In this week’s episode, we talk with Ashley Cox about what you need to do to prepare to hire, how to find the best applicants for your firm, and how to set up a new employee or independent contractor for success.
Ashley Cox is the founder of SproutHR, where she helps hire, train, and lead happy, productive, and profitable teams. After a decade in the corporate world, she kicked off her heels and burst through layers of red tape to venture out and help small businesses and startups with their HR needs.
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Lawyerist podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week, Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street, and this is episode 158 of the Lawyerist podcast, part of the legal talk network. Today, we’re talking with Ashley Cox about hiring employees and independent contractors.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is brought to you by Law Pay, Fresh Books, and Ruby Receptionists. We appreciate their support and we will tell you more about them later in the show.
Aaron Street: I figure today with the conversation about the logistics and process of doing a good job of hiring employees and bringing independent contractors into your firm that it might be worth reflecting on how Lawyerist thinks about the same topic.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I think so. We’re obviously not a law firm, but I think our approach to hiring is something that I’ve heard lots of lawyers actually talk about as well, and so I think it would be useful.
Aaron Street: We definitely have kind of an experimental iterative approach to how we think about our hiring process and that we’re always trying to tweak the interview questions and the application framework and how we do onboarding. That’s kind of a living, growing thing. I don’t wanna step too much on the toes of Ashley’s interview and get into those nuts and bolts, but one thing we do as part of our HR system is we follow the Traction EOS model of business management, which I know I’ve mentioned a couple of times kind of in passing on the show before. Traction is a book written by Gino Wickman that kind of lays out a business management framework for small growth-oriented companies that talks about your company’s goals and values, and how you staff your company, and how you set project goals and keep people accountable with metrics and KPIs.
Sam Glover: We’ve handed Traction out at TBD Law and everyone I’ve heard from who’s read it has been glowing about it. I think if you are growth oriented you should definitely check it out.
Aaron Street: Yeah, if you are a true solo with no team members it still might be an interesting read to think about. If you’ve got a team of either lawyers or staff I’d absolutely think it’s work not just reading, but really truly considering adopting in your firm. We’ll, in the next couple of months, be rolling out some additional content around our Lawyerist thoughts on the best ways to manage your firm and it’ll be very much related to this. On the topic of people in your firm, the EOS model, which is the entrepreneurial operating system, which is the model that this book Traction implements, it’s full of buzz words, great times, says right people right seats. What that means is two things.
The first is your firm having a set of core values that are the framework from which you operate the way you approach your clients, the way you build culture on your team, and that these core values should truly, actually be the framework that your business views its decision-making process, including who to hire and who to fire, but also how to price your services and whether or no to do unbundled, and how to do your marketing and intake, etc. With a set of defined core values, you then build your team around fit with those core values and that is finding the right people, and you only want to have people who share your core values at your firm.
Sam Glover: Ashley’s gonna talk a lot about that, but it’s the right seats that I think is really interesting.
Aaron Street: Yeah, so the second part of a right people right seats framework is to build out an org chart for your firm, in the EOS vernacular that’s an accountability chart, but it’s an org chart for your firm that clearly defines the roles of every part of your organization and whose responsibility it is to get that done. I think in a lot of larger small firms, firms with 5, 10, or more people, whether those are attorneys or not, often org charts become a really weird and confusing construct with-
Sam Glover: We’ve had one for years with your name and my name in all of the boxes.
Aaron Street: Yeah, that was the-
Sam Glover: Until like two years ago.
Aaron Street: For sure, but I think at a lot of 10 or 15-person firms, whether those are attorneys or not, there’s often this idea that there’s maybe a managing partner or a committee of partners and then the other partners and then below those is associated, and below those is support staff, but that is not a functional delineation of who is in charge of the marketing function of this firm, who is in charge of the client legal services delivery functions of this firm, who is in charge of the admin operations of this firm, etc., and that building that out, as far as functionality accountabilities is a much more strategic way to think about the framework of the people in your firm. Then for each of those roles to really clearly lay out what the accountability metrics or role functions are there, so that the head of marketing is in charge of all of our reputation management, all of our paid advertising, all of our community sponsorships, bar journal, whatever those things are.
That becomes the right seats idea and there are a couple of nuances in the EOS model, which is that each seat can only have one person in it, but potentially one person can have more than one seat. In this framework, only one person can be in charge of marketing for your firm and only one person can be in charge of legal services delivery for your firm, which does not mean that multiple people don’t do that. If you’ve got 10 attorneys they’re all delivering legal services, but one person has to be in charge of making sure that machine is working according to the goals and values of your firm and that only one person can have that seat in this model, which means that potentially the partner committee structure starts to have problems there, where you’ve got everyone having a voice, but no one actually being accountable.
If you then implement this and draw this out, it creates some kind of interesting aha moments and epiphanies of, “Hey, it turns out we’ve got a couple of people who don’t fit the core values of this firm now that we’ve defined them. Great people, we’ve really liked working with them, but they can’t be a part of taking this where it’s gonna go unless they can kind of change their attitude towards those values.” That becomes a wrong person issue.
Sam Glover: Regardless of whether or not they’re in the right seat.
Aaron Street: Right. Again, they might be good people. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that you have to have clear distinctions about what it means to be part of this culture based on those values if you mean it. Then the other concept is right seats, which is you could have someone who you know needs to be a part of your team and they are currently your finance manager or your lead paralegal or your managing partner and it turns out that they do not have the skillsets to implement the roles that need to be implemented by the person in that seat and that means you either need to find a new seat for them that makes sense for the needs of your organization, move them to a seat that is appropriate for their skills and interests, or even though they’re a great person they can’t be a part of your organization because they don’t fit in it.
