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Workology: No Frills, Effective Small Business Hiring in Austin, Texas | Jessica Miller-Merrell

No Frills, Effective Small Business Hiring

Let’s face it.

Small business hiring can be a real pain.

As business owners, we have 500 things to do each day with only 24 hours available to get them done. Dealing with finding new employees can be a real drag on top of your regular work load.

Small businesses often lack the bells and whistles available to larger entities. We can sometimes get ourselves into trouble with not having a standardized hiring process or not being well versed in HR law.

To help sort out some of these issues, today on Small Business War Stories, we talk with HR extraordinaire Jessica Miller-Merrell of Workology. We discuss the bare minimum you should be doing to hire effectively as a small business owner, what pitfalls you should be aware of, hiring contractors versus full time and much much more.

Check it out:

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Steve Munoz from Duncan Munoz Business Machines is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Tell me a little bit more about Workology, what do you guys do?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: It is a website and community for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. We focus mostly on human resources and recruiting conversations, but really we cover the entire employment lifecycle.

What are some things that are important, would you say, for hiring in general?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Culture fit is extremely important, whether you have two or 20,000 employees, you want to make sure that the people that you’re bringing on board care about the business and they’re going to fit in with the rest of the team members in the organization.

I think that you want to go beyond kind of the general interview conversation and really get to know that person a little bit. Candidates can be trained on how to answer questions, how to respond in the interview, but maybe put them in a social environment or in multiple situations over time if you’re able to get to know that person as a person and not just a widget maker for your company.

Give me an example, what would be a way in which you would do that with a candidate?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Well it could be something simple like a panel interview, so maybe it’s not just the hiring manager, but bringing in other employees and kind of see how that dynamic works and how the people work together. Or it could be a social situation. If you’re a smaller organization, inviting maybe somebody to the company happy hour on Thursdays.

Give them a couple drinks and see what they say?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Yeah! Well, that’s where all the truth is told, after a couple cocktails for sure. And that is when people talk about their life and who they are. I think that when you make people comfortable and you show that you care and ask questions, they are more likely to share things about themselves, both good and bad, and you can decide if that person is the right fit for your company.

I have an investor, Ben Horowitz, who talks a lot about hiring for strength as opposed to lack of weakness. What do you think about that? How does that strike you?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I think hiring for strength is a good strategy, but going beyond maybe, talking to them about what’s important to them and kind of hearing the passions because there might be hidden strengths. We were talking before we went on live here, that you are a musician. Here we are at a podcast, but you’re also a business owner, so obviously you’re really creative. People might not think about creativity as a strength for an entrepreneur, but I definitely think that, that is something through a series of conversations or getting to know your candidate that you could kind of decipher. So it might be a hobby that they have an interest in, that might be driving their passion and that could be a real asset for your company.

Do you think that you can hire people that have a glaring weakness as long as they make up for it in strength? Does it depend on the weakness? How do you think about that?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I think it depends on what’s most important for your organization, so if you need an engineer and they’re not really good with people, is that, that big of a deal? If they’re just going to be writing code and they’re comfortable in a safe space, right? With a group of people. You’re going to have make compromises, but if you’re hiring maybe somebody to be your head of marketing and they don’t like people, that could be a problem, right?

That might not be something that you could overlook, but I think it’s important to sit down, think, have some quiet reflection time and decide is this person a good fit? What do they well? What do they do not so well? Then maybe you can put a plan together to help them in those areas that they’re weak. Personally I think that it’s okay to have weaknesses, it makes us human, but if you have a plan to be able to work on those weaknesses that are maybe glaring or are most important to the position, that is, shows that you’re willing to learn and grow.

Let me dig a little deeper into that, if when you hired somebody, you start with the idea of a “plan,” are you behind too much already?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I don’t want to overthink the hiring process because I do think that sometimes when you overthink it, you miss out on an opportunities to find really great people that don’t fit into this square hole that has been created, right? If I think about my career, I’m one of those people. I have a background in human resources, but I am a writer, I’m a speaker, I do a lot of graphic design and development and content. If you would have looked at me, looked at my resume to leaving the corporate world, you would have no idea that I know how to do all those things. I think that if you spend the time to get to know the people, the person and understand what they’re really good at, and dive into some deeper conversations, you might find out that they have the ability to be flexible and moldable and can learn on the fly. Really that’s the most important trait, I think when you’re an entrepreneur and maybe hiring for maybe that partner that you need, they need to be able to roll with the punches and constantly learn.

What are things that are specific to small businesses in the hiring process?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Let me just say I’m not an attorney and I don’t know your specific state, but understand your employment law and don’t make assumptions that you think you know everything around those different things. I have been at South by Southwest many years ago and was shocked to hear people say, “Oh you know in California it’s totally fine to discriminate against people who are under 40,” and that’s not necessarily true. They make all these assumptions, so do sit down, maybe get an HR mentor or somebody who is aware and talk about what things are important in terms of employment law.

