Stop me if this sounds familiar: In the job interview, the candidate told me they could do everything when I asked them directly if they could. Who knew that they couldn’t? It should have been me.

The reason it should have been me is I had done so many hiring interviews with both techs and office staff that I knew the pitfalls of bad hiring practices but still I got blindsided by this so often in my contracting life. Looking back, it’s easy to know why I didn’t bother to really find out what they could and couldn’t do.

The primary reason I kept falling into this same hole was I was always hiring out of desperation instead of being proactive. How did I arrive at a staffing state of emergency that made me so desperate?

Here’s the reality for most of us contractors: Sometimes, an employee gives us two weeks’ notice they are leaving our company, and that is okay. Sometimes, we get one week’s notice, and that is tolerable.

Sometimes, they just leave the keys to the truck in the front door mail slot and leave a note attached to their keys saying they are gone. That is bad.

For us, it was really bad because we were always busy and needed everyone to be onboard. We were in the lucky position of having more work at our company than bodies to get the work done.

I say “lucky” because we were able to charge the right price and be more selective for whom we did and didn’t work and the type of work we would and wouldn’t do.

Yet, again, it was a problem because we were always in reactive mode when it came to what I call staffing power.

How bad was this approach to staffing? My brother Marty, the inside office guy, called our hiring test the “mirror test,” which sarcastically meant that in our hour of need, all you needed to do was fog the mirror and there was a good chance you could be hired. We were, of course, kidding.

Well, sort of.

Something had to give, and finally it did.

One day I was chatting with Dan Holohan, noted industry titan and great friend, and he told me: “Al, you need to start thinking of staffing like a moving train. You never know who will be onboard for the whole ride. Some people will be getting on at different stops along the way. Other people will be getting off at different stops because either it’s their choice to leave the train or you’ve chosen to kick them off. You need to become proactive about staffing and not reactive.”

As always, wise words from a very wise man.

His insight got me thinking proactively, and so I proposed to my brothers (with the blessing of our father) that we move away from only being reactive to always being proactive. Here’s what being proactive meant for us:

  • We began to always recruit, even if there was no immediate need to hire someone. If someone came in and they were good, we had systems that would make them even better. And we always had more work we could be doing.

  • We began to get better at the hiring process. We asked more questions and wrote their answers instead of always talking (which was born from our need to sell them on joining us). We also created written and practical testing for each position at the company we hired for, so they had to show us they could actually do the work before we hired them.

  • We began to spend time in the orientation process. This was brand new to us because when we hired in panic mode, we needed them to get to work ASAP, and they were never prepared the way they should have been. So, we finally created a scripted orientation process to onboard them in a way that set them up for success right out of the station. We even ensured they were with good mentors, which was something we never thought about before.

  • We began to invest heavily in training that could be done either side-by-side with the operating manuals in hand for inside staff or with hands-on training in the training center on the common tasks a tech would encounter in the field.

  • Finally, we learned the hard lesson that retaining good people was by design — not by accident. We created career paths, gave them the training to keep on rising up in the company, and matched their compensation to that.

Never get blindsided by reactive staffing again. Learn to trust that they can do everything because you’ve trained them the right way and you’ve witnessed them doing things the right way.