Achieving staffing bliss

Staffing is a big issue for those of us in small or sole firm practice. We generally do not have a human resources department to assist us and the process of hiring can consume precious hours. Hiring the wrong staff can have dramatically negative consequences for a small office.

So what tools can we use to help us make the best hire possible?
Resumés are of limited use as we never know if they were really written by the candidate. Reference letters can be useful but only if they are honest. Moreover, unless you read between the lines, they do not disclose the candidate’s shortcomings.
The interview process is helpful, but the skills assessed during such meetings may not be those relied on in the employee’s performance of their duties. While the interview format may not allow sufficient time to assess skills, there are a few things that can be done. Handwriting, for example, which seems to be a lost art, is a skill that may still be required in your office, and can be easily tested. The one time I did not request a handwriting sample during an interview resulted in countless instances of frustration and wasted time deciphering a receptionist’s illegible phone messages.
Yes, there is the probation period, but this is an expensive proposition for an employer. The reality is, we often keep someone that manages to do an OK job rather than an excellent job just to avoid the growing pains of having to go through that three-month training period again.
We try clothes on before buying them, test drive cars before taking them off the lot, but trying out a job does not seem to happen in a law firm. Yet, actors take screen tests, and athletes do tryouts.
At our firm, we believe in tryouts whenever possible. When hiring articling students, we have found assigning a short research project an effective comparison tool. It allows one to distinguish between candidates on research skills, writing style, and timely delivery. Obviously, a candidate who cannot meet deadlines when seeking employment will have problems doing so once hired.
For other support staff, a half-day tryout is more than enough to detect those that will not be a good fit for your firm. To be effective, though, this will require some preparation. Ideally, you want to be testing the skills required for the position for which you are hiring. For example, if the person was going to be photocopying, having a stack of documents that includes a couple of double-sided sheets will tell you if the candidate is paying attention to what he or she was doing.
One needs to remember, though, that a tryout is a double-edged sword as the candidate of your choice may decide that you are not the right employer. However, it is to both the employer’s and employee's long-term gain to discover this as early as possible.
Finally, you may also want to consider providing some form of reward for that half-day tryout. A gift card or tickets to an event may be suitable. This shows respect for the candidate’s time and spreads goodwill for you and your firm.
One must remember that it is stressful to be searching for work. A candidate's need for gainful employment may have him or her preoccupied with getting a job — any job. Through the testing process, the candidate focuses on looking for the right job, which helps you find the right employee for you.
Written in collaboration with Kevin Cheung.

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