Wi11 Education Session Brings Human Resources to the Forefront

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At the advanced education session “Human Resources Essentials for Bookstores,” on Sunday, January 24, at Winter Institute 11, Dr. John Sherlock offered HR best practices for small businesses and manageable, actionable advice for bookstore owners and managers to take back to their stores.

Dr. John Sherlock

Sherlock, who serves as the director of the Master of Science in Human Resources Program at Western Carolina University, noted that most bookstores do not have a chief human resources officer (CHRO) so it usually falls to a bookstore’s owners or managers to handle human resources issues.

“If your business relies in some way on people to achieve its goals, then really effective HR matters: not just knowing enough to keep you out of court, but actually trying to maximize what you get out of your people,” said Sherlock, who also led a session on advanced topics in human resources later that day.

A focus on human resources is especially important for such small businesses as independent bookshops because, unlike major corporations, when a small business loses a top performer, they could be losing 20 percent of their team. Major companies also enjoy the benefit of having a number of other talented people waiting on the bench.

“Frankly, the stakes are higher for small businesses,” Sherlock said, so bookstore owners and managers should think of improving HR as a strategic investment.

One item these unofficial CHROs must consider when developing an effective human resources strategy is talent management. Sherlock has divided what he calls the “talent management conceptual framework” into three “buckets,” or strategic elements: knowing the type of talent your business needs to hire to accomplish its goals and then recruiting that talent; managing employees for peak performance; and handling the day-to-day aspects of store policy and its administration.

The first bucket, Sherlock said, involves taking a talent inventory, which is valuable even if a business is not in the midst of hiring for a specific position. This allows business owners to better assess their business needs and goals and whether they have the tools needed to accomplish them.

“Knowing what you need in terms of talent should be based upon what you are trying to do as a business… It’s not all about the people, but, boy, is the people side important,” Sherlock told booksellers.

“You are looking for unique employees who get an intrinsic benefit from working for you,” he said. “The people who are upset about the lack of extrinsic benefits you probably never wanted working for you in the first place.”

The second bucket is managing employees and their talents for peak performance.

“When you have a small business, you actually need a peak performance from everyone,” Sherlock said. Since small businesses are fighting bigger businesses that have more money to pay their hires, small business employers need to think more creatively than bigger businesses do about ways they can effectively reward and incentivize their employees, he said.

This second “management” bucket also includes providing employees with training and opportunities for advancement and making sure staff knows that their performance is of paramount importance to the store’s workplace culture.

“You are not running a camp; you are not running a lounge. Performance has to come first,” said Sherlock. However, evaluating employee performance should be based on planning that involves the employee, he said; it shouldn’t ever be surprising to an employee that they are failing because what is expected of them should have been very clear from the beginning.

Sherlock’s final bucket entails documenting store policy and administering those policies, which includes creating a comprehensive, transparently written employee handbook and making sure that all employees are familiar with it. A handbook needs to be about much more than keeping the owner out of court, Sherlock said; it should also be a place to set down the business’s core vision and store values.

Employees should be involved in conversations about performance, according to Sherlock. At many small bookstores, the staff is like a miniature family and that naturally makes it uncomfortable for everyone when the tone of the conversation around performance standards changes. The best way to ease the awkwardness is to focus with staff on goals, Sherlock said.

For this, employees need to do a skills inventory — an honest assessment of their own personal skills using a set rubric. Skills inventories filled out by employees themselves can sometimes reveal hidden gems that the store can leverage; for example, one employee’s previously unknown talent for cooking could lead to a new series of in-store cooking classes.

“At a small bookstore, everybody does everything, but some positions require a higher level of competence because that is their prime role or their primary value-added contribution,” said Sherlock.

A competency is “having a skill set but also an attitude that translates into ability, and, ultimately, into a behavior that produces a result,” Sherlock said. Store owners or managers must identify the core competencies needed to do an exemplary job in each staff position, but they must also realize that while some of these can be taught, some cannot.

“Nobody knows better than you what the necessary tasks are to run your business successfully,” said Sherlock. When it comes to hiring or firing, bookstore owners and hiring managers need to ask themselves: “Who are my homerun hitters? Who are the people who get on base? Who are the people who are striking out and should have already been let go?”

Store owners and hiring managers should also ask themselves which of their potential new hires are likely to stay with the store for the long-term.

“A lot of the high-performance, high-potential [hires] won’t stay with you. There is a lot to be said for loyalty…You know how disruptive turnover is,” said Sherlock.

Finally, an important part of the HR picture is for an owner or hiring manager to evaluate his or her own skills using whatever rubric they are comfortable with.

“You are much more hands-on executives, and that’s why examining your own skills levels — in order to leverage them, not to critique them — can mean a successful business, and everyone wins when that happens,” Sherlock said.