Replacing That Key Employee

Inevitably, it happens to every company. Some key member of the organization leaves for greener pastures, and the company has to scramble to replace that person.

Inevitably, it happens to every company. Some key member of the organization leaves for greener pastures, and the company has to scramble to replace that person. Having recently been through this exercise myself, I tried to handle the process in a way that minimized the disruption. The following ideas may help you handle the upheaval of replacing a key employee.

The interview process. In any interview, you are trying to determine if a person is both capable and willing to do the job. The capability component is actually the easier of the two to determine. A skilled interviewer can reveal a prospective employee's capability by focusing on accomplishments from previous jobs. Beware of comments like "I was involved with . . ." or "I worked with people who . . ." What you want is someone who has done what you need for them to do now. Experience and accomplishments are the best indictors of a person's capability. Willingness is a different matter. A person may have all the capability necessary but not be willing to do the work. During the interview you must try to determine a candidate's commitment to doing the work you need done. This commitment can be revealed through open-ended questions such as, "What would you do in this particular situation?" or "Faced with the following problem, how would you proceed?" The level of commitment displayed during the interview is a good indicator of a person's willingness to do a job.

When screening candidates, conduct a telephone interview first, and if the person is a viable candidate, arrange a follow-up face-to-face interview. The telephone interview serves two purposes. First, it allows you to determine a person's communication skills on the telephone, recognizing that today everyone must communicate on the telephone at some time. Second, it reduces the time needed to screen the candidates. By asking well thought out questions, you may be able to determine if the person is a viable choice after just a few minutes.

My final piece of advice about interviewing is to listen more and talk less. I have found the best interviews are those during which the candidate speaks more than half the time. Often we are so anxious to get someone to do a job that we do not learn enough about a candidate. You can only really learn about a person by listening. It is better to take the time to listen and learn now, rather than recognize you made a mistake a few months down the line.

Preparing for the new employee's arrival. Make a formal announcement that the new employee is starting in a specific position on a specific date. Circulate this announcement to the entire company so that all employees will be able to associate a name with a new face. The announcement should also briefly describe the new employee's responsibilities and position in the organization structure. Prepare as much as you can in advance of the new employee's arrival (for example, desk, telephone, computer, e-mail and so on) so that the person feels comfortable in the new position as soon as possible.

The orientation. There is no way of avoiding training and education. Even if you hire someone who has the capability and willingness to hit the ground running, that person must be trained in company policies and procedures. It is important to orient a new employee as soon as possible. If the company is large enough to have a human resources person, he or she can spend time educating the new employee on key policies and completing the necessary "new hire" paperwork. If not, management or the clerical staff must make time to do this.

On the job. Training is ongoing for a new employee. It is best if you develop a list of things that need to be covered. The basics should include the following:

  • Work rules—If your company is a union shop, you must make available a copy of the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Otherwise, general work rules are very helpful.
  • Order processing—You should explain the paperwork used to generate work orders and who gets these papers.
  • Order scheduling—You should explain how priorities are set.
  • Key contacts—You should discuss who the employee should see on critical issues.
  • Ordering materials and supplies—You should make clear how the employee gets what he or she needs.
  • Shipping orders—You should describe how orders get out to customers.

Being prepared, both for the interview process and a new employee's initiation into your company, will reduce the amount of "scrambling" you must do when a key employee leaves your company.