Distributors want to turn over inventory, not their employees. But good help can be hard to find — particularly in distribution warehouses where work can be physically strenuous and wages typically lean toward the lower end of the pay scale. Turnover in these positions is common, and the costs associated with recruitment and training can be burdensome. Fortunately, jan/san distributors can take measures to recruit top-notch employees who remain loyal to the company for the long haul.

According to Frank Hurtte, founding partner of River Heights Consulting in Davenport, Iowa, the wholesale distribution industry used to operate based on the philosophy that warehouse workers who showed initiative would quickly advance to better paying positions. He calls this “the myth of distribution.”

This model no longer works, says Hurtte, because today’s job candidates aren’t satisfied with nominal pay or the promises of advancement opportunities that are often unfulfilled.

Additionally, today’s warehouse positions require workers with skills that their predecessors didn’t need.

“The work in the warehouse has gone from primarily gopher work to work that calls for interaction with computers and customers,” says Hurtte. “If you still try to hire people at that lower level, then you end up with a poor warehouse because you end up with a lot of rotation in that warehouse.”

To avoid revolving door syndrome, job skills need to be clearly communicated to potential employees, and pay rates should be competitive.

“If you’re going to pay that higher rate, you have to be more efficient in your warehouse,” says Hurtte. “That means giving your warehouse people more leeway to make decisions.”

Where To Look When Recruiting

So where do distributors find quality employees to fill warehouse and driver positions? Traditional avenues, such as placing an advertisement in the local paper or on the Internet, can yield hundreds of applicants, but few will be the right fit for the position. To find better matches, jan/san distributors recommend employee referrals and temp agencies.  

“I’m a believer in employee referrals,” says Hurtte. “We try to encourage people to do that whenever possible. Not only are you more likely to find a quality worker, but the person who made the referral feels as if they’ve made a valuable contribution to the company.”

Gary Bright, vice president and general manager of Mission Janitorial and Abrasive Supplies in San Diego, has had great success with employee recommendations.

“Referrals have brought in some of our best employees,” he says.

Some distributors reward their employees for referring colleagues who are subsequently hired by the company, but Hurtte warns against this practice.

“A lot of companies put a bounty on the head of successful hires,” he says. “Good hires may come out of that, but I’m concerned an employee is going to recommend someone purely for the money, as opposed to recommending them because they think that person would be a good addition to the company.”

Temp agencies can help sort through an abundance of candidates, weeding out unqualified applicants. At Dade Paper in Miami, two temp agencies screen potential employees.

“They know our needs, and they’re very good at selecting the right people,” says Andy Baltzell, general manager for Dade Paper.

Screening Warehouse Applicants

For distributors that don’t have the benefit of an agency or human resources department to screen applicants for them, Hurtte recommends that they have candidates interviewed by more than one person at the company.

“Often interviewers feel uncomfortable asking the same question twice,” says Hurtte. “They may get an answer that doesn’t make sense to them, but they leave it alone rather than asking about it again, because it seems impolite. With multiple interviewers, you can say to the next interviewer, ‘Here’s the part I’m concerned about, and maybe you can ask a question about it.’ So you’re building an understanding of that person as you go.”

The types of questions asked during the interview process are essential to finding the right employee. Howard Coleman, principal, MCA Associates in Derby, Conn., says that interviews for warehouse and driver positions are often oversimplified.

“If I was hiring a manager, I would encourage distributors to ask behavioral-type questions, rather than open-ended questions that could be answered with a yes or no,” he says. “But often these types of questions are not asked of a warehouse person. The first thing they want to know is have you had any traffic violations or have you been arrested.”

While drug tests, background checks and resumes are important, Coleman says that more emphasis needs to be placed on assessing the applicant’s character.

“What distributors often omit is a focus on the applicant’s personal attributes,” he says. “What is their behavioral style? What is their motivation and approach to the job? I think what’s as important as knowledge and skills is to understand whether they have integrity, honesty and a willingness to take direction.”
When conducting final interviews for drivers, Bright focuses his attention on the applicant’s character traits.

“Drivers probably see more customers in a day than salespeople do, so you want them to have that friendly, customer-service attitude, and I think most of our drivers do,” says Bright.

While Bright relies on his intuition to assess people’s personalities, distributors also have a host of personality profiling and assessment tools at their disposal for a more scientific approach to evaluating a job applicant’s character.

“In working with clients, I put a lot of emphasis on screening and assessment tools,” says Coleman, “and there are a host of tools that can be taken online. The concept is to compare candidates against successful people in the same types of jobs using expansive job-specific databases that have a high validity quotient; that is, the information you get through these tests can be relied on to provide a high level of insight into that person.”

Distributors will always have some turnover with warehouse employees and drivers, but following due diligence during the recruitment process can help yield quality workers that are more likely to stick around for years, rather than months.

For information on retaining the best employees, click here.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.