Not finding the right employees? Time to ask about Harry Potter.

LongerDays’ headquarters in downtown Muskegon.

Lesson number one when it comes to hiring the right people? During the interview, ask about “Harry Potter.” Or “Lord of the Rings.”

Well, maybe not exactly that, but you’re going to need to get creative.

“We ask people to name 10 ‘Lord of the Rings’ or 10 ‘Harry Potter’ characters because you learn a lot about someone when they struggleor we find out they’re really geeky with a great memory. Both are good outcomes. If they struggle, do they degrade with grace? Do they candidly admit, ‘I don’t know the answer,’” said Jason Pliml, a longtime business consultant and the owner of LongerDays, a Muskegon-based virtual assistance company that works with businesses across the country.

“We see what happens: Do they get super uncomfortable and feel like they’re failing, or do they accept their struggle and continue to stay engaged in the interview? We face new tasks and new problems nearly every day. Adapting to new tasks is a constant for our team,” Pliml said.

It’s these kind of questions that can be just as, if not more, revealing than the standard why-do-you-want-to-work-here variety of interview inquiries that everyone expects. And, Pliml emphasized, if you’re having trouble finding the right employees, it may be time to take another approach to your hiring practices and your company.

Jason Pliml, a longtime business consultant and the owner of LongerDays in downtown Muskegon.

Which means, it’s time to find your version of Hermione- and Gandalf-level questions: for your candidates and for your own business.

Here, Pliml shares what he has learned when it comes to successful hiring practicesand, if you’re having trouble finding people now, you’ll be relieved to hear: it’s not impossible to attract the right people. It just means it’s time to think outside of the box.

Struggling with hiring? It may be time to look at your wages and benefits.

If you’re not paying competitive wages and offering good benefits, it’s pretty likely that you’ve found your culprit when it comes to not finding employees, Pliml said.

“We used to pay a lot less; we were paying almost $3 less per hour when I bought the company,” said Pliml, who purchased LongerDays in April 2016. “As the job market tightened up, we were at risk of losing the quality people we already had and we weren’t attracting quality candidates. So, we paid more; that helped our applicant pool.”

When Pliml bought the company about two and a half years ago, its average wage was $11.49 an hour. That has increased by $3.00, to $14.50.

“We’re not even close to minimum wage any more,” Pliml said. “My goal is to have everyone making $15 an hour; we’ve already got some employees who are over that and we’re focused on building the business to support a competitive, livable wage.”

And while the idea of paying more may make you feel worried about your company’s bank balance, it works out far better in the long run: you’ll attract better candidates. Those employees tend to be more productive, make clients happier, and they stick around much longer if they’re earning a solid paycheck.

“I enjoy hiring and managing really good people,” Pliml said. “It feels like work to me to pay towards the bottom of the market and attract mediocre people and have to micromanage them. I prefer to pay more for better people. Ultimately, people who are happy not only worker harder but also more creatively.”

LongerDays employees volunteer with numerous organizations throughout the Muskegon community, including Kids’ Food Basket.

Additionally, LongerDays added a number of benefits to make the company more attractive. It already provided healthcare when Pliml came on board, but they added a retirement plan, paid volunteer time, and other perksincluding free lunch at the office every Friday.

To determine how much you should be paying, “Look at other job postings for similar jobs,” Pliml recommended. “We recently were hiring for a salesperson, and I looked at what salespeople in Chicago, in Grand Rapids, make. Ask yourself: Are we as compelling, or more compelling? Is this a better work environment? Do we have comparable benefits? If I was choosing between my job and four others out there on the internet, is mine the most compellingand, if it’s not, why? You can’t just blame the job market if you’re the fifth most compelling ad on Craigslist.”

Throw rigidity out the window to find creative candidates

So, say you have excellent pay and wagesbut you’re still having trouble finding people. What gives?

Let’s take a look at your hiring requirements. Sure, there are some positions for which you’re definitely going to need to have a very specific set of skills and educational background. But, for other jobs, you may be able to be a lot more flexible.

“If you’re a corporate company that says, ‘We can only hire software developers with a degree from a four-year university,’ you’re going to have a smaller pool to pick from,” Pliml said.

So, instead of looking at pedigree on paper, look at what the person can actually do.