It’s a really great exercise that often leads to some really difficult and hard conversations, but they are the difficult and hard conversations that make the difference between having a team all aligned in the same direction and being accountable for the things the firm needs or not.
Sam Glover: I think it’s really helpful when you’re wondering like, “Something’s not right here, what’s not working”, and it allows you to take a step back and look at it with a little bit of altitude rather than, “They’re not doing what I want them to”, which is usually the wrong approach. What you really ought to do is, “What am I doing as a manager that’s not getting the results that I want”, but even that’s pretty hard to do too. Right person right seats lets you take a step back and go, “Well, wait do they just not it at this company, are our values not aligned”, or if we’re pretty confident that they do we’re just not giving them the right role. It really helps clarify everything, I think. That’s some backdrop for the conversation we’re gonna have with Ashley. First, we’ve got a brief sponsored interview with Scott [Clayson 00: 08: 43] about the advantages of fixed fees and then we’ll hear from Ashley.
Scott Clayson: My name is Scott Clayson, I’m the Director of Marketing for Timesolv Corporation, which provides billing and time keeping and project management solutions for law firms of all sizes.
Sam Glover: Cool. Thanks, Scott. Good to talk to you on the podcast.
Scott Clayson: Yeah, that’s for having me, excited to be here.
Sam Glover: You have just put together a white paper about five benefits to going fixed fees and I thought it would be a good place to start to talk about what are we talking with fixed fees. People use all kinds of terms, flat fees, fixed fees, cap fees. What kind of fees are you talking about and how should we be thinking about that?
Scott Clayson: Mainly probably what most other people think about, the idea that before you start on a case with your client you tell them exactly how much it’s going to cost. When my father-in-law died a couple years ago and my wife and I were dealing with his estate we found an estate attorney in the city where he lives in, and up front he says, “It’s gonna cost X amount of money for all this work that I’m gonna have to do”, and it was a flat fee, fixed fee. It’s the idea of just presenting the total fee for the work, as best you can, upfront before you start the work.
Sam Glover: Got you. Why, what’s so great about fixed fees as opposed to if people are still billing by the hour? Give us the benefits.
Scott Clayson: If you think about it, some of the downsides of hourly billing, there’s really no incentive to be efficient in your work. The more efficient you are, if you get something done in two hours that used to take you three hours, in a sense as a lawyer for charging hourly, you’re losing income, so it doesn’t promote that efficiency. If you do establish a fixed fee it’s gonna force you to be more efficient in the work that you’re doing, allows you to make sure you assign the appropriate work for the appropriate person in your firm, so that you don’t have an attorney who normally charges $200 an hour doing the same work that a para could do at $100 an hour or whatever it might be. That’s one obvious benefit. The other is that if you can establish up front before you start the matter you can lay out, “Here are all the things I’m gonna be doing for you and here’s what it’s gonna cost”.
That establishes a trust factor from the client’s point of view that you know exactly what you’re doing, here’s the value they are gonna provide for the work that’s done, and it starts the matter off on the right foot not having somebody just say, “Well, geez, I don’t know exactly how much it’s gonna cost, we’ll have to wait until we get in and do it”. I had a guy who came in, totally different industry, look at my chimney to restucco it, had a couple different people come out. On guy said, “I don’t know how much it’s gonna cost. We’ll start at about $3,000, but depending on what we find it could go up to $20,000”. I’m like I don’t like that.
Another guy came along and he looked at it and he said, “I’ll do it for”, whatever it was, like $5,000 or something, “I’ll redo the chimney”. Boom, he did it, got the work done and I saw that value right up front.
Sam Glover: The efficiency in particular is one that really resonates with me. I know that lawyers think, “Well, I can be more efficient while I bill by the hour”, but, A, you don’t have any incentive to because fewer hours means less money, but also I think when you commit to a fixed fee it rewires your brain to look for other ways to get to the same outcome, and it really does change the way you run your business and serve your clients. Scott, what’s your best pitch for why lawyers should not be afraid of fixed fees and should go ahead and give them a try?
Scott Clayson: If lawyers have been burned in the past as to, “I presented a fixed fee and I lost my shirt on it”, the way you can get around that obstacle is do project management. It’s not something a lot of lawyers think about, but sit down and … if you’re a family law attorney and you’ve done 50 million divorces in your like you know the tasks that have to be done, and you can probably do it in your head, but write it down somewhere, figure out exactly how many hours it’s gonna take for each task. Then just do the math of, “Okay it normally takes me two hours at this, and I normally charge this rate, this task is gonna cost me $500 is what it might be”, roll it up into a budget, and that’s your fixed fee.
Then you can present that to your client and you feel confident that’s the right number, they feel confident because of the reasons we had just talked about and I think you’ll find that a lot of lawyers will get over that hurdle is whatever system or tools you have, whether it’s an Excel file, whether it’s your billing system, figure out a wanna to lay out all your tasks, assign your rate to it, and then track in real time, so you can really tell, “Does it really take me two hours to do this task, I always thought it did”, but as it turns out it usually takes me three. Then you learn, and grow, and iterate from there.
Sam Glover: That’s good stuff, so if you wanna learn more about Timesolv you can learn more at timesolv.com. That’s Time S-O-L-V.com, and Timesolv will, obviously, help you do the things we’ve been talking about. You can get the white paper, which has three more benefits to going with fixed fees at timesolv.com/fixedfee, timsolve.com/fixedfee all one word. Thanks so much, Scott.
Scott Clayson: I appreciate it, Sam, for having me. Really enjoyed the podcast. Thank you very much.