I think for small business in particular, you can hire people that can fit into multiple areas, but you need to have a standard process. I think where people get most in trouble is they don’t have it mapped all out, they’re just kind of going with the flow, but you need to have an interview procedure, application process, those sort of things mapped out so that they can be replicated. They shouldn’t be too complex.

We’re doing 500 things and we only have 24 hours in the day, but you should have a document somewhere, even if it’s stored on your Google drive that lists, “Here’s how we hire people, here’s some interview question examples, here is our application process,” map that out and then if you do get in a situation where somebody goes to an attorney or files an EEO charge, or whatever, you already have that document ready so you can say, “Look, this is our hiring process. It doesn’t matter that this person was a 45 year old woman, we do this for everybody.

I have been involved in those kind of scenarios where you end the interview and the person doesn’t get the job and then you get a nice voicemail that says, “I know that I didn’t get the job because the person that was interviewing me was a kid, and I’m over 40 and I know my rights.

If you look at the bigger picture and you put together a process, you can be prepared for those kinds of things. What was funny in that particular scenario is that the person that was interviewing was over 40, they were just a bad judge of age so they couldn’t be basing the hiring on necessarily that piece.

I think that hiring is not easy and it’s not necessarily always fun, but you do need to have some standardized processes, otherwise you can just get into a lot of world of hurt. Then you end up spending a lot more money on an attorney and then your business is not going to grow like you intended.

Consistency is really key in human resources and I hate to rain on anybody’s parade because it’s not necessarily the most glamorous, fun part of the business, but it does keep you out of a lot of trouble. So having an employee handbook, having those processes outlined can save you a lot of heartache later on.

For example, I would ask if, and this isn’t necessarily about the hiring process, but how many of you have appropriate signage in your break room? How many employees are going through orientation or signing that they received your handbook? How many people are filling out an I-9? Do you have a place for employee files? Are they separate from medical information?

These are basic human resources things that you need to have a process in place for because when you do get in a little bit of hot water, trouble, or there’s an investigation going, it’s a lot easier to have it already done on the front end than have to deal with it on the back end.

Can you think of an example of someone you know, or maybe of your own experience, when everything went right in the hiring process and what pitfalls did they avoid? What did they do right?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I have worked with a couple non-profits recently and  they wrote the job description and then sat down and identified the priorities of what that hiring manager wants. A lot of times we’ll sit down and I’ll say what are the three most important characteristics for this person in this role? What skills are important? Go beyond just the legal document, or the bullet pointed list that you made up and say, “Hey, what do I really want from this person?” That’s going to help you when you craft your job posting.

Doing that versus kind of just throwing it all out there or making some vague post on LinkedIn that you’re looking for somebody for a client success manager, that doesn’t really tell me anything.

Investing time in the front end with a lot of these things can save you a tremendous amount of time on the back end and it can shorten the hiring time.

I think that’s the, the hard part for small businesses is that we don’t have all the bells and whistles and money that necessarily the larger enterprise companies have.

That can be a good thing, because we can be flexible, we can be nimble, we can pivot. There isn’t all this bureaucracy. I mean that’s why I like being a small business, I can make a decision and we can just go, but you do need to have some steps and really think through your process and your strategy, so what do you want in this role before you go out there because you might not have the money to be able to spend $5,000 to go without this person for a period of time, not to mention all the costs with posting the job and interviewing, so you want to identify the most important skills first. Seek those people out, and then hire them quickly before they end up at another company, because your best employees, your best candidates are interviewing other places. They can’t afford to wait, and you can’t afford to wait either.

What about finding those people who might be the best fit for you, who are not currently looking, what would you say about proactively reaching out to get folks as opposed to putting out, because if you put out a job post you’re essentially reaching out to people who are self-selecting and to looking at job boards, right? Versus people who may be okay at their current job, but where maybe your opportunity is a much better fit.

How do you think about reaching out to those folks?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I think using your network is great, so if you have a few people and maybe write them down, your top five busybodies that fit in this role that seem to know everybody, right?

It may be in your industry or your city where you live. Then reach out to them and say, “Look, I’m looking for these things. This person. Do you know anybody? Can you intro me?” Those really network-y, just people who seem to know everyone that can make an introduction, they are going to go to work for you and then they are going to send you people who might not be actively looking, but maybe they’ll be willing to have a conversation, but they know people that fit those roles and can, you can ask for referrals. You don’t have to necessarily go through the traditional apply process to be able to find talent.

