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Matt Heller’s Advice for Engaging Seasonal Workers

By Kevin on March 5, 2015 in employee engagement
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Matt Heller is the author of The Myth of Employee Burnout and is an expert on employee engagement in the amusement park industry. I recently asked Matt his thoughts on how to engage seasonal workers. Our interview is below.

Kevin Kruse: I believe that some people are more likely to be engaged than others. It’s part of their personality…so managers should actually start the engagement process when hiring. What is your advice for companies/managers when they search and interview candidates for summer or other seasonal jobs? Any particular questions to ask? Anything to look for?

Matt Heller: With a shortened window to recruit, hire and onboard seasonal employees, getting the right people on board from the very beginning (or, having qualified staff return for another season) is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, though, because an employer is likely driven by a seasonal schedule, hiring decisions are often made based on availability. I have seen far too many people offered positions because they were a fit for the schedule, not the company culture. Of course there is a balance here… you have limited time to train, so hiring people with the greatest availability will, in theory, cut down on your training and onboarding time. However, if those people do not work out, you will find yourself hiring and training even more people, but now in emergency mode. By looking for people who fit the culture, you may have to hire more people because of availability, but there is a greater likelihood that they will stick around longer.

Social media platforms give you a way to find and reach fans of your organization that might make great candidates. Many people already use these channels to spread the word about job openings, but I don’t know how many take (or have) the time to use it as a true recruiting tool. Who is sharing your content? Who likes your posts about what’s going on? Who engages in a positive way? These actions don’t automatically make for a great employee, but they could indicate someone who is already a good cultural fit and loves your product.

Again, because of the shorter training window, it’s important to find people who are already predisposed to perform in the manner in which you need them to perform. For example, if you need people to be able to strike up a conversation with the public, explain rules or interact with them in a fun way, look at local drama, debate or band/choral programs. These candidates are already comfortable “on stage” and would only need direction in terms of how you want them to channel their talents. It’s so much easier (especially for time and resource starved managers) to guide direct these individuals than it would be to attempt to train them on proactive interaction in such a short period of time – especially if that is not part of their DNA.

This also speaks to the need to be upfront with your candidates about the type of position you are hiring for. Too many companies lure potential employees in with the perks of the job (because they may have trouble staffing those positions), but fail to paint a realistic picture of what that job will really be like. Again, you could find yourself in more hiring and training emergencies because the new employees are now potentially disillusioned about what they were really hired to do.

For many of these seasonal roles, group interviews are becoming more and more popular with good reason. When you get a group of people in a room and ask them to play a game or perform a task, you get to see who naturally displays the behaviors you are looking for.

Lastly, as a hiring manager, you need to know very specifically what it is you are looking for, and be able to identify it during the interview process. I once interviewed a young lady named Nikki at an amusement park I was working at. Nikki had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. She had limited use of her hands and at times her speech was difficult to understand. Going into the interview, I also knew that if hired, Nikki was going to have to have a trained companion (provided by her family) with her at all times.

When I met Nikki, what struck me immediately was her incredible and infectious smile. She completely lit up any space she was in, and to me, that was the smile that I wanted greeting the guests as they entered the park. We hired Nikki as a ticket taker at the front gate and had to make some slight modifications to the way she did her job. What was beautifully unexpected, was to see how the other employees rallied around her and what a positive impact she had on the guests as they started their day. It didn’t matter to them that her line to took a little longer to get through, they were really just excited to see her smile!

Kevin Kruse: Growth is a trigger of employee engagement, but seasonal workers may not be thinking about a long-term career path, and might take a job just as a way to make some immediate money. How could a manager trigger growth in seasonal workers?

Matt Heller: I can tell you one of the things that stunts the growth (or desire for growth) in many seasonal workers is the practice of front-loading all of their training and development at the beginning of their season. The mindset here is that there is a lot to know and we need to make sure they know it all before they start working. There are a number of pitfalls with this technique. First, it gives employees very little to look forward to. They have supposedly learned everything they need to know in their first 3-4 days, so there is no where else for them to grow. Second, rarely do employees truly learn and absorb all of the material covered in a few days or hours of orientation, so often they are left to their own devices anyway. A better system is to provide training, development and growth in small nuggets. This way the material sticks better, they have a chance to actually put it into practice, and they’ll be more mentally ready to take on the new information when it is presented.