Ashley Cox: Hi, my name is Ashley Cox, and I’m the HR partner for entrepreneurs and small business owners at Sprout HR. I help you hire, train, and lead your profitable team. I spent over a decade in corporate HR and I buzzed through the red tape and kicked off my corporate heels and said, “You know what, these small business owners really need someone who can guide them on the journey of hiring and growing their teams and their businesses”. I love working with small businesses and navigating the unique problems they have and really helping that grow that team and scale their business.
Sam Glover: Hi, Ashley. I’m so glad you’re with us today.
Ashley Cox: Hi, Sam. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Sam Glover: I’m curious, just as a preliminary matter, is sort of outsourced HR a common thing? I don’t think I’ve heard of other people doing it. Maybe I’m just out of touch with that.
Ashley Cox: It’s interesting because it is in what is typically defined as a small business, so any business that’s under 500 employees, but it’s not in this really micro-business world where we’re working with teams that are hiring only 1 to 10, 15, even 20 employees. I really found an area that didn’t have very much representation in the world of HR.
Sam Glover: Yeah, we’re a small business in that size range and I guess we’ve just always done it ourselves, and it never really occurred to me to look outside for help with HR.
Ashley Cox: Yeah, I definitely spend a lot of time educating my audience, just getting in front of them and talking about the importance of doing the HR things correctly in your business to avoid making the government upset or ending up in situations that could cost you a lot in liability or in various lawsuits and things like that. It is still a very new niche, but it takes a lot of educating, but people are really starting to understand a little bit better the types of things that I can help them with and that I can drastically reduce their learning curve in so many areas.
Sam Glover: One last question bere we jump into talking about the hiring process because I’m curious. What does working with you look like? Do you work on an hourly rate or on a monthly fee? What does it end up looking like?
Ashley Cox: I actually work on a project-by-project basis. I don’t nickel and dime people to death with hourly rates because some projects are gonna take a little bit longer, they’re a little more complex and some are gonna take a little less time, depending on what’s going on inside the company as well. I really have three packages that when you come and you say, “Hey, I’m getting ready to hire an employee” or “I need some leadership development training” or “Can you help me navigate these compliance issues”. I can just say, “Okay, here you go this is how we’re gonna handle that and this is the rate that you’re gonna pay.”
Sam Glover: Very cool. I’m asking all of these questions in part because of my own curiosity for our own company, but also for the benefit of others, and that includes talking about the hiring process now. As some of our listeners know, we are actively hiring and have been for about the last year and it’s not stopping. We’re trying to figure out the hiring process for ourselves, but when I had my own firm and when I talk to other lawyers I know that hiring isn’t necessarily something that people give a lot of thought to. I’d love to walk through, from a nuts and bolts perspective, the hiring process and how it works.
Ashley Cox: Absolutely, I’d love to.
Sam Glover: Great. I should start with I heard you talking with Nicole Abboud on her Leaders Love Company podcast. We’re gonna try not to repeat what you talked about there because that was a really great podcast that I actually just relistened, but I do wanna start at the beginning of the process. One of the things that I found striking was when you tried to start talking about, okay, so let’s say you’re ready to hire and you kinda said hold on, back up, you’ve got some work to do before you post a job. What do we need to do to get ready to hire?
Ashley Cox: This is such a great question and it’s a thing that people don’t really think about until they’re in the thick of the hiring process, but there’s a lot of things that you can do to set yourself up and your business up for success when you’re starting to hire a team. One of the best things I can tell you is to really get clear on what your mission of your company is because it’s going to be awful hard to hire a team if you’re not able to clearly articulate what your mission, and the vision, and the direction that your company is going looks like. People want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves and you, as the leader, as the CEO, are the visionary. You get the opportunity to walk that candidate or that new hire through your vision and help paint the picture of how they’re going to play an important role in your community. Part of that means having a mission statement, having a vision statement, having core values that you can kind of rely on as your guiding light, if you will. Those are really, really important parts.
Sam Glover: This is kind of a new, or maybe it’s not new, maybe it’s just something that people haven’t been thinking about, but when I first started hiring I thought purely in terms of the tasks that I wanted somebody to perform, I wanted somebody is competent to perform certain tasks, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a whole lot of luck hiring long-term people that way. You’re saying, I think, that somebody who shares your vision and your values, and do I even through culture into the mix there, is more important than their ability to perform tasks.
Ashley Cox: Yeah, because we can teach people tasks, we can send people to training for tasks, but we can’t teach somebody heart and soul. We can’t teach them the types of qualities or characteristics that they need to be successful and the type of company we’re gonna lead. When you think about it, every company has a different personality and that’s all that culture is, is what’s the personality of your company and how do we find people that are going to align with that culture so that they’re happy because happy people are productive people and so that they stay long term with you because they feel good and they resonate with the mission and the culture and the core values that you have.
Sam Glover: If someone’s listening to this and they don’t have … everybody has values, right, they might just not have written them down in a coherent form.
Ashley Cox: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely. That’s the thing is it doesn’t have to be a long drawn-out process. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated. You just need to sit down and think about what is important to me, what’s important for my team members to embody? Is it service excellence? How are we gonna take care of our customers? Is it leadership? Do you want your team members to be self-driven and take a lot of initiative and really lead in their projects? When you sit down and you really just think through what are my top five or six core values those will help give you so much perspective in determining who you really need on your team in order to reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself.
Sam Glover: Okay. Let’s say we’ve done that, and we’ve talked about mission and values on some other podcasts and on the site, so hopefully they’re some resources that people can go to, to figure that stuff out if they haven’t already. We’re gonna have a giveaway, a worksheet that you’ve put together, on this podcast, so check the show notes to find Ashley’s worksheet on covering your company’s core values. We’ll make sure that you get that. Let’s say that you’ve done that, you have your values and you’re sitting down in front of a blank Word document or Google Doc trying to write your job posting, what needs to be in there?
