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Your Agency, Your People: Making Your Workplace Happy, Healthy and Safe

Most of us who’ve been in the business world for any number of years have witnessed human resource situations that escalated into the realm of “I’m going to call my lawyer!” Whether a dismissed and disgruntled employee takes legal action, or a company takes legal action against a client, vendor, contractor or (usually former) employee, this is an all-too-familiar scenario. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Other times you see it coming from miles away and wonder what you can do to stop the chain of events before they happen.

Here are some recommendations to keep the people side of your business healthy, happy and lawyer-free.

Hire carefully and well. The first line of prevention is to grow your organization around a strong backbone of trusted people. It may sound simplistic, but try hard to hire people you like, and people who “like you back.” Find people you feel comfortable with—people you can relate to and communicate easily with. Don’t make your team’s workday longer and more arduous by hiring difficult personalities because they have tons of experience or look great on paper. Those factors don’t make them right for your agency or culture.

By “difficult,” we don’t mean exacting, demanding or hard-driving; we mean capricious, nasty, backstabbing and mean-spirited. The first will drive your team to achieve. The second will send your team in all of the wrong directions, including out the door. And for goodness’ sake, don’t place difficult people in managerial or supervisory positions.

Look for someone with a good track record, even if the person is very young and the record is short. As a potential employer, you may of course stalk their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets. Be alert to manifestos or ugly rants about customers, co-workers or employers. Above all, the agency business is a people business. Be wary of people who have a hard time relating to a diverse group of people. This brings us to the next point…

Hire for diversity. A diverse workforce may well be an economic boon to your agency. People from different backgrounds and generations bring fresh outlooks and information to the agency mix. However, fairness, parity, and colorblindness notwithstanding, most of us have the propensity to hire “in our own image.” This may be human nature, but remember, variety is the spice of life. Be aware of this phenomenon, look beyond your immediate preferences and prejudices, and find the best person for the job.

Make diversity an agency mission. During the hiring process, strive to be fair and unbiased. Josh Tolan, CEO of Sparkfire, recommends that employers ask each prospective employee a set of standard questions to defeat bias.

 “Brainstorm a set list of questions to ask candidates and then make sure you ask every candidate the same questions. It’s also a good idea to take notes on each candidate’s answers. This way, you can weight the answers against each other to remove any chance of a biased result.”

Josh Tolan, CEO, Sparkfire

Keep the hiring process focused on a few important questions:

  • Is his or her personality right for the job?
  • Does he have the skills and ability to do the job well?
  • Do her values align with those of our team?
  • Will they add good creative energy to our culture?
     

Bring people on board with positive momentum, and keep that good energy flowing.

There are a few ways to capitalize on the  “honeymoon period” and keep your new employee looking forward to work each day. First, be open and above-board with your people... all of the time. No one likes to come to a workplace where there are closed doors, whispers, and hidden agendas. This is especially true with new employees. Make sure you greet new people, give them a proper orientation, include them as part of a work group, and assign an experienced agency person or two to mentor them. Keep up the good momentum with close supervision, and regular evaluation to head off any potential problems or issues. Finally, remember to praise in public but reprimand in private.

Provide everyone with a job description and an employee policies manualand keep all of this documentation up to date as policies (and HR laws) change. We’ve said this before, and we’ll probably say it again: your people need to know what’s expected of them—the parameters of their jobs—and they need access to agency policy details. Few people want to bother their managers or team leaders with questions like “When am I eligible for vacation?” or, “Can I adjust my health insurance coverage?”

Design job descriptions and the policies manual with clarity and flexibility in mind. State your policies clearly. When policies change, gather your group to update them and answer any questions. You’ll find sample job descriptions and employee policies in Second Wind's Resource Center. Also, see Compiling an Employee Policies Manual.

Focus on safety and security. Workplace safety and security are critical issues today. Your policy manual must include processes and procedures designed to protect employees. Fortunately, we don’t operate a lot of dangerous machinery in the agency world… since we’ve mostly retired our Xacto™ knives and paper cutters. But outside forces cannot be fully controlled. Inform employees about agency security practices, and have a disaster preparedness plan, including evacuation and business continuity procedures, in case the agency suffers an emergency situation.

Keep good records. As agency managers, you may be adept at keeping good client records, from great creative briefs to recording and measuring campaign success. You may also have fine time-keeping practices—because we all enjoy receiving compensation for our hard work! Employee record-keeping has never been a strong suit of smaller businesses, agencies included. After all, who has time to track all of this HR stuff in a busy agency? Consider this your reminder. All agencies need to retain and track employee records for many reasons, including lawsuit prevention. Records should include the good, the bad and the ugly.

Consider the benefits of up-to-date employee records: You’ll have a wealth of good information at your fingertips. Who has had consistently great reviews over the past five years? Who is ready for promotion? Are your reviews being administered objectively and fairly? Did you do reviews this year? Is your compensation fair, and are people in the same positions being paid at, or close to the same rates?  Which account executive increased agency business the most during the past year—and is she being rewarded? Who has been late for work twice a week for the last month? Why did that new person leave after only five months?

Employee records should include:

  • Benefits eligibility status (health coverage, 401(k) vesting, etc.)
  • Tax form W-4 for payroll deductions
  • Employee resumes/CVs
  • Annual reviews
  • Salary info
  • Raises/promotions
  • Job description
  • Vacation/leave/sick time records
  • All disciplinary records
  • Any commendations and special recognition
  • Samples of outstanding work
     

Benefits may be more important than moneyand should be administered with just as much care and budgetary restraint. Smaller and midsized agencies have a lot of flexibility in providing employee benefits. You may be large enough to offer “Cadillac” health care plans, but in many cases, you may not need to do so. You may be small enough to allow your people to work on a flex-time schedule, and be able to track their arrival and departure times; but as you grow, this flexibility can be challenging.

Pay close attention to how you apply benefits across the board. Don’t be afraid to alter benefits as you grow, or as you see financial issues looming. Keep your people informed so that they will understand and work with you. Most important, make sure that all people working in similar jobs have access to the same level of benefits, from vacation time to comp time to bonuses. Parity means a lot; and whether you are comfortable with this or not, your people will compare notes, and numbers. 

Communicate with clarity, wisdom, and care. As our founder Tony Mikes so often said, “This is a communications business. If you can’t communicate well, consider doing something else.” We might add, this is a business where everything you say matters. In working with a group of bright, creative (and probably sensitive) people, recognize that they will parse every possible meaning from what you say… and even how you say it. Also recognize that as an agency manager or owner, you loom large in the lives of your people, and many of them will emulate your ways of working.

This is true in terms of digital communications as well. Please don’t ever send flaming emails or texts. Take a walk, then pick up the phone—even better, go talk it out in person. No one needs a digital trail of avoidable anger management issues.

The best way to keep your workplace safe, happy and (mentally) healthy is to model these healthy behaviors each day. Your people will be calmer, more productive and less likely to fly off the handle when you exhibit calm, productive and stable behaviors. It’s hard to be productive surrounded by distracting co-worker and manager behaviors—when you don’t know who you will be working with (“Is he Jekyll or Hyde today? Obi Wan or Darth Vader? Is she Glinda the Good Witch, or did she bring her flying monkeys?”) Be the person you want your people to emulate and hang the other characters in the coat closet. Save them for the annual Halloween or Mardi Gras parade when people might find them entertaining. 

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