One example of how this works is an amusement park in Santa Claus, IN called Holiday World. A number of years ago, Holiday World decided to separate their task training and hospitality training. Instead of inundating new employees with everything all at once, they first spend time making sure they have the competence and confidence to perform their assigned tasks. Then, once proficiency has been demonstrated, they bring them back to go over specific hospitality expectations and strategies. Some may say that this method leaves employees unprepared to provide a great guest service experience, however Holiday World has found the opposite to be true. They have earned the Golden Ticket award for the Friendliest Employees in the industry 13 out of the 17 years the award has been given. The Golden Ticket is an award given to outstanding amusement facilities by the readers of Amusement Today magazine.

This process of continued development and growth can also extend to leadership candidates as well. Rather than waiting until the beginning of the next season to select and train your seasonal leadership team, why not use the current season to build your bench strength and cultivate your future leaders? Give potential leaders projects or put them in low risk leadership situations to see how they do. Allow them to shadow seasoned leaders to get an idea of what it’s really like. Similar to front line staff, you have a very short period of time each season to get your leaders up to speed and leading. Being a little proactive and continually looking at next season during the current season can help you hit the ground running with a successful and proven team.

Kevin Kruse: Recognition (appreciation) is another trigger of engagement. Other than just saying “thank you”, have you seen other creative low-cost ways to recognize seasonal workers?

Recognition and appreciation are HUGE in getting to people to deliver on your goals. While a simple “thank you” can sound too basic, there is a lot of power in the act of acknowledging someone else’s efforts in a meaningful way.

I often hear leaders saying thank you to their entire team at a meeting or at the end of long day, thinking that this counts as recognition. It’s a step, but for that thank you to really mean something to the individual, the comment needs to be sincere, timely, and specific to the person and the situation. That way, they know specifically what they are being thanked for and know that the behavior is desired again. The blanket ‘thank you’ could actually send a message to a non-performer that what they did that day was okay and worth repeating. And unfortunately, poor performance is what they will repeat!

It’s also important to realize how recognition, in it’s most basic form, can have an impact. Specifically, in calling someone by name or remembering something about them. Recognizing them as a person and as a human being with thoughts, feelings, aspirations and fears allows you to make a connection with that person that builds trust and respect. With the overwhelming amount of tasks many Supervisors have, it’s easy to let getting to know your employees fall to the bottom of the priority list. The irony in that is that if you took the time to get to know your employees, you could find that some of them have talents, skills or abilities that could help you with the your overwhelming list!

At one of the amusement parks I worked at, I oversaw three departments in the operations division. Not only is that a large number of employees to lead, but that also brings with it a large amount of administrative work as well. I made a commitment each day that I was going to spend at least half of my shift in the park with my employees. I might just talk to a few when they weren’t busy, I could jump in and help when they were, and they knew that I was available if they needed me. One of the biggest advantages I found with this is that we had an established rapport, and when I had to provide constructive feedback on their performance, or bad news, that wasn’t the only message they heard from me. I equate this to being called to the principals office in school. I rarely heard of people going to see the principal for being nice to their classmates. Usually something was wrong, and if the only time you speak to your employees is when something is wrong, they will immediately think you are bringing bad news whenever you come around.

While you are getting to know your employees, they will likely give you ideas or suggestions. Listening to these ideas, and implementing them if possible, is a great way to recognize their contribution beyond their regular duties.

I was once talking with a group of employees, and they told me that they had started a band called DOME. (They had recently been to Washington DC, and were impressed by the architecture.) One of the tools they used in their jobs as a ticket taker was a black-light hand stamp that they used to identify returning guests. The stamps were all short words such as LION, BEAR, and TEAR, and there was one for each day of the week. It didn’t take too long to ask if we could create a DOME stamp, as the word would fit on the stamp very easily.

I then asked them to come up with six other architectural words that would go along with DOME. That way, we could have one for each day of the week. I ordered new stamps every year anyway, so simply changing the words would be easy.

A little while later, they came back with more words, such as DOOR, ARCH, etc. That next winter, I ordered the DOME stamps. When these four employees returned the next season, they were blown away to see their DOME stamp was now a reality. Their ideas were recognized, and now they could see that they actually had a part in the way the company ran. That was very empowering to them.