Ashley Cox: Well, now you need to focus on the tasks. Now we need to figure out what exactly does this person need to be doing and I will tell you that the best approach is not everything under the sun that you don’t wanna do in your business. A lot of times people get carried away with their job postings and they’ve got 50 tasks on there and I’m like, “Really, would you sign up for this job”. You wanna keep your tasks limited to about 10 to 12 tasks on your job posting. Those could be things like general office or administrative duties like managing email, answering phone calls, filing documents, keeping up with our client onboarding, etc. It could be more specific things where you have them using certain tools or programs, you need them to be maybe helping you market the business, but one thing that you need to focus on is don’t make their job so broad that you really could just cast your reel in the ocean and hope to pull out a fish.
You wanna make sure that if you’re fishing for rainbow trout you’re in a stream, you’re not in the ocean. I’m not a fisherman or a fisher woman, but I always think that just makes so much sense because we have to be able to identify specifically what we need this person to do in order to even find them. We’ve got to get clear on that first. The important parts of your job posting are gonna be getting super clear on those job tasks and making sure that you’re putting down anything that you absolutely require of this person. Do they need to have a degree? Do they need to have a certain certification? Do they need to have an advanced knowledge of a certain program or a skill?
Sam Glover: One of the things that we did, we started doing this a few years ago when it was just a few of us, was we put together an organizational chart for the company and we’ve kept that updated and every quarter we revisit it. When we hire, we hire for the job that we’ve already sort of defined on the organizational chart. We’ve found that helpful. Does that sound like something that’s a useful exercise to you? I think it helps us get away from, “I want somebody to do all these disparate things” to “I want somebody to sit in this chair”.
Ashley Cox: Yes, I love that. I love that you guys had the foresight to do an org chart and to really define the position before the person was there. A lot of times what happens is we’ll bring on friends or family or we’ll bring on this person or that person and they kind of have these hodge-podgey jobs. Then we try to go back and go well let me try to define the roles. Well, now you’re having a hard time separating the person from the job and what they’re specifically good at versus what you actually need. As much as you can be proactive in thinking through eventually we’re gonna need somebody to focus on social media marketing and outreach, we’re gonna need somebody who’s gonna focus on client relations and onboarding new clients, we’re gonna need somebody to focus on XYZ, I think that will definitely help you have a better chance of hiring the right people for your business up front.
One thing I would add to that is to prioritize those needs as well. There’s always things that we don’t wanna do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the right tasks to delegate at the right time because you want to get the most return on your investment when you’re hiring a team. Whether that’s a contractor or that’s an employee it doesn’t matter, you just need to figure out what do I need to get off my plate the most that either it’s a task I don’t like, it’s a task that takes me way too much time to do and I know I could hire somebody to do it better or faster, or it’s a task that I do love doing, but it still takes a lot of my time.
The thing is when we’re working on tasks in our business that we’re not good at or that takes us a really long time to do it’s diminishes our actual wage rate basically that we’re paying ourselves. Am I working on tasks that are CEO level or am I working on tasks that are entry level employee, so taking it from that perspective also will help you figure out which tasks you should be spending your time on versus delegating out and finding the right person to do it for you.
Aaron Street: Okay, so we need to take a few minutes to hear from our sponsors, and when we come back I wanna talk about the next stage, how do you figure out who’s a good candidate. We’ll be right back.
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Okay, we’re back, so Ashley, let’s say we did a good job of describing the position and we threw it up on all the job boards we could think of and applications are flooding in. How do we cull them down to a manageable level? How do we decide who is an actual good candidate that we should take to the next step?
Ashley Cox: That’s a great question. First of all, don’t post your job on every available job board out there.
Sam Glover: Fair enough.
Ashley Cox: What I always suggest my clients do is once we know who that ideal candidate is we need to look for them where they are. It’s just like looking for your ideal client. You have an idea of exactly who you want to work with in your business and you go find them where they are. Same thing with shopping for new hires. We need to find them where they are. If you’re looking to hire an experienced, 5 to 10-year person, you’re not gonna go look at college interns. First, we have to find where those people are and really specifically target them with our job postings. Then we can determine who are our best candidates are with a couple simple steps. One thing I love to do is to give a very specific instruction in the job posting because 9 times out of 10 people don’t read. You can really cull through people who are sloppy, who don’t pay attention to detail, and who might not be a good fit for the type of job you’re hiring for by simply inserting something that says, “When applying for this job put this title in the subject line”. Nothing really tricky-
Sam Glover: That makes a lot of sense, yeah.
Ashley Cox: Just a simple instruction, yeah. That way if they don’t follow that instruction they immediately just go to the hold pile. We don’t wanna get rid of them completely because we don’t know if we’re gonna get really high-quality candidates who just happen to know how to follow directions well, but we at least wanna give ourselves some breathing room to look through who can actually follow directions from the very first step.
Sam Glover: I suppose if you have used one of those websites where people can basically “apply” for a job by clicking a button to apply you’ll immediately know who wants the job versus who is just clicking buttons.
Ashley Cox: Yes. The Internet is a blessing and a curse and all of the technology that comes with it, but when you’re sitting and you’re receiving hundreds of applications for a job you’ve gotta be able to find a way to sort through those. Following directions is one of the best ways. Now, the next thing that I would definitely suggest doing is making sure that the person who’s applying meets at least the minimum qualifications that you’ve listed in your job posting. Do they have the certification or the education, do they know the tools or the systems or the programs, and really setting those candidates aside. They’ve followed instructions and they have the minimum qualifications. I promise that will weed out so many applicants, you can’t even imagine.
