Good talent might be scarce, but it's not time to lower your hiring standards

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

I met with a woman I know in Bellingham a couple of weeks back, we hadn’t seen each other in person for probably two years, but I had been following her business progress from afar and knew her company was progressing nicely.

I asked about how things are going now. She said that a couple of years ago she had been struggling to find good people and was taking it kind of personally.

We all know how that goes — “I am doing everything right and nothing seems to be going my way, why me!”

“So how about now?” I asked.

“I am feeling pretty good about things now, seems like everyone is having trouble finding the right people for their business,” she said. “So, that part is still hard but I am not taking it personally and I don’t feel so alone!”

It would be too easy to reflect on her comment and conclude that misery does, in fact love company. but that would take the value out of the learning that was going on for her.

What I knew, and what she wasn’t explicitly talking about, is that this business owner has very high standards. Over time she had learned the hard way that if she compromised she would pay a price she wasn’t willing to, because she would be jeopardizing the future of her company just so she could be comfortable right now.

What I want to address today are a few things that I see as being critical in a time of nearly full employment and the challenges that this condition brings.

It wasn’t that long ago that good people were easy to find, but there were not enough jobs for them.

Take a look at these national unemployment statistics, for the month of February over several years, as compiled by The National Council of State Legislators

  • 2013: 7.7
  • 2012: 8.3
  • 2011: 8.9
  • 2010: 9.7

Contrasted to the current national rate as of February 2018, 4.1 percent, and our own state rate of 4.7 percent, this is a stunning turn-around.

I doubt anyone would be in a hurry to return to 2010-2013 so they would have an easier time finding good people.

Here is what I think is going on and has been going on for several years, quietly in the background, hidden by all the noise that coincided with the economic downturn of the mid 2000s. Employers have been learning the value of a workforce crafted for their particular business and business values. If you look from one business to another, you’ll find many similarities in overall values, significant differences in products and services offered. Regardless of the values, products or services, a unique something, defined by the ownership of the business, makes a candidate for employment “our kind of person” or not.

Back in late 2015 employers/business owners were just starting to feel the real pinch of being able to find “their kind of people.”

The downturn that began in 2008 forced many business owners into a position of laying off or letting people go, something they did only grudgingly, and rightly so.

This emotionally challenging time also forced these same employers to make calculated choices about what types of skills to preserve and what kinds of people were going to be right, regardless of economic conditions.

Now is the time to preserve what has been built. The temptations of a stronger economy may be to abandon what employers fought so hard to preserve, the right kinds of people for their business. As an employer, you owe it to yourself and your current employees to stick to what allowed you and your business to persevere through a significant and brutal economic downturn.

What the woman I was meeting with was telling me in so many words was that just because business was coming a little easier, this was no time to cut corners just to fill positions.

So, if you are not going to lower your standards and the people who are right for your business are harder and harder to find what is there to do?

  • Rethink where it is you are looking for people, as an example many people in older age brackets have excellent work ethics and would welcome an opportunity to contribute.
  • Rethink pay practices. You may still see employees only as expenses to the business, where now they are really the assets of the business. Investment is the right way to think about your employees.
  • Rethink your approach to overtime. Maybe it makes more sense to pay more to the right people than to put up with the quality of work of the wrong people.
  • Involve your current employees with profit sharing. More and more, as pointed out earlier, they produce the return on investment, let them share the gain as well.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

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