Employee Screening

John Stuart
According to the National Retail Federation, a repository of all information pertaining to retail in America and everywhere America does business, more than 20 percent of employees hired in the merchandise business leave within the first year. This attrition increases when companies employ a second and third shift — common to adult stores that are open 24 hours a day — with the second shift suffering the highest turnover rate.

Although the NRF has no statistics that are specific to adult retail companies, there is every reason to believe that the turnover rate among these firms is considerably higher than for the mainstream retailers. Business experts and managers know that this means wasted time and money in an unending cycle of inefficiency.

But a few forward-thinking adult retailers are showing the rest of the industry ways to screen potential employees that greatly reduce turnover and cement long-lasting and fruitful employment records.

"Our turnover is remarkably low," says Tom Burger, CEO of the Florida-based Fairvilla Megastores chain. "We don't have any to speak of, even though we work about 10 employees per shift, not including management."

The Fairvilla chain, with large stores in Orlando, Key West and Cape Canaveral, Fla., already has established itself as a trailblazer in adult marketing and community relations strategies, so it's no surprise the firm uses a solid employee strategy, too.

What's their secret?

"We send our management for training in a program called Hiring the Right Person," Burger reveals. "We have job descriptions for each of the jobs, which is critical for providing the key points for hiring somebody. Anybody can be really clever and amiable for 20 minutes during a job interview, so we use the same job descriptions to create evaluations on performance."

The Hiring the Right Person program is one of the many services provided by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), an organization that gives members myriad tools for screening, training and developing employees. Membership in ASTD costs Fairvilla only $175 a year, according to Burger, and the benefits are substantial.

"They provide a simple questionnaire that shows any predisposition for antisocial behavior," he says of just one ASTD screening technique. "Every person in the business of human resources belongs to that organization. They also supply tests that determine where a person's skills lie. They supply all the tests that do employee screening, how to train someone, how to build a team — all the stuff that every Fortune 500 company or major corporation in America uses about training, development and building skills."

Of course, there are still some success stories in employee screening among other adult retailers that have not signed on with ASTD. One of them is Babeland, the sex toy and novelty retailer with stores in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. The employee screening methods they use are much more traditional, but Babeland management has added some new twists that make them more effective.

'We do reference checks," says Babeland director of retail Jen May. "We also keep the same two people conducting all of the interviews so they can evaluate the same criteria. When there are multiple candidates or we are looking to fill a management position, we do second interviews, just to make sure the person meets our qualifications. We ask questions like, 'Why do you want to work for Babeland selling sex toys?' It's a lot different than working for the Gap. We ask, 'How would you approach a customer who is making a first-time purchase?' We want to find out right away whether people will be able to ask appropriate questions in a sensitive way and let the customer lead them to the product they're looking for."

Fairvilla also uses traditional screening methods in addition to its more state-of-the-art strategies.

"We use local background [checks] to learn who's been arrested or convicted," Burger says. "We also take the time to call previous employers."

Burger stresses that a prior arrest or conviction does not necessarily disqualify a person from employment with Fairvilla, however.

"I've employed a person who was under house arrest," he admits. "I've hired people from halfway houses. It's not a question of whether a person made a mistake; it's a question of whether that person is going to tell you."

Burger claims that mandatory drug testing is not practiced with Fairvilla employees, "because I don't want to get into legislating morality. I don't want to hire somebody who is a potential risk for theft, anti-social behavior or dealing drugs in my parking lot, but anybody who insures his business or has workers' compensation knows that if an employee is hurt in an accident and has to go to the hospital, the employee will be drug-tested there."

Vital to the success of any employee hiring scheme is learning what type of person best fits a company's needs. Babeland prides itself on having a firm grasp on the qualities they look for among job applicants.

"Our ideal candidate is someone who has a really solid blend of traditional retailing with an understanding of sexuality, gender issues and gender politics," May says. "It doesn't always happen that we get that ideal candidate, so we look for someone who has a retail background and an understanding of our mission, which is educating, informing and empowering our customers. When someone already has that understanding about the mission of our company, we do a really good job of training them on the retail aspect. And when someone comes in with a strong retail background, we have the ability to train them on such a sensitive topic as sex toys and sexuality."

The Fairvilla approach, predictably more scientific, goes strictly by the ASTD guidelines for rating the qualities that add up to a good employee candidate.

"One is talent, second is job knowledge and third is skill," Burger relates.

"Talent is harder to figure out in retail, but if you're going to hire someone for a sales job, then talent means that the employee has to like to encounter people and likes to persuade people. No matter how well you train on sales skills, if they don't have the talent or desire to do that kind of work, you're not going to have someone who is really great for you."

Burger stresses that employers should not try to force a round peg into a square hole with respect to employee screening and placement.

"You don't want to take a person motivated toward being a salesman and hire them to work the cash register," he warns. "That doesn't work because cash registry calls for a whole different kind of person. I'd be pulling my hair out, but there are people who like to do that. You don't put this person on bonuses, but you pay them a little more money because they're handling your cash."

Babeland has its own special needs in its sales employees and stresses those needs to avoid hiring the wrong kind of worker.

'Because of the nature of the business and the conversations that we have with customers, we want people who are sensitive in language and gender identity," May says. "I wouldn't want to hire someone who misunderstood what our intentions are. I wouldn't want to hire someone who uses inappropriate language on the floor or who is trolling for dates. It's really important that the people we hire have an understanding of body language and are able to read people. We want to be seen as a resource and as experts in this field, but we want the customer to feel that they are experts as well when it comes to their own bodies and sexuality."

Because attracting the right applicant is key to finding the right employee, the strategy used in advertising for a job becomes vital. Fairvilla approaches this in a straightforward manner.

"It's important to be up front with who you are and what you want, only highlight the parts of your business that make it fun," Burger suggests. "We started to invest money into database employee advertising like Craigslist and Monster that detail exactly what we're looking for. It's the most effective way to advertise, and it's not a bad investment. It's not cheap, but it's a lot better than somebody dragging his or her best friend in. Even the classified ads now have database services. The classifieds are less expensive and hit people in your area."

Babeland, on the other hand, has had success advertising for jobs in its own stores and on its website.

"One of the drawbacks of posting somewhere like Craigslist is that you get a lot of people who don't know they're applying to Babeland or don't understand what the position entails," reveals May.

So let's say that, after carefully crafting ads and screening applicants, you've found a solid worker. How do you keep him/her? Fairvilla uses a quirky but effective technique.

'We play with them," Burger says. "Our Key West store is having a Christmas party this year and we're putting together a cruise for the employees. They'll go out on a boat, and we'll have a band. On Christmas Eve, we'll extend a cost to all of our employees, so they can buy presents at a bargain. We also play games with them that offer prizes. We try not to stay remote from them. We go to the stores and find ways to celebrate their successes."

In addition to play, Fairvilla offers solid benefits to its employees, including health care and educational reimbursement.

"It's not just salary that keeps somebody," Burger cautions. "If you want to keep an employee for years, you probably ought to be thinking about their health care. It gives an employee a reason to stay because the value of an employee is not established by you, but by the next guy who wants to hire him. You don't want to end up with a logjam of really inefficient employees while all the good ones have left."

Babeland emphasizes doing the "little things" to keep valued employees in the fold. Each store manager has an individual style, according to May, "but I'm a big fan of the chocolate covered pretzels and the 'Coffee on Babeland' — little appreciations for stepping up."

Obviously, the cutting-edge screening techniques of Fairvilla and the old-fashioned employee strategies of Babeland are miles apart in theory, but the disparate philosophies have one important thing in common.

They work.

"Retail traditionally is known for its high turnover, but our company has been rated as one of the best places to work in Seattle," May says. "We do a great deal for our workers and there's a really strong sense of community. I think that keeps the turnover rate down. We have non-management people who have worked for us for more than seven years."