Sam Glover: Yeah, that sounds right. Okay, so we’ve culled our pile, we have a reasonably manageable number of people to interview, I don’t know, 3, 5, 10. What’s the point of interviews? What are we trying to do with those?
Ashley Cox: We are trying to figure out if this person is gonna be a great fit for the company, the culture that we have, and for the position that we’re hiring for. Here’s my thing, Sam, I really, really, don’t like it when people are like, “Oh, I’m hiring this person to be an administrative assistant.” I always look to hire that person for three jobs ahead of that, where can they go, can they be somebody that I can groom, that I can coach, that I can train, and that I can help become a really invaluable asset to my company, because if you’re always just hiring for the administrative assistant or that entry-level employee that’s the only type of workers you’re gonna get. You’re not gonna have the pipeline to really continue to build your business from within. When you hire for three steps ahead you can also provide them with an opportunity to grow with your business.
One of the things about the Millennial generation and Gen X are that they are looking for opportunities to grow with companies, to do bigger, better, more exciting jobs. Whether you can offer them the opportunity to grow along with you and you can show them that opportunity and you can show them the vision of where you want your company to go, that’s when you’re gonna hire employees that are going to be so much more excited, so much more productive. They’re gonna feel like a part of the team and they’re gonna bend over backwards for you, as long as you take care of them.
Sam Glover: One of the things that I am looking for, and maybe this is a little silver bullet-y, but one of the things I’m trying to figure out is at our company we really need self-starters, people who can take initiatives. We don’t really have jobs. Nobody is going to be your manager and tell you what to do and then you’re gonna spend all week doing that thing and go home. We have things that we need to get done and we need people who are just going to go and figure out how to get those things done and achieve the goals that we have. We’re not really hiring for jobs, we’re asking people to take on an opportunity. What I’m trying to figure out is how, and maybe in the interview, maybe before it, how do I get people to understand that if they’re looking for a job I want them to freak out and realize this is not for them and bail. You know what I mean?
Ashley Cox: Sometimes you have to scare people out of the job before you sell them into it.
Sam Glover: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Ashley Cox: What I mean by that is you really have to tell them the things that are either gonna make them sit up and pay attention and say, “Oh my gosh, this is an incredible opportunity”, or sit back and go, “I just want somebody to tell me what to do and I do that job and I go home, and I don’t have any responsibilities”. In the interview process, even in the job posting, really making it clear that this position is going to be a self-started and that they’re going to be taking initiative and relying on being able to prioritize their own day and their own schedule to accomplish the goals. There’s definitely interview questions that you can ask to ascertain whether or not that candidate is going to be a good fit for that. Part of that is behavioral based interviewing. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of that before, Sam, or if that’s the type of interviewing you guys use, but it’s basically finding out if a candidate is a good match for the job based on their past behavior because past behavior is incredibly predictive of future behavior.
When you use behavioral based interviewing you’re not hearing what you wanna hear, you’re hearing what you need to hear, so asking a question-
Sam Glover: Say more abut that. What should the questions look like?
Ashley Cox: Yeah. Instead of asking a question like are you a self-started, which obviously if I’m trying to get this job I’m gonna say, “Yeah”, you wanna ask a question that sounds something like, “Tell me about a time you took the initiative on a project that you saw was falling behind”, and then you ask probing questions around that. “What was the project, and how did you know that it was falling behind? Why did you step in to take that? Was this in your department? Was it in someone else’s department? What did your manager think when you took over this project? How did it turn out? What were the results that you job?” You’re asking all of these questions because it’s really hard to keep a lie up for that long.
Sam Glover: That makes a lot of sense.
Ashley Cox: If they haven’t actually taken the initiative, you’ll see them fidgeting around trying to come up with answers to all these questions you’re peppering them with. That’s also kind of a test that you can use to see if somebody’s being truthful with you or if they’re squirming in their seat a little bit.
Sam Glover: I’ve got some tangents I wanna go on at this point, which, first of all is, what if we think we already know? You’ve mentioned friends and family a few times and I told you I wanted to hit on this question, but sometimes you know you wanna hire somebody you know. Should you still post the job? How do you objectively figure out whether your best friend, or your acquaintance, or your cousin would actually be a good fit for this job and separate that out from just I wanna do something nice for this person I love? Should you post the job anyway?
Ashley Cox: Yeah, I tell people to avoid hiring friends and family as much as possible because it usually does not end well. It’s not a good idea because you have a hard time creating those new boundaries, I’m the boss, you’re the worker. How does this work when you’re my mom or you’re my sister or you’ve been my best friend for 15 years? The first thing you can do is kinda going back to what we were talking about earlier, Sam, with really defining the position before we have the people in mind, and what do we need in the business, and does this person actually match this job posting, or am I just being a softy and trying to give this person a job because I know they need help? When we can get really clear on what we actually need in our business versus just being … we’re not a charitable organization, we’re trying to make a profit, we’re trying to help people, and so we have to make sure that we’re making smart business decisions. This isn’t about whether or not we like Aunt Francis, but it’s about making a smart business decision.
Getting clear on the job first, making sure that person actually meets or exceeds those qualifications. If they do, I wouldn’t waste time posting a job because it’s kinda just like dangling bait out there for people who aren’t gonna have the opportunity to work for you. If you are pretty certain that you wanna hire this person I really wouldn’t get anybody else excited about the opportunity because then it’s just gonna be like, “Well, why’d you even post this job”.
