Human Resources – some old school basics

Written by J.K. Kelly on February 15th, 2019

Over the years I’d seen and done quite a lot. The most interesting, challenging, and at times entertaining part of my career was hiring, managing, developing, and sometimes firing people. Here’s a bit about that.

Before I retired and began putting my years of experience to work as a business consultant and also writing novels like FOUND IN TIME and FUELIN’ AROUND, whenever I needed to fill a position at work we’d run the usual classified ads in the local print paper and then as the years passed we’d post on Monster and all the rest. The method for finding employees may have changed and adapted with the ages but my interviewing methods didn’t.

“So tell me about the last time you yelled at a co-worker,” was one of the curve balls I’d like to throw at an interviewee. Perhaps “What was the last thing you stole at work?” was another. Then the old “What do you do when a customer really pisses you off?” or maybe “If you saw someone stealing at work what would you do?” Finally, if the chemistry was good and the exchange was casual and flowing I might have asked, “So do you drink beer, wine or mixed drinks?”

The looks on the candidate’s faces sometimes were priceless. Their expressions, or the delay in answering, were often telling. The responses were usually even better. “Oh I worked with one guy who was such an asshole that I just had to put the phone down once I had finally had it and marched right into his office…” Next up might be, “I’d take some copier paper home for my printer. They had plenty and I since it didn’t cost much I didn’t think twice about it.” Okay. What time’s the next interviewee coming in?

The whole idea behind throwing “curve balls” or asking questions the candidates might not expect was to not just get more info but to see how they handled themselves. See if they have a “tell” like most of us do. Interviewing someone for a position that could help or hinder your career and your company was very important. It was a critical decision at any level as far as I was concerned. Hire a dumb ass, especially one who just can’t or won’t absorb the training, to handle flammable liquids and you might expect a spill, a spark, or worse. Employ someone to answer the phone that hates answering phones and they’ll chase your customers to the competition. Making sure they would fit into the office, a cultural fit, is important too. That’s why chemistry was so important – not just for our race fuels – but for the team. Everyone working together as one happy, productive unit was the goal. Anything else might be a distraction rather than a team builder. If someone refused to be around anyone who cursed then they might not want to be around a bunch of truck drivers on a bad day. Yea, as hard as it had become to find good, reliable truck drivers as the DOT regulations became more and more stringent, the drivers were critical. Certain jokes and blowing off steam was okay but I never put up with bullies. To me, certain types of jokes were never tolerated and were considered grounds for immediate termination. It all sounds pretty simple but those decisions and then managing the people you hired were very important.

By the way, for anyone out there who’s ever been responsible for hiring people, I’m sure we could all write quite a bit about checking a candidate’s references. People are so damn litigious these days that companies, particularly the HR departments that you call to verify past employment, will rarely say anything about a former employee other than verifying start and end dates. I always tried to joke a bit to loosen up the HR person on the other end of the line. Hell, I’d been successful with my HR wife so a sense of humor goes a long way. If you did get as far as the candidate’s former supervisor, my last possible question when they were evasive on saying anything about the person was this. “So tell me this much, if you had to hire them again, would you? If you don’t say another word then I have the answer.” If I got the dial tone or found myself floating in space I had my answer and went on to the next reference or most probably the next candidate.

As a hiring manager you also had to take note of what time they arrived for the interview, how they were dressed, how long it took them to complete the pre-interview paperwork, and their penmanship. