How to Hire, Fire & Manage Employees

Merilyn Speiser , 7 August 2019

Recruiting the right people and then managing them well is essential to the success of your practice. Merilyn Speiser offers a guide to getting the HR fundamentals right.

A lot of architects give significant thought to who it is that might help drive their business professionally and creatively. However, they give surprisingly little thought to the technicalities of making sure they’re employed correctly, managed effectively and that their employment is ended properly if things don’t turn out as they’d planned.

With that in mind, here is my guide to making sure your business get the fundamentals of its human resources right, even when you don’t have a specialist HR function.

Hiring: what you need to know

There are some important factors you’ll need to get right when it comes to hiring a new employee if you want the experience to work out. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn. 

1. Recruiting a new employee

Generally, there are two aspects to this: attracting the attention of the right people and then reviewing their applications to make sure they have the temperament, skills and outlook your business needs.

For me, the first step comes down to nailing your job advertisement. Here, I always advise:

  • Stating your top three selling points. Consider why someone would want to work for you and get this down succinctly and powerfully.
  • Keeping your company details short and sharp. Don’t try to cram in every single detail of your business. Refer them to your website instead.
  • Outlining the specific duties. This isn’t a time to be vague or elusive. If you expect someone to do a lot of admin, tell them that up front. Overselling can lead to disappointment from both ends. 
  • Using bullet points. See how much information can be conveyed quickly when you use them?
  • Making the application process seamless. The more hoops, the fewer people will jump through them.
  • Using action words. Compel people to act now. 

When the applications and CVs start to come in, it can seem a little overwhelming so it’s important not to get too bogged down. Here I recommend:

  • Look at the way it’s presented. But remember it’s not the only thing.
  • Drill down to the experience. If you’re going to spend a lot of time anywhere on CVs, make it here.
  • Pick up the phone. If anyone piques your interest, get on the phone and do a quick interview. Clarify location and salary expectations and ask them about any notice period they’d need to give their current employer.
  • Email any interview details. Let them know in writing so that there’s no ambiguity.

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2. How to interview candidates properly 

The next step is interviewing the candidates you think may be the best fit for your organisation. This is your chance to engage with the candidates and sell your business and culture to them. After all, good candidates need a reason to work for you. 

However, here again, there are certain things you should always do to give yourself the best chance of getting it right. 

Ask the right questions

Most employers fail at this stage because the interview becomes just another ‘meet and greet’. Instead, focus on getting to the bottom of four key areas:

  • Work history. Find out what they’ve achieved and why they want to move on.
  • Aspirations. It’s vital you know that their outlook is compatible with yours.
  • Key skills and attributes. Get them to explain why they’re suited to the role and your business.
  • Behavioural-based questions. How do they react in certain situations? What makes them tick and what’s their working style like?
Use a structured interview guide

This should include:

  • A welcome. Thank them for coming, introduce yourself and your business, and tell them why they’re here.
  • Asking every question. Don’t skip some of the questions if you’re pressed for time.
  • Giving them the chance to ask questions. Find out how curious they are about what they’ll be doing each day and where their career might lead.
  • Keeping it clean. Avoid talking about the candidate’s personal life and never, ever ask questions about age, disability religion or intentions when it comes to children. Doing so could land you in seriously hot water.
  • Closing the interview. Tell them the next steps and what they should expect from you.
Interview warning 101

When you interview candidates, don’t fall into these common traps like many employers do:

  • Talking too much. You’re here to find out about them. Let the candidate do 80% of the talking.
  • Making a decision too early. It’s a big call that means a lot to the future of your business. Take your time over it.
  • Asking leading questions. Let the candidate explain don’t give them the answer you want to hear.
  • Using a stress interview. Don’t try to fluster someone. You’ll come off looking worse for it, not them.
  • Failing to call referees. These are possibly your most valuable points of information. Use them wisely by asking direct questions.

3. The employment contract

If you’re satisfied with the reference checks, make a formal offer. Once it’s accepted be sure to let other unsuccessful candidates know why they missed out.

Beyond that, it’s time to draft your employment contract. It almost always pays to have this done professionally by a lawyer or HR expert – especially as it will always be read in conjunction with laws and regulations governing the employment relationship, as well as any relevant modern awards. Remember, you can’t usually contract out of any of these.

That said, if you are attempting your own contract, be certain to include:

  • Employment status (ie full-time, part-time or casual).
  • Position title
  • Start date and location
  • Who the employee reports to
  • Hours of work
  • Leave entitlements
  • Remuneration (all aspects of this including how any bonus will be calculated). Also include details of when the salary will be paid, as well as any deductions.
  • Details of any probationary period.
  • Termination of employment provisions.
  • Details around confidentiality, IP, moral rights and privacy.
  • Any restraint of trade (be careful here – these are notoriously difficult to enforce) and rules around outside interests, ie working for someone else.
  • The governing law and jurisdiction.
  • That this comprises the entire contract unless agreed otherwise and in writing.

4. Your employment and HR policies

Once you have employees, you should also have standard HR policies and procedures. These are your bible for your day-to-day business operations, setting out what you expect when it comes to workplace behaviour and allowing you to keep employees accountable.

As you’ll rely on these policies to regulate your workplace and uphold standards, it’s important that you communicate them to your workforce. And, as your business will no doubt grow and evolve, it’s also important that you keep them flexible and review them regularly.

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5. Improving performance and terminating employment

Perhaps no aspect of running a business is more fraught and less understood than performance management and termination. But, given the very real prospect of unfair dismissal and unlawful termination action, every employer should have a handle on this area. Here’s what I think you need to know as a minimum.

  • Every employee has a ‘qualifying period’. During this time you can terminate a worker’s employment more easily. If you’re a small employer (defined as having fewer than 15 employees) the good news is that this qualifying period runs for 12 months; for larger employers it’s just six. You can even extend this period in some circumstances.
  • You should give warnings for underperformance. Before you dismiss any worker you should warn them that they are not performing and give them the chance to improve. Do this both in a private face-to-face meeting and in writing. Let them have a support person present and give them a reasonable period to improve. Record keeping here is vital.
  • You don’t have to give notice or warnings for misconduct. If someone is guilty of serious misconduct, you can terminate their employment summarily. Examples of serious misconduct include theft, fraud, threatening behaviour and a serious breach of your policies.
  • Everyone else is entitled to a notice period. This ranges from one week to employees who’ve given you less than 12 months service to four weeks for employees who’ve been with you for more than five years. If a worker is over 45 and has served more than two years, they’re entitled to another two weeks. You can make a payment in lieu of this notice period.
  • Redundant employees are entitled to an extra payment. Again, this is based on age and length of service.
  • Employees have 21 days to bring an unfair dismissal claim. If you get payments or procedure wrong they’re entitled to compensation and potentially even reinstatement.
  • You can never terminate an employee for a proscribed reason. This includes on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or union membership. If you do, you’re likely to be penalised under the unlawful termination provisions, which are separate to unfair dismissal.

And there you have it...

These are the basics of HR that every employer, including architects, needs to know. But they really are just basics –human resources can be complex and challenging and areas are more likely to be grey than black and white.

If you find yourself in a situation that could lead to serious exposure for your business, you should always pay for an employment lawyer or HR professional. Otherwise, you risk suffering far greater long-term damage both to your reputation and your bottom line.

Merilyn Speiser is Principal Consultant at Catalina Consultants. This article is based on a presentation Merilyn recently gave for the ACA – WA's Business of Small Practice series.