Sam Glover: Quick aside by the way, to the friends who currently work for my company this is totally not some passive-aggressive thing about you. I love you, I love working with you.
Ashley Cox: Oh my goodness, I love it. There’s a lot of times that it does work out really well, but it sounds like you had a clear plan in place before you really just dove head first into hiring, which a lot of people just don’t. If you can get a clear plan in place and you have amazing friends who fit those needs then go for it. One thing that I would highly recommend, if you’re gonna hire friends and family is to make sure you have a clear job description and that you set expectations and boundaries from day one.
Sam Glover: Yeah. A sort of related question, and I’ve been noodling on this for a long time, I believe that it’s really important for small firms to take diversity and inclusion into account when hiring. I think this sort of dovetails with the friends question because we often do hire people we know or we hire referrals from people that we know. Our friends and family tend to look like us, so I’ve been trying to figure out if you may only hire one or two or three people in the entire existence of your firm how do you think about diversity and inclusion? Why shouldn’t I hire the people who I always know, like, and trust, but if we do that aren’t we just perpetuating a little bit of a homogenous firm environment? I’ve been trying to help people think about that and think about it myself.
Ashley Cox: I love that you are so focused on diversity, and inclusion, and really making sure that you’re considering that when you are hiring your team. Whether you’re hiring 1 or whether you’re hiring 50 people it should always be something that we keep in the forefront of our minds. We can only serve our clients as good as we are, and if we are just one homogenous group of individuals we have a hard time serving a diverse population. I would definitely recommend when you are hiring-
Sam Glover: Not to mention all the studies that show that diverse teams make better decisions and are more competitive. I think there’s so many advantages to diversity-
Ashley Cox: There are so many great studies.
Sam Glover: That have nothing to do with just doing good.
Ashley Cox: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I wrote a blog post not long ago that talked about why diversity is so important for your team and how it talks about creating a company that really outperforms every other company. One of the things that I would definitely consider is when you go to hire be very conscientious about posting your job not just in places where your friends and family and people who look like you will go and find those jobs, but consider posting at historical black colleges and universities. They have incredible career services program and alumni programs that connect their students with job opportunities. Look for opportunities to really expand your own circle of friends. Maybe there’s a networking event that you can go to that’s maybe a little outside of your comfort zone and you can meet people who don’t look like you, so that way you can go ahead and start expanding your network and inviting people in who don’t look like you.
If you’re hiring one person and you’re only able to keep that one person sometimes it’s a great idea to do focus groups with diverse groups of people where you specifically call in a company to help you put together a focus panel or a group of individuals that are made up of men and women and people of color, and being able to give you some perspective in your business if you’re not hiring a huge team of people, so that way you get that voice of diversity and of inclusion, even if you’re not able to have a large team.
Sam Glover: Here’s another thing that we didn’t address. There’s all kinds of legal issues around independent contractors versus employees, but if you think you’re gonna be hiring an independent contractor should you maybe post the job, but vet them and interview them in the same way you would if you’re hiring an employee?
Ashley Cox: Absolutely. The great thing is that you have an opportunity to say, “This is exactly what I need help with”, and if those contractors are interested and able to help you they can say, “Hey, I can do all those things”, and then you guys can kind of negotiate the contract from there. Interviewing those people is really just as critical as interviewing your employees because you wanna make sure that you’ve got the right person, that they actually have the skills that they say they have, and that they can help your business in the way that you envision. I actually just hired a VA agency for myself, virtual assistant, and I went through the interview process just like I walk my clients through. I created the job, I understand what I need, these are the things that I need help with. Obviously, you’re not gonna have things in there where, “You are going to be expected to provide me a report every day” because you can’t control exactly how they do their job, but you might be able to request, “Hey, I’d love to have a report on this every day, is that something that you would be willing and able to provide”.
Some of it’s gonna be more negotiable with a contractor versus an employee, but you still wanna have a clear vision of what types of jobs are they gonna be doing and how are they gonna be helping you, so that way you can find the right match. I interviewed a handful of VA agencies, about four, and decided on the VA agency that I went with after making sure that we ticked all the boxes off and that they could do the work that I needed help with.
Sam Glover: Alright, awesome. Let me lead us back to where we left off, which was we’ve done our interviews, and maybe I’ve moved this into the wrong place, but how should we talk about salary and negotiate salary, and when should we start bringing that up? Should it be in the job posting? Should it be in the interview? Should it be after the interview? How do we avoid perpetuating the gender disparity in salaries?
Ashley Cox: I love this question. I think this is a fantastic question. With contractors, I would definitely have a budget upfront and put it out there because you don’t want a bunch of contractors applying for your job if they’re gonna be incredibly out of your league. With contractors, I always suggest just put your budget out there, “Hey, I’m looking to hire a virtual assistant for no more than $500 a month”, whatever it is. That way you really get more candidates that are going to be able to meet your needs. With employees I generally say that if it is an hourly position that you put your hourly rate out there. If it is a salary position, I would be really careful here because there might be some room for negotiation, depending on their specific experience level and some different factors that they might bring into it. Like if they want vacation time versus extra salary or you guys have flexibility with benefits or things like that. With the salary I would say starting at $50,000 a year or starting at $75,000 a year, and just leave it there, so that way they have an idea of range.
I always feel like being transparent with our team is just a good practice in general. That always starts with the job process and hiring the right person, and making sure that we’re being fully transparent with the process, and how much people are getting paid, and all of these things. If you don’t have anything to hide then it’s not hard to put it out there. If you’re worried about gender disparity and things like that, I definitely suggest pulling some data from your area based on what is the average salary that somebody in this position is making or what’s the hourly wage rate, and that will help give you some guidance on am I in the ballpark, am I out of the ballpark, and then from there if you have a sliding scale, if you’re starting at $50,000 and they could potentially earn up to $62,000, what does that scale look like, what are the qualifications that will have them making $50,000 versus $62,000 and just being really super clear like education if they have a Masters Degree versus a 4-year degree, or they have a PhD versus a Masters Degree, how does that impact pay.
