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February 29, 2016

A lot of employee retention advice involves solid but fairly general principles. Pay a competitive wage. Listen to your workers’ concerns. Create a pleasant working environment. Provide benefits, if you can.

Different Employees; Different Tenures

Those are all fairly timeless—but in a pet retail environment, they don’t take one major point into account: Employees fall into more than one category when it comes to where they stand in their careers. A top retail manager may very well be someone you would hope to keep for an extended period of many years. The part-time retail clerk, by contrast, is unlikely in most cases to make a career out of the job you hired him or her to do.

Employee retention has to be seen on several levels, and success in retention has to be understood in that way. For the management employee who is getting a professional-level salary, full benefits and vacation time, success means hanging onto that person over the course of years or decades, and to have that employee successfully complete training you provide so you can get more value from him or her over the years.

But you wouldn’t measure success in employee retention the same way when you’re talking about part-time employees, especially younger ones. There may be the rare exception—the mom who will gladly maintain a part-time job for 15 years while her kids are growing up, for example. But generally speaking, part-time employees are going to be in and out within about 18 months.

Does that mean there’s no point in working at retaining them? Not at all. But it does mean you should measure that goal differently. Success at part-time employee retention mostly has to do with two questions:

1. If the employee is going to work part-time until a given point in their life (college starts, etc.), can you keep them on board for that entire time?

2. How can you avoid the quick flameout?

Fight the Flameout

Let’s start with the second one. The quick flameout is a disaster in several ways. We’re talking about the employee who interviews well but very quickly demonstrates a lack of skill, commitment or reliability on the job. They’re not at all what you thought you were getting, and that becomes obvious pretty quickly.

They’re late the first day. They show a negative attitude. They make more mistakes than the typical beginner. They struggle to master their training. They’re always calling in with a problem or they just plain don’t show up. They don’t get along with other employees. They have no plausible explanation for things that don’t get done.

You can usually recognize these employees pretty quickly. Even if your other employees don’t alert you to what’s going on—and you’d hope that they would—you’re going to notice if you pay attention at all to what’s going on in your store. And we haven’t even dealt with the worst possible thing that can happen, which is that this bad hire upsets your customers in some way. Maybe they don’t know the answers to questions. Maybe they give the wrong ones. Maybe they’re surly.

When you get one of these people, the best case scenario would be that the problems are only internal and that your customers never see it.

But here’s the part you’re not going to like.

If you hire someone like this, the bad performance may be the employee’s fault. However, the hire itself is your fault.

I know it’s hard to get information from references these days because everyone is terrified of being sued if they say more than, “Yes, he worked here.” But you’ve got to find a way to sniff these people out. There are usually red flags—people who have no jobs on their resume, or way too many for very short periods.

You also have to learn to tell the difference between sincerity and play-acting in an interview. This is probably more intuitive than scientific, but experienced interviewers should develop the skill over time.

The quick flameout is expensive because you pay for training and you pay a wage for very little in return, only to have to turn around and do the same again with someone else. And that doesn’t even account for how the bad employee might have cost your store in other ways during their short and lamentable tenure.

Longer Short-Terms

On the positive end of the equation: how do you keep the short-term employee for the maximum time you can? A big part of this issue’s answer is simple. Make a priority of giving that person the hours they want—enough of them and at the times they want them. You can’t always do this for everyone, but by all means, play favorites and make sure you take care of the better employees.

While I’m sure you want to control your labor costs (as you should), a small raise ahead of schedule for your better part-timers will keep them from looking into job openings at the coffee shop down the street or the movie theater where their friends work. Remember: it’s more expensive to replace employees than it is to pay them a little more. They’ll leave you eventually; but if they leave you before they need to, that’s probably on you.

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