“Be willing to look in places that aren’t commonly searched and consider people who fall outside the norm of the golden trajectory of career: go to college, get your degree, and work your way up,” Pliml said. “You pay top dollar for those people, and they tend to, in my experience, be more rigid. They’re really good at following rules; they want to know what the rules are so they can get an ‘A,’ so they can get a promotion.”

The LongerDays headquarters, located in Muskegon’s historic Russell Block building.

“They tend to be poor rule breakers,” Pliml continued. “When you’re doing new thingswhether it’s writing new software or solving different problems every day, you need someone who’s a problem-solving rule breaker.”

To find people who think outside the box, you’re going to need to be creative with your own hiring practicesincluding how you’re finding people. Sure, there’s online platforms like Craigslist and ZipRecruiter, but, sometimes, the best candidates come from happy employees spreading the word about an open spot at their company.

“We’ve found some of our best employees through just talking to current team members and asking, ‘Who would you like to work with? Who’s like you but even better?’” Pliml said.

Of course, that means you’re going to need to cultivate a work culture where employees feel respected and supported, and it means you’re going to need to thoroughly understand that work culture. What is it like to work there? What are the characteristics your employees share? What are some new characteristics you’d like to add?

“I’ve found that web developers who are musicians are really good for us, regardless of their formal education,” Pliml said. “With LongerDays, people who are in theater are a really good fit for us. People who are gamers, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or other strategy games, are really great fits for us.”

Once you have a solid understanding of your work culture and the employees there, think of places you can go to connect with potential employeesand not just traditional networking events. Looking for a creative gamer? Maybe check out a gaming night at Griffin’s Rest in Muskegon. Musicians? Try an open mic night at Red Lotus Muskegon. Like people who are innovative? Maybe a meeting of the Muskegon Inventors Network is where you should go. The point is: there’s a nearly endless number of ways to connect with incredible employees, and they’re not all online hiring platforms.

Let’s talk about your interview questions. Or, time for Gandalf!

We’ve come full circle: It’s time to talk about the interview questions you’re askingor not asking.

At LongerDays, the interview process is intensivebut it has received pretty stellar reviews, including from people who didn’t land the position.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who have applied, and even people who didn’t get jobs with us told us it’s the most enjoyable job application they’ve filled out,” Pliml said.

So, how does that happen? Again, a lot of it is about knowing your work culture, knowing who your employees are, and knowing what kind of traits and skills someone is going to need to succeed there.

“Our online application asks lots of weird questions and some typical ones: everything from having a sentence with a typo in it and asking if the sentence is correct to ones that will show your thinking, your integrity, your willingness to be a little silly,” Pliml said. “Are you a fit for our culture? Are you a nerdy geek? We embrace our culture. There’s a question that asks about this ‘death eagle,’ and we say 100 people a year die from this creature. The question is: should the federal government hunt it to extinction? There’s no right answer, but the wrong answer is a simple yes or no.”

We’re pretty sure this dog at LongerDays’ headquarters would kill a death eagle with its cuteness.

This isn’t to say you need to inquire about “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” or death eagles (though, honestly, shouldn’t we all start asking about death eagles?), but you should think about what your interview questions are really askingand what you’re really finding out from them.

At LongerDays, part of that process of finding out who the person is means the applicant sitting down with a number of different people.

“Our interview process is very involved in the sense that we do two sets of interviews: they come in and meet with three people. If we like them, they come back for a second interview and meet with one of the same people and two different people,” Pliml said.

All of that translates to not only the company owner or boss finding out if they like them, but if they’re going to fit in with the work culture at large.

“If we’re hiring a graphic designer, they have to be able and willing to wear other hats,” Pliml said. “They have to be team players. No one’s above anything, and that’s the same with me. I empty the garbage and clean out the microwave. Anyone who’s inclined to say ‘That’s not my job’ is likely not a good fit for us.’ It’s finding the problem solvers, finding the people who take initiative, and, who when given autonomy, run with it.”

This sponsored column comes from LongerDays, a virtual assistance company located at 360 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon. You can connect with LongerDays on their website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and probably at Pigeon Hill—the brewery even named one of their beers after the company. Thanks for the support, LongerDays—we’re happy you’re in Muskegon!

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