How to improve your on-boarding and evaluation processes for building a compassionate and capacity-informed workplace that puts employees first.
If you have worked in a fast-paced, short-staffed, highly dynamic workplace before, you’ve heard this phrase come from your boss, supervisor and/or colleague.
We get it, sticking to job description and expectations and limitations set at the beginning of a contract is hard in nonprofit, grassroots, community organisations. The nature and quantity of your work is constantly changing and growing, you have funders to please and a community to answer to - especially if you are a unique service provider. But let’s also not forget that using the latter to excuse the blatant disregard of the work described initially to your employees leads to mismanagement of time and resources, staff burnout, and to your organisation perpetually circling the starvation drain.
Why does this happen?
Small companies, nonprofits, community organisations struggle with managing their resources in the face of the high public demand for services and the need for diligent reporting to funders and sponsors. Leadership in these spaces is composed of incredibly busy, often unavailable individuals who are trying to keep the ship afloat. Investing time in new or young employees from the get-go (this starts with writing a job description that accurately and honestly encompasses the type and amount of work expected) is rarely, if ever, possible and presents itself as an on-going challenge.
When recruiting new employees, the pitch to join the company or the organisation is always wholesome and paints a picture of collaboration, of team-work and of course, a healthy workplace environment that is built on respecting each other’s boundaries and capacities. All this is even further embellished by stamping on a few vague organisation values. Even though the job post can be summed up in bullet points, it’s in the interview that concepts like dynamic workplace, need to wear multiple-hats, need to be very hands-on, and our personal favourite, need to be a team-player will appear to ensure that any and all deviation from the written script that the candidate is applying to can be justified.
Where is this culture of mismanagement of expectations and capacity coming from?
According to an article published by the Osborne Group in early 2021, leaders in nonprofits today have grown up in the sector with experience at different levels, working directly with public and community facing organisations in the sector. In fact, “[m]ost current leaders have begun their careers at the front-line level and have grown into their management positions, with limited formal management training.” I hear this part echoed by many of my clients who find themselves in a leadership position, having scrambled in previous coordinator or lead positions to wear all the hats at the same time. Without any real training to become real managers, apply healthy boundaries, and leadership strategies, they struggle to gauge their employees' needs and build the trust necessary to retain good workers. It becomes very hard to swim against the current set in motion by an unchecked company/organisational culture of valuing the programs and community/consumer impact over the employee experience.
Small companies and nonprofits are prone to structures that leave little to no room for significant investment in developing efficient and beneficial HR practices - which include paying their employees a living wage -, in reviewing and writing new policies that reinforce capacity-based workload/performance management, or in comprehensive training for their leadership teams (board, directors, management). In fact, this reality leaves employees, especially those from marginalized groups, to carry an alarming amount of stress and unguided workloads while still living in precarious situations with zero job security.
How do we break the cycle?
New employees, no matter what rank they come in to, how much previous experience they may have, they all need support and proper management. Before gearing up to recruit and expand your operations, ask yourself “Do we have capacity right now to dedicate time and resources to train and hold space for guidance and questions?” Chances are your answer will be “not really”. Investing in time to craft an honest description of the role you want to create and instill the right support systems for your new recruits is AS important as meeting the work deliverables. Without the proper assessment of your current management team’s capacity to properly conduct on-boarding, gather the training documentation needed, set up check-ins and intros with team members, revise the company’s HR policies, keep up with performance evaluation, you are not setting the stage for a fruitful and meaningful work experience.
Employees need toolkits to navigate their jobs, to explore their roles and own it as their own. This toolkit is something the organisation, its leaders, the managers need to construct with the organisation’s AND the employees needs in mind. Ideally, this toolkit is also imbued in DEI practices. How do you build this without outright asking your employees what experiences and baggage are they carrying that can require extra support? That, again, is where company and organisation culture comes in. If you have built a company where professional relationships are based on trust and mutual-respect, where people feel safe to show up authentically, they will voice their needs knowing you’ll be paying close attention and taking this into account when designing their experience. Otherwise, you’ll be working with staff who perpetually have one foot out the door, looking for a better opportunity that feeds their personal and professional goals.
Leaders and managers need to prioritise the employee experience as much as pursuing their mission and vision. In fact, operationalising intentions and ideation related to DEI + belonging should become mandatory and incorporated into their vision. How I see this apply to the work I do with leaders in organisations and companies that are trying to keep all their balls in the air and squeeze in hiring an intern, a coordinator, or a “diverse” hire for a program they just got funding for is how present is the forethought of what this experience is going to look like for the employee. If this is a position you find yourself perpetually hiring for, because you can't retain people, why is that? How do you change that? Do you want to commit to changing that?
Still here? Great, here are 4 steps to take if you’re committed to retaining your staff and keeping them happy:
Get your house in order. Ask yourself “Why are we constantly hiring new people?” “Why are our directors and managers spending a large fraction of their time interviewing and on-boarding instead of supporting and evaluating staff performance?” Check your documentation, assess your programs, read your exit interviews, get to the bottom of why this is happening.
Operationalise documentation. Ask yourself “Is my organisation struggling to track institutional knowledge and know-how due to high staff turnover?” “How readily accessible is information to new and existing employees to reference during on-boarding or project evaluation?” Make writing things down, tracking program progress, reporting and information sharing a priority task on a rolling basis, for ALL staff members, no matter their roles.
Write realistic job descriptions. Ask yourself “Why is it impossible to fit everything the employee will realistically need to do in this description of the role?” It’s possibly because the role and your expectations are not realistic for the type of person/level of experience you are looking for. "Are we creating expectations that might cause someone to go into burnout if the right support systems are not in place?" "Are the right support systems built?" Trim the workload, bump the pay grade, leave room for professional development.
Invest in professional development. Ask yourself “How do we ensure the skills and competencies needed for this role are acquired and reinforced by staff over time??” “How can our employees prosper, and expand their roles long term?” If that is your intention, ask yourself “What does mentorship and PD look like right now?” Set clear expectations and discuss any limitations, draw up a list of suggested PD for the employee to reach organisational goals and listen to their interests to gauge how/if the PD opportunities align with their personal goals.