowling. “ was something that was active, outside in the summer and eliminated the difference between men and women in terms of strength and talent,” he says. “It was a great leveller and a way of breaking all those boundaries down between departments. Everybody was equally bad!”

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