A lot of times, going off of what somebody has made in the past is a bad practice because you don’t know the-
Sam Glover: Yeah, it just perpetuates the imbalances.
Ashley Cox: Organization they’re coming from. Yeah, exactly. You need to really just kind of sit down and figure out what’s your budget, how much can you afford, what are people in this industry in this specific position making in your market. I’m in Northeast Tennessee, I wouldn’t wanna create my pay scale on New York City or L.A. or Chicago, that doesn’t make sense for me and vice versa. New York would not wanna look down here and say, “Wow, we can get away with paying ’em $7.25”, when their minimum wage is $15 an hour. Obviously, you have to take into consideration the minimum wage laws, but you wanna make sure that you’re building your compensation practices smartly and without looking at your neighbor’s paper.
Sam Glover: What do you think about these attempts by companies, like Buffer for example, that they throw negotiation out the window and they say, “Look, here’s what we’re paying”, and they publish their algorithm? It’s based on public databases of salaries, location, cost of living, and then they apply modifiers to some jobs. When you apply for the job you more or less know what your salary’s going to be. Everybody at the company knows what everybody else’s salary is and it’s all calculated according to theoretically objective criteria. Does that make sense or is that the wrong direction?
Ashley Cox: I really like that approach. It kinda comes back to what I was saying, Sam, with transparency. If everybody knows what everybody makes there’s no room for somebody to feel like they didn’t get the same chance or the process wasn’t fair. When we interject human bias into things that’s when stuff starts to go off the rails, right?
Sam Glover: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ashley Cox: We’re all biased in some way or another, whether or not we think we are, we all have these in-built or ingrained biases and it’s hard to say, “Oh, well this person was just really bubbly and upbeat and I think they’re worth more money” versus “this person was really just kind of plain and they didn’t smile a whole lot”, and that person may actually be way more qualified than the bubbly upbeat person. It depends on what you wanna do in your own practice, but I really feel like basing it on data, being very transparent, having it outlined to where there’s no room for people to make biased judgments is a really, really good practice.
Sam Glover: Do you have favorite places to go find typical salaries? I know of Glassdoor and there’s another one I can’t think of the name of, off the tip of my tongue, but are there great places that have that information?
Ashley Cox: I wish there was a really amazing place that just focused on capturing all this data that I have right off the top of my head. I get a lot of my numbers from some HR organizations that I’m in, so obviously those are things that only I can access, but I definitely think Glassdoor is a good place to start. Really Googling some things in your own area because a lot of times local government will actually put together that data for the local area, so reaching out maybe to your Chamber of Commerce or your city to see if they have some of that data for your area is also a great option for you because there’s not one national organization that really focuses on having up-to-date, accurate, information on every city across the country. Really trying to focus locally with your Chamber of Commerce and some of those organizations can really help you get better data.
Sam Glover: Got you. By the way, is there any trick to extending the offer? Like you just say, “We’d like to hire you and here’s the salary” or are there some words that you ought to use when you’re making that offer?
Ashley Cox: I always recommend having an official offer letter. You definitely want to be able to give the candidate something that has the wage rate, the start date, any benefits, any perks, anything that you might want to really make sure that they have a clear understanding of before they walk in the front door. If you have a probationary period or if there’s some expectations they have to meet right away like a drug test or a background check, and things like that, that it’s all clearly outlined in the offer letter. Then usually what I always do is just, “Hey, congratulations. We would love to offer you this position. Here are the details. Then after I go over the details I want you to ask me any questions that you have, so that way we can make sure we’re on the same page.”
Then what you can do is just go through that offer letter with them. Then send them a copy of that, and have them sign it, and send it back to you. You wanna make sure that they agree to the terms of the offer and you have a document that really helps to solidify that relationship.
Sam Glover: What if they say no? What if you offer the job to them and they turn it down?
Ashley Cox: I love this question because it happens. It absolutely 100% happens. You have your heart set on a candidate, and they are the most amazing candidate, and you’re excited, and you get on the phone, and you say, “I’m so excited to offer you this job”, and they’re like, “Yeah, well I took another job with a company”. You’re like, “What, but you loved us, right”. You can definitely feel a little defeated when somebody turns you down, but it does happen and there’s really nothing you can do about it other than to wish them well and let them know that you’ll keep their resume on file, and should things not work out with this other company you’d love to talk to them about an opportunity to work with you.
People, when they’re job shopping, are not just courting you. They’re courting probably a handful of businesses, five or six jobs, and they’re interviewing at different companies, and they making the decision that’s best for them and their family and their needs, so don’t hold it against them. They’re just trying to take care of family and trying to take care of their needs. It definitely can be disheartening for sure.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I bet.
Ashley Cox: I’ve been there.
Sam Glover: Then you just pull your second choice candidate up, right, and decide if you wanna offer the job to them instead?
Ashley Cox: Absolutely. Here’s a key thing that a lot of people don’t think about, don’t send decline letters to all of your other candidates until you have a firm yes and a signed offer letter in your hand from your ideal number one choice candidate.
Sam Glover: Yeah, because going back to somebody you just told that you’re not hiring is a shitty thing.