You can get really crazy and unorthodox. I was hiring for a blog editor and I wrote a blog post that said, “Hey, I’m hiring for a blog editor. This is what I want. This is the kind of person I am,” because I wanted people to understand that sometimes I’m hard to deal with. I am really creative and I’m opinionated and I’m not your normal kind of boss that you would expect. I posted it on my blog and I didn’t ask them to apply for the job, I asked them to submit me a YouTube video that was three minutes long about why they were interested in the role and they would be a good fit, and then send me a couple paragraphs with their LinkedIn profile. I posted that blog and then put it in two Facebook groups. I had over 150 applications in 48 hours.

As far as Facebook groups go, one of my favorites is Chris Brogan’s Secret Team. When I first joined it was like 200 people and now I think it’s like 15,000. If you’re looking for people who are connected that are business, like-minded like us, it’s a good place to go. Secret Team and then this is a blog editor, social media person, so I put it in Social Media Jobs Facebook group that is, I don’t even know how large that sucker is, but there’s many.

I got a lot of applications and I talked to three people out of 150. I ended up going with two referrals and then somebody I knew to sit down and talk with and had a conversation. I ended up bringing Megan on board, she was through a referral. She didn’t have any experience in the human resources industry, but she manages a female/feminist comic book blog called Women Who Write About Comics.

It’s just so different from human resources and recruiting that I felt like, I tend to write and talk about topics like this, which are really interesting to a small segment. A segment of people, but she tends to write a lot of pop culture-y things and take a different point of view.

She might write about weird work perks or she talked a lot about the election, which I felt like was relevant and interesting. She just picks up trending topics and will address them in a way that I don’t. I don’t watch television, I’m kind of weird, I listen to podcasts, I read, but I’m not turning on the news or reading the newspaper in a traditional sense. She’s a contractor for us, so she’s not an employee but she works about 15 hours a week, 15 to 20 hours a week for me. I’ve never met her. We do a lot of video conferencing, and we’ll have a call maybe once a week. We do a lot of Facebook messaging, kind of just talking through what I want for the blog and the direction that we’re going to go.

If you had posted that as a job posting, how many applications do you think you would have gotten, versus the 150 that you got with your approach?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Not as many. Maybe 50 I would say, and I definitely wouldn’t have been reached out by my network group to make referrals, because I think that is really important. It was a stamp of approval for Megan, she was referred by another social media manager by another HR tech company in our space whom I interface with through technology and social media, but had never met either and she said, “Hey you should talk to Megan. She is looking to break into the space, do some blog editor-type work. I think she would be a good fit for you.” She knew that because she reads my blog and listens to my podcast, sees me on social media and we got to know each other that way.

Sounds like you took a risk and went outside of the parameters of what most people expected and it’s paying off.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I think we have to do that as small business owners. If we don’t, we’re going to be competing in the same talent pool or the same business pool as our much larger competitors. Or smaller, our peers, whoever it is, but in my space, with the blog and the community that we have, I’m competing against companies that have millions of dollars that they’re just spending on marketing because their selling a software technology, right?

I am providing resources to that community of people and our kind of shtick is that we’re practitioner-focused, so it’s like we’re your peer, we’re your friend, versus we’re trying to sell you a product or service. Megan filled that void for us to try to give it a different kind of voice. I just think that you have to think differently if you want to be successful.

What are some of the oddest or wackiest things you’ve seen in your line of work?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: We could fill up like eight hours of like weird, unusual stuff. I mean probably the weirdest interview I’ve ever had is I had somebody who came in with a pet iguana. It had a collar, and it was on his shoulder and kept pacing back and forth during the interview. He did not get hired for the job, a little weird. I’ve also had people have phone interviews while they’re in the bathtub. Not the best environment in which to impress a hiring manager or recruiter for a role.

In terms of weird stuff in HR, I dealt with a lot of really weird immigration issues early on. I had a number of employees at a company that I had started at and kind of how I found HR, who weren’t eligible to work in the United States and they were using somebody else’s social security card. I had to terminate three employees as a result.

What was really crazy is the only reason this sort of came to light was because one of the three came in with a new social security card, birthdate, complete identity. They had been working there for seven years and they came to the store manager and say, “Hey, I need to change my name.” I had to kind of fly it up the flagpole at corporate to say, “Look, this is not right and here’s why.

When you think about hiring and you think about hiring somebody full-time versus hiring somebody as a contractor, I think a lot of small businesses have that question. When is the right time to hire somebody full-time versus when is the right time to hire a contractor, what are your thoughts on that?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Personally, I haven’t got there yet for myself and my business. I use a lot of freelance and contract workers to help me. Especially since it’s digital, right? You have a lot of flexibility. I think that it’s really unique and up to you. If I get too much work and I need a, I’m looking for a partner, kind of like my COO in chief or whatever, I’ll bring somebody on board full-time as we grow in the organization. If you’re a digital company, why not take advantage of global talent and utilize people all over the world to help you and grow your business?