Kevin Kruse: Future vision is another trigger of engagement, yet again, given the nature of seasonal work, how might a manager tap into “the big picture” a bright future, or some other deeper purpose?

Matt Heller: First, it is dangerous for full time managers to expect their seasonal employees to have the same level of commitment and dedication to the job that they do. That was a mistake I made. I was expecting an 18-year-old in a temporary job to be as enthused and devoted to the work as I was as a full-time salaried manager, and for the same reasons. This caused me to be frustrated when they weren’t driven to serve the guests as I was, and weren’t willing to put in the extra time that was sometimes called for. Even in my first year of full time leadership, I had three years of seasonal work behind me. That’s a long time to learn the ropes and develop a passion for the business. I realized that is was completely unrealistic for me to think that a brand new employee would be able to muster that type of drive and passion with so little experience.

To that end, it became clear that any long-term, big picture focus was going to have to come on their terms, not mine. Would some stay in the industry and make it a career? Possibly, but far more would not.

So at that point I had to evaluate the skills they were learning on the job, and how that would impact them later on, no matter what career path they chose. Working in the amusement and theme park industry, employees got a lot of experience working with the public. That helps build people and communication skills, problem solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution skills. Specifically, a job as a security guard could be a springboard to law enforcement. A summer selling tickets or food and beverage could lead to a career in retail or restaurant management. Working with guests everyday can provide great insight into consumer habits, and could lead to a career in marketing, sales, or PR. Or, like it did for me, spending so much time with employees, hiring, developing, training, coaching… lead to a career in HR, and I now run a successful consulting business based on some of the practices I learned over the 23 years I spent in the industry.

The challenge that leaders face with this long-term vision is communicating it to their employees and even to potential candidates. Many seasonal jobs are viewed as temporary by their very nature, and most people will not take a seasonal job with the expectation that it will lead them down a desired career path. That’s why leaders must understand and be clear about the positive impact a seasonal job can have on their employees – no matter what career they eventually choose.

Kevin Kruse: What are the most effective ways to get summer workers BACK the following summer?

Matt Heller: First don’t bring everyone back. It may sound strange, but it’s the same principle as ridding your team of weak links. If you bring everyone back, regardless of performance the previous year, you are telling your star performers that their over-and-above effort was wasted. They would have been asked back as long as they just showed up for work, regardless of their performance.

Some companies still do an end of season bonus, paying out extra money for every hour worked if an employee stays until the end of the season. This is a staffing solution that unfortunately often rewards the wrong behavior. Too often, employees that “stick it out” are rewarded not for their performance, but just for showing up. Then, when thinking about who to bring back for the following season, you use the “who got a bonus” criteria. Since the criteria for getting a bonus was potentially flawed, so too is the criteria for bringing people back.

As stated earlier, if you begin developing leaders the season before you “need” them, you not only will have a consistent pipeline of leadership candidates, but you will also be giving them a very compelling reason to come back the next year. Similarly, as they have been developed, and are excited to come back, they will also (either officially or unofficially) help with recruiting for the next season. Since we know that like-minded individuals typically flock together, then who wouldn’t want to consider for employment the friends of next season’s leaders?

This brings us to one of the biggest reasons people return to a seasonal business, especially if young people (high school and college age) are employed – because their friends are coming back. Maintaining a strong alumni network will help keep people excited an engaged and want to continue to be a part of your organization. This can be done through events, social media, or an online forum on your website. Whatever method you choose, if you keep large groups of friends engaged with your company, they will be back.

Kevin Kruse: Any other thoughts on the issue?

Matt Heller: The one thread that runs through all of these is for leaders to rethink the way they design their people processes within the company. It may require reallocating funds or resources, or doing things very differently than they had in the past. Many people (rightly so) put a large amount of money and energy into building great facilities and products. Many of the strategies mentioned here would require similar attention being paid to the experience of their employees. Once a building is built, it will perform as intended with a little planned maintenance. There are far more variables in the performance of a human being, and yet many companies put comparatively less effort into that part of their business. It takes as much strategic thought and action to develop great people as it does to come up with a workable business strategy. In fact, in any business, the employee experience should be a part of the business strategy, not separate from it.

Check out Matt Heller’s book, The Myth of Employee Burnout.


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Check out Employee Engagement 2.0, by Kevin Kruse, and discover how leaders turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams.

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