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Set Guidelines for Hiring, Training New Staff Members

Setting guidelines for hiring and training new staff members will save you money and headaches, and can ultimately lead to happier members.

The resumés are in, and now you have the daunting task of hiring the right person. This is one of the most important decisions you'll make as a manager. Finding someone with the right qualifications, the right fit for your company's philosophy and your members, and the right work ethic is a challenge. Hiring the wrong person can result in increased liability if something should go wrong, and in unhappy members if they are not treated appropriately. Hiring is also expensive, but firing can be more so. Screening and training is where you'll lay the foundation for your employees and your team.

Reviewing applications and resumés

What do you do when all the resumés look pretty much the same? They all have the same certifications, same number of years teaching, similar educational backgrounds, etc. How do you weed through the information to find the people who stand out? "I look for a tone of professionalism. Someone who sees their role as a trainer or instructor as a facilitator of change," says Lucy Polk, who has designed, directed, hired for and managed wellness programs for the U.S. government. "Excessive 'bragging' moves them to the bottom of the pile; speaking to the work it takes to be a fitness leader would take them to the top. I might also call each applicant and try to differentiate [between them] by speaking with them."

The tone an applicant takes is important, and sometimes that tone is distinguishable on paper. Other times you do have to speak with the person to get a better feel. WTS International, Rockville, Md., a leisure management company with more than 110 locations across the globe, takes hiring seriously. Cory Marks, a corporate recruiter with WTS, says that the recruiter is the first person to speak with candidates. The recruiter calls the applicants and, if they fit what WTS needs, they then pass the information along to an account executive. The account executive is the next person to talk to the candidate, who will meet them in person if they think they are a right fit. From there, the account executive will invite the candidate to meet the client. So, the potential staff member has already gone through two people before even meeting anyone at the fitness center.

In Marks' discussions with applicants, she is looking for that special something that makes an applicant stand out as a team player. "You can tell someone is a team player if they talk about events that they were a part of," she says. "People who only talk about 'I did this' or 'I did that' might not necessary be the right fit for a team-centered company."

Jason Baer, co-owner of the Personal Training Professionals Franchise, Norwalk, Conn., doesn't necessarily look for certain job training or experience, but more of how the person will fit in with his team. "We train all of our employees, so experience level ... is not a huge criterion," he says. "We also make it a point to ... bring in all applicants [who] are at least certified. There can always be that diamond in the rough. An individual with the right personality and [who is] eager to learn can be the right fit."

You'll also want to check the facts on resumés. Check certifications to make sure the applicants actually are certified. If you don't recognize their certifications, do some research to make sure they reach your standards of excellence.

Reference checks are important and, in some cases, biased. People are only going to put those references down who they know will provide a glowing review. "Questions I might ask a reference include, 'Is this a punctual person?' If they balk or pause, I've got the real answer," says Polk. "I might also start a question with, 'Have you worked with [the applicant] in her capacity as a fitness instructor in a situation that involved ... ?' That's so I can get a sense of how much of a work/professional relationship they have with the candidate."

Look for red flags. One that Polk looks for is teaching at a large number of fitness centers at one time. "I don't discount them," says Polk, "but I want to know what their situation is, and why they're working that way."

Interviewing

To make sure you are on the right track, it's a good idea to form a panel of peers within your organization to interview or audition an employee. "If I'm hiring a large number of people for instructor positions, I may form a panel of experienced instructors to help," says Polk. "If I'm hiring for a management or leadership role, I [always] form a panel."

In interviews, Polk suggests that managers ask "specific questions about how they've dealt with a conflict when, for example, classes are scheduled back to back and the instructor ahead of them habitually ends late. Or how often would they sub for their colleagues, and how often do they typically need a sub?"

Also, address that team player issue. "In an interview, when wanting to find out if individuals are team players, do not just ask them, 'Do you consider yourself a team-player?' The answer will always be 'yes.' Rather, ask them to give you three examples within their professional or personal career as to when/how they were a team player," Baer suggests.

The more you engage your applicant in descriptive answers, the better you'll learn how well they might perform for your fitness facility. Short, yes/no questions will not get you very far.

Training

Now that the staff members are on board, what do you want them to know? Your fitness center's philosophy, the expectations of the job, how to interact with members and other staff - the list goes on. "Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism. I cannot tolerate sloppy appearance, or bickering among instructors, trainers and staff," says Polk. "Appearance - do not hang a shirt in the locker each day when you leave and put it on when you come in and wear it for six weeks. Attention to the members - do not walk around constantly checking your cell phone for messages with a cup of coffee in your hand." These are some of Polk's pet peeves, and she is clear with new employees about what she will not tolerate.