What are some of the advantages of having a contractor and some of the drawbacks?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: As far as having a contractor, they’re not an employee so I don’t pay them benefits, I don’t have to pay social security for them. They’re an expense. Of course that’s added work with your 1099 and kind of the tax issues that you’re going to deal with, but they don’t have a vested interest in the organization, obviously Megan is, she does other freelance work and has other clients other than myself so all her attention isn’t necessarily all mine. This needs to be somebody who is project-focused and can manage multiple things at the same time. In terms of other drawbacks, I don’t know, for me it’s worked out really well. Your business changes and so you can react quickly. That’s why temp staffing and contract work right now is so popular.

Your business shifts and there’s nothing worse and if you’ve had to do this, I feel you, but there’s nothing worse than having to sit down with somebody and say, “Look, I’m going to have to let you go. I don’t have enough money to pay for you any longer, or the organization is shifting, this is your last day.” So when you have a contractor, you’re still have those conversations, but you’re not obligated to have them file for unemployment. They just move on.

Where do you want the Workology brand to go in the next 10 years?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: World domination, that’s the game. I want us to keep providing resources for the HR and the recruiting community out there. My business is a blog, and I do a lot of consulting with HR technology companies, or in the HR and recruiting side of the business, but we’re adding subscription services to the blog later this year.

Hopefully, if all goes well, we will have a subscription service for our webinars. We record ridiculous amounts of information. I have my podcast, I have all these webinars that we have, we have over 60 of them sitting out there and they’re getting them for free, so we’ll be monetizing that and getting people hopefully to take advantage of the resources that we have there. Not just for themselves, but maybe for their company, and/or their HR employees if you’re CHRO or a vice president of HR and you have a team of five, you can give them the gift of a subscription with the Workology site. Then know that they’re getting resources and information. That’s the direction that we’re going right now. It’s taken me eight years to get to this point.

I feel like it’s a little bit of insanity. It’s doing the same thing over and over again, but you get really good at doing that thing, so I’ve really tried to sit down and think about, “Okay, when I retire, or when I’m ready to call this a day, what do I want my legacy to be?” I want to be able to be more strategic in how we provide our resources. See what we grow from there.

Tell me a little bit more about Oklahoma City, what is the small business climate there and where do you see that going in the next five, 10 years?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: The economy in Oklahoma is really strong, unemployment is really low and it has been that way since I’ve been there and I’ve lived in the Oklahoma City area for 11 years. Pretty much consistently throughout that time. It is an oil and gas community, or that’s historically what it’s been. That’s shifted a little bit, we’re not so reliant on the oil and gas to drive the economy. With oil and gas changing it has impacted the economy a small amount, but not near as much as when the oil bust happened in the, I think 70s, that was pretty detrimental to the Oklahoma City area. It is one of the best places to be an entrepreneur actually, the Chamber of Commerce is really supportive there, but it’s also really cheap to live, which is what I love.

I lived in the Bay Area for a couple years. The house that we were living at in Mountain View, California was insane, rent was insane, to buy it was insane. I can live in the same house in Oklahoma for $200,000 instead of two million. I say, hey, that is a good plan for me. I can do what I want to do and grow my business at the pace I want to grow and live at a place that is a friendly, Southern community.

Is there anything else you want our audience to know about you or your business? Where can people find you? What are you handles and your web addresses?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Workology.com is the best place to go. I do have a small business section, it’s called HR Basics, that you can access, and it has a lot of different resources. Kind of a collection of articles and information.

If you want to know about OSHA and when you have to put your OSHA reporting up and go through that process. There’s a lot of different resources there, interview questions, all those different things. On Twitter @jmillerrmerrell. I like to Tweet. I don’t know, it’s a great place to meet and connect with different people. Twitter has been fundamentally the difference maker in my business and my career, just the ability to connect with different kinds of people quickly and geographically.

I also have The Workology Podcast, WorkologyPodcast.com. It’s just like the blog in that it’s resources, but this is really for the senior HR and recruiting leaders, so if you want o hear about strategy and chief HR officer-type topics, this is the place to go. I have a lot of different, interesting kind of people. I just finished recording a podcast with the chief people officer with Zappos, so that was interesting.

Final Thoughts

Jessica and Workology is doing an amazing job providing resources for the small business owners out there to not only become more effective hirers, but be more effective business owners. Most of us don’t have the luxury of a fully fledged HR department, but Workology provides a ton of resources for free that help you answer almost any HR-related question.

Be sure to check out Workology and the WorkologyPodcast.

If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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