Ashley Cox: [crosstalk 00: 51: 57] that’s not fun.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Ashley Cox: It is the worst feeling ever, you’re like kind of a dog with their tail between their legs. You’re just like, “Listen, this didn’t work out with this other person”, automatically they’re like, “Oh, great I’m second choice”, so it’s just not a good position to put yourself in, so don’t tell your other candidates no until you’ve got that signed off letter in your hand.
Sam Glover: Good call. I wanna do a whole other podcast on onboarding with you, but I think it might be useful to end the hiring process podcast by talking about how do you set somebody up for success on their first few days? You’ve got the offer letter signed, if you have employment contract that’s signed, they’ve showed up for work, how do you handle those first few days?
Ashley Cox: Yeah, I love this question. I would love to come back and talk about onboarding because it is a whole different conversation completely. One of the things that I tell people, and I usually get a giggle out of them, is make sure that you remember that your new hire is coming that day. I say that because I have actually had managers who totally forgot that they had a new person starting and the poor person was sitting in an empty office, with no computer, and no phone, and no manager.
Sam Glover: “Okay, I’m here.”
Ashley Cox: That was not a good experience, right? Eventually the poor guy came to me and was like, “Hey, Ashley, nobody’s shown up yet and it’s like 10: 00, and I thought I was supposed to be here at 8: 00, but maybe I was mistaken”. I mean that is a horrible experience. How do you think that poor guy felt about his first day at the job?
Sam Glover: That’s awesome.
Ashley Cox: Probably not so good.
Sam Glover: Yeah, so how do we do better than that?
Ashley Cox: Yeah, make sure it is on your calendar. Make sure that you block off that whole first day to do nothing but focus on that person. I know that sounds, oh my gosh, completely impossible, but I promise you if you can give that employee an exceptional first day experience they will leave feeling like a million bucks and they will come back to work every day with an excitement that you just can’t even imagine. Spending time with them, talking to them about some of the fun things, and the cool things, and the exciting things about your company, and not just beating them over them over the head with a bunch of paperwork, and here’s our handbook, and here’s your job description, and this is what I expect out of you, and here’s how you log into email, and here’s how you use your phone, and here’s how you … a lot of times people make the mistake of just coming in really heavy handed that day because they’re just dumping and offloading all of this stuff onto this poor new person and it’s just the best way to get them started.
Making sure that day one is really exciting, give them a welcome gift, a welcome basket, or maybe some logo company t-shirt, or something fun that you have in your business that they might be excited about. Take them out to lunch, really make them feel like you’re excited that they’re there because they will know whether or not you’re excited. Obviously, you’re gonna have to do your new hire paperwork and everybody expects that, and you wanna go over some expectations with them on day one, but don’t just overwhelm them with nothing but expectations day one. Then through days two through five you can start building in more of that learning, more of those task-related things, making sure that they understand what their role is, and really ending the week with having a conversation, “How did week one go? What did you expect that we should do in week one? Did we meet your expectations? Is there anything that you didn’t get out of week one that you were looking for?”
The more you can understand what people are needing in that first week the more you can build a successful onboarding process down the road.
Sam Glover: We just sort of fell into the trope maybe that you’ll be hiring somebody who’s gonna be working in your office, but more and more that’s not the case. Our company is remote first and remote mostly. I’m afraid that when people come to work for us on their first day it may actually feel a bit like that person’s sitting alone in their office in front of a computer they can’t log into because they’re just sitting in their own place. I’m wondering, there are some additional challenges for remote first work place and welcoming somebody on those first few days. How might you try and give somebody that feeling of being welcomed to the team and showing them around when they’re probably sitting in their own home office or a coffee shop or a workspace in a different city?
Ashley Cox: I love this. This is such a great question. A lot of times people think that working with a remote team is easier than working with an in-person team.
Sam Glover: No, it’s hard as shit.
Ashley Cox: It’s far more challenging. Yeah, it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You can kind of tweak some of these things to fit that remote work force. Instead of having a gift basket ready for them on their desk, have a subscription service send a gift basket to their house, so that they still get that welcome. If you can’t have lunch with them maybe send them a gift card in that gift basket and say, “Hey, I want you to take yourself to lunch today and really enjoy an hour of time on us, just to reflect on this new job and how you’re gonna be helping us change the world”.
You can have a project management platform like Asana or Trello or there’s one called Monday, where you can get the person all set up in there and assign tasks and really help them see how all of their job pieces fit together within the organization. That really gives you the opportunity to communicate in real time with your team members as they’re doing their work. You can see when they’re marking things off and when they’re getting things done, and you can assign due dates, and project management tools are really a lifesaver for virtual teams. Another thing you could do is hop on Skype or Zoom or another video conference. Spend face-to-face time with them, as much as possible on that first day. Maybe you get together for an hour in the morning and then an hour in the afternoon, and an hour before you close up for the day.
You’re spending three hours on Skype and Zoom with them, but you’re giving them the face time that they need to build that relationship with you. That way, when they have questions they don’t feel awkward coming to you or when they have a problem they don’t feel like they’re a bother. As much as you can really integrate them into your world that first day and that first week it’s gonna be critical.
Sam Glover: Ashley, we’ve covered a lot of ground with a lot of great information, although I’m afraid it was even more cursory than we would like it to be even though I hope we took our time. If you want more, Ashley has a lot of great information on her website, which is sprouthr.co, that’s C-O, and hopefully we’ll have you back soon to talk about the next steps.
Ashley Cox: I would love to come back and talk about the next steps. This has been fantastic. Thanks so much, again, for having me on, Sam.
Sam Glover: Yup, thanks for being here.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist podcast by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast app. Please leave a rating to help other people find our show. You can find the notes for today’s episode on lawyerist.com/podcast.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Clock network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.