Baer has a rigid training protocol for new hires that begins while the applicant is still in the interview process. At the third meeting, Baer begins the "hands-on" portion of the interview process. "The prospects will train [with] one of the senior trainers. If they pass this phase, they will begin to be trained for the position. The training period is anywhere between five and 10 hours. Each meeting [is] for one hour. The prospect is not paid for their time unless [they are] hired by the company. At any time during this period, the prospect can be let go. This, again, is part of the interview process. When the prospect is hired by the company, we are confident that they are well-prepared to step in and be successful."

Employees need to know what is expected of them. You can't just assume that because someone is a professional, he or she will act that way. Be clear, concise and approachable, and have everything in writing. Leave nothing to chance.

Ongoing training

Training doesn't end after the first few weeks. Perhaps something didn't click in the original training, perhaps the new hire forgot something or perhaps they didn't understand your expectations. Ongoing training can keep the employee on track. And, constructive criticism, as soon as you notice the infraction, can help. Don't assume it will work itself out. Says Marks, "Say something positive, then the negative, and then something positive again. This reinforces that they are doing a good job, and you are offering them feedback on something they could change."

Polk says, "Before I begin a discussion, I make sure I have narrowed down the discussion points to work problems, so that I'm not picking on their personality. I have specific examples ready for the problems. I also try to bring up 'small' problems early, so that they'll either stop right away or, if they become bigger problems, I've already talked to the staff member about it. In the interview and hiring process, before a person comes on board, I make it clear that baseline things such as attire, promptness, tracking client/class numbers, etc., are basics, and that there's no reason to be sloppy with those."

Polk recalls one instance of managing a trainer who exhibited a specific preference within her client base. "A trainer we had on staff ... was only attentive to attractive, young, athletic men," she says. "A middle-aged, overweight woman who might ask her for help would be dismissed or referred to another staff member for assistance. As soon as I saw this as a problematic pattern in her work behavior, I asked her to make a point of reaching out to other members. When the pattern continued, I started making notes of the incidents I personally witnessed, scheduled a meeting with her and asked her to clarify these situations for me. When she was confronted with specific incidents that she could recall, she realized that it was a problem. After that, she made a much better effort to work with a variety of members."

Baer agrees with this approach, and reminds managers that the person receiving the constructive criticism is still an employee. You still want them to be productive for you. Baer always notes what was said, and the possible re-training received, so he can use it down the road if the employee needs to be let go.

Baer also recommends that when an employee makes an infraction, you, "create a new 30-day probation period. If the employee does not improve or try during this period, he/she will be terminated. If the employee will not agree to this, then terminate immediately. Do not let them ruin your current business by providing a poor service, or allow them to speak badly about your organization. Nothing productive can happen if you keep this employee around. Deal with any negative consequences if the employee decides to take further action." This is why it's important to keep written documentation as backup.

Rewarding performance

Everyone wants a raise. But, do you compensate based on longevity or performance? Polk feels that it is a combination of the two. "If someone is performing well, they'll be around for a while, and, if they're around for a while, they must be performing well. In my ideal pay situation, I'd write the standards for bonuses and incentives into the work agreement from the start. So, a highly qualified instructor who is never late and has good attendance at her classes would know that, after a year, she'll receive a bonus," she says.

Baer agrees. "I believe rates in pay structure should be determined by both productivity and longevity," he says. "Although, each should be evaluated separately. Productivity should be evaluated on an annual basis. 'What have you done for me lately?' so to speak. This way, employees have motivation every year to meet or exceed their previous year's productivity. Longevity also should be rewarded, but differently. Loyalty from your employees is what makes your business, but try not to overlook loyalty versus progression. Are your employees trying to always improve, or are they just consistent in what they do? They are both valuable, but need to be evaluated a little bit differently."

Incentives are essential, says Baer. "Rewarding good work is absolutely necessary to the morale of your employees. This may include financial rewards [such as] year-end bonuses, hosting employee events [like] dinners [and] bowling nights, and positive reinforcement internally [such as] employee-of-the-month contests and advertising in local media outlets about your employees," he says.

Your business' finances will play a role in financial compensation, so finding low-cost and motivating ways to reward staff members is a must.

Tough and tougher

Being the hiring manager is tough, but training and keeping the employees you have can be even tougher. Use your instincts, develop a comprehensive and specific training program, and always document conversations.

In addition, develop a reward system that speaks to people's internal motivators. It may not be a raise they are looking for; it may just be a pat on the back. Also, rewarding good behavior often may prevent bad behavior from developing. Hiring right and training constantly and consistently can bring you hard working, competent employees. This will translate into a better-run facility, fewer lawsuits and happier members.
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