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Q&A: Replacing Retiring, Experienced Employees (Part 2)

First steps to successfully replace, pass on retiree’s knowledge

CHICAGO — The tight labor market has made hiring new employees challenging in the laundry and linen services industry.

Adding another wrinkle to this is the fact that over the next few years, more people will be reaching retirement age. So, how can operators aid the retirement process and help retain the knowledge and experience of the individual leaving?

American Laundry News spoke with three human resources (HR) experts to get their input on this subject: Barbara Holland, an HR advisor for SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management; Katie Rowland, human resources manager for Plymate in Shelbyville, Indiana; and Catalina Dongo, vice president of human resources for UniFirst Corp., headquartered in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

When a long-time employee starts the retirement process, what are the first steps a laundry should take to help fill the gap?

HOLLAND: Are we prepared for people leaving and do we have a succession plan? With a tight labor market and some people looking for places where they can land that don’t like the job hop— you’ve got people who like to get their experience and move on—but you do have people who are very comfortable.

If they’re in a good organization, staying with an organization and recognizing that in a tight market, how do you tap into that? What are the skills that you need? Do you have people on board right now that you could be investing in, which I think is a twofold benefit to the organization when you have somebody preparing to retire who might be training in somebody sharing with them their knowledge? 

On-the-job training is a lot easier, and then everybody gets a benefit, better than if you’re building a training program for somebody coming in who doesn’t know anything. It gives that person who’s retiring an opportunity to invest in somebody else, which obviously feels good. The person being invested in feels good. 

There are just so many wins in that type of a situation because you’ve got somebody who says, the company is interested in my career trajectory as well. 

I think succession planning should not be overlooked because it is a huge way of transitioning into that newer generation now leading in the workplace but having the ability to capture the knowledge that is going to be walking out the door when your retirees leave.

ROWLAND: First and foremost, confirming there is a capable successor for the role/duties. I think most small laundries (as well as small employers) are particularly challenged by this because many of their employees perform duties beyond their normal job description.

That is where planning and preparation is key. Ensuring that you know which coworkers have the desire and capability for other roles is essential. Next, creating a timeline and action plan for the transition. Finally, executing the change.

DONGO: At UniFirst, we begin this process long before an employee retires. Succession planning is key. 

We proactively identify critical positions within the company, as well as areas of competencies, skills, and knowledge, that are critical to supporting business continuity and the company’s success. 

We proactively identify team partners in these roles who are approaching retirement in the next one to five years and then begin the conversations with these individuals. Communication is key to assessing each individual and their own personal timeline for retirement. 

We then identify high-potential team partners who can fulfill the responsibilities of the retiring team partner and prepare them to fill the role.

It’s important for a company to continually drive this process and stay ahead of it to ensure business continuity. 

Much of the concern is the knowledge and experience that will be leaving the organization. What can an operation do to help tap into that knowledge/experience to help pass it along to other employees?

HOLLAND: Sometimes we just don’t even know all the things that people know. Sometimes just sitting down and chatting with individuals about what have been challenging times, what were things that they did to overcome challenging issues, prompting open-ended questions to get an idea from people in terms of what knowledge they have. They’re going to need some prompting because they may not even think it’s that important, but there may be little nuggets that come out in a conversation. 

Starting conversations is good, but it’s also identifying the key positions in an organization. What are the skills we’re looking for? And then there may be a mind shift from the old way of recruiting, which was you’re looking for ways to weed people out, you may need to step back and say, what are the skills that are required? 

Do we have a pipeline of talent coming into our organization? And if we don’t, then that’s where we’re stepping back and saying, what are the skills that we need? Because we can train certain skills, but we need to identify which ones are important. 

And then, begin to start looking at how do we look at people who may have a skill. They don’t know our industry. Maybe they don’t know this job, but they have the skill that’s required. So, we start looking at skills-based interviewing to bring people in and then train them to learn this industry or to learn these roles. 

In a job analysis, you can do lots of things. You can ask questions. You can observe. There are ways of looking at how people do their jobs so that you can figure out where is the gap between what we have and what we think we’re going to need so that we can start paying attention to that. 

The problem is something like succession planning and identifying those types of things can be anywhere from a year to three years of going through that process It’s not like you just want to sit down, figure this out and we’re going to go hire somebody. This is the transition period for that retirement person’s succession. Planning usually takes any from where from one to three years. 

It’s important for us to kind of get ahead of it. What do we need to start doing now so that we’re prepared at Point A? This is planning they need to do for any type of retirement to have it in their processes.

ROWLAND: Mentor programs can be very useful in this situation. Creating documented procedures or “playbooks.” Lastly, providing the employee the time, tools and training they need to be successful.  

DONGO: Succession planning is the best tool we have to help bridge the gap between talent leaving an organization and protecting institutional knowledge to ensure all that knowledge isn’t leaving with the retiring employee. 

Companies should be actively working to identify retiring employees and simultaneously cross-training high-potential employees to ensure every job in the company can be done by two or three people. 

You never want to leave your organization vulnerable to loss of knowledge.

In today’s challenging hiring market, what are some strategies a laundry can employ to fill the position opened by the retirement?

ROWLAND: Review the job description to ensure it still meets the needs of the organization. Then review and adjust before you begin recruiting.

DONGO: One of the best strategies to fill open positions, whether caused by retiring employees or other factors, is to invest in developing your own existing talent pool. 

It’s always easier to fill key open positions with internal talent already assimilated to your culture and committed to delivering successful outcomes.

To read Part 1 on the status of today’s long-time workers, plus retention and appreciation efforts, click HERE. Check back Tuesday for the conclusion on what to avoid and positives to consider when an employee retires.

Q&A: Replacing Retiring, Experienced Employees

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Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].