Significant Others

Part-time employees need to know they have your full-time respect and attention.

Photo of Stephon McMannPhoto of Stephon McMannIt used to bother Stephon McCann-a lot. As managing partner of Universal Fitness Express in Kansas City, Mo., and one of its four personal trainers, McCann opens up his 7,200-square-foot, three-story club on weekday mornings and stays until 4 or 5 p.m. before handing over the reins to part-time front-desk staff. His part-timers work mainly evening and weekend shifts, checking in the club's fewer than 500 members, laundering towels, doing light cleaning and selling protein drinks and bars, bottled water and the like.

The way McCann imagines it should be is that his part-timers, who earn $7 an hour, are the hard, conscientious workers that he is. But when he comes in on the weekend to find dirty towels on the floor of the locker room, or when he hires a new staffer only to have him call back and quit before working even one shift (he doesn't want to work weekends, after all), McCann knows his imagination has been working overtime.

"In the nine years I've been at this fitness center, I think I've made at least 20 different checklists to try to be as specific as possible about my expectations for front-desk staff," McCann says. "It never works; something's always undone. I've accepted it. My fiancée and my close friends tell me that I have higher standards than anyone else. I've learned to say that to myself when I pick up a magazine that's been left on the floor of the cardio area, or when I'm cleaning water spots from all around the sink. I no longer get upset or try to find out who did it. It sounds silly, but it works for me."

What's worse, McCann is finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto part-time employees-even the irresponsible ones. That means he's spending more of his time interviewing, hiring, training and retraining, and less of his time on service within the club. McCann estimates that the normal tenure for his part-timers, many of whom are students who change jobs frequently to fit around their school schedules or eventually take full-time positions elsewhere, is less than a year. In the last 10 months of 2004, McCann saw 14 different part-time employees move through his business.

"Previously, I'd had a good run of part-timers who were trustworthy and responsible, but lately, things have changed," he says. "We're experiencing an extremely high rate of turnover, and the good workers are few and far between."

McCann's story is a fairly typical one in an industry that relies heavily on part-time workers and independent contractors. Part of the problem is that by their very names, these workers are oftentimes not considered-and don't consider themselves-equal to their full-time counterparts. Full-time workers make a full-time commitment; part-timers make something less. And what is an independent contractor, who sets his own schedule and bills his own hours, if not independent?

It doesn't have to-in fact, it shouldn't-be that way, says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies in Chesterfield, Mo. "It's the role of the manager to make sure all employees feel welcome and part of the team, even part-time workers," Martels says. "All the research shows that if you have a good relationship with your employees, and for that matter your customers, they won't leave over money or price. Money is typically not employees' main motivation for staying. Relationships are the key to retention."

The $7 an hour McCann gives part-time employees is competitive in the Kansas City market. For example, Universal Fitness Express's nearest competitor, Woodside Tennis and Health Club in Westwood, Kan., pays its part-timers "anywhere from $7 to $8.50 an hour," reports Chris Bell, the high-end club's general manager. "That's not a tremendous amount of money." And the money, he adds, is almost beside the point. "Retaining part-time help, especially front-desk people, is always a little more difficult," Bell says. "The problem is the monotony of the day-to-day work. They're checking members in, making sure towels are stocked, keeping the floors clean, but that's it. And there's not a whole lot more you can give them without taking away from their primary front-desk service role."

Prior to starting his own consulting business, Martels worked in human resources for a chain of retail stores that employed 4,500 unionized workers and boasted a turnover rate four times lower than comparable stores hiring from the same pool of workers. "They were working under the same union contract, with the same rate of pay," Martels recalls. "What mattered was respect and significance." Martels says that on one occasion, he visited a store that was exceptionally clean, and he sought out the maintenance worker responsible and complimented him on his good work. What struck him about the encounter was the disconnect between the man's pride in his work and his lack of knowledge about the positive effect his work was having on business.

"I gave him the recognition and then I said, 'You know, customers say they shop here because the store is so clean,'" Martels says. "He said, 'Oh, so what I do really makes a difference.' " Martels says there are any number of ways to show employees respect and reinforce their significance, starting with holding regular meetings during which employees are asked what they like and don't like about their jobs, and given the opportunity to offer ideas and suggestions regarding the facility's operation. "You need to ask them how things are going, what are they hearing from customers, how can we improve? You have to draw them in, and resist the temptation to flat-out say their ideas won't work. Ask how their ideas might work, ask others what they think about them, and generate a discussion about the facility's operation."

Second, telling an employee what your expectations are doesn't quite go far enough, Martels says. "These people greet customers, work the phones, wash and fold towels-if they're going to be jacks of all trades, it's important for them to know where they fit in the larger picture. Laundering towels might seem like a mundane job, but if there are no clean towels in the locker room, members are going to complain and if the problem persists, they might even one day leave the club for another one. So your part-timers' role isn't folding towels, it's making sure customers are really pleased with the service they get at the club. Their job just got more significant."

Third, staff members should be recognized for their positive contributions. This can be as simple as communicating your approval-"I noticed that when we were running low on towels, you jumped up and made sure you got those replenished; that's exactly what we're trying to achieve." (Says McCann, "On the rare occasion that my expectations are met, believe me, I'm over the moon about it.") Or, recognition can be as elaborate as offering an impromptu bonus or a restaurant gift certificate-just be sure the recognition is specific, so employees know exactly what you consider an exemplary effort.

Last, if you're not sure why turnover is becoming a problem, seek out former employees and ask them why they left. Exit interviews can be extremely effective, assuming you honestly want to hear what you could be doing better as a manager, you're able to take criticism without becoming defensive and you're willing to heed your ex-employees' suggestions.

"All this really takes a commitment by the manager to create an atmosphere of teamwork where people don't want to leave," Martels says. "Sometimes it's just a matter of walking in and saying good morning to everyone, making eye contact, using their names, asking them how things are going. Managers really need to make a special effort to get their workers to be able to see the significance of what they're doing. When they understand their purpose, they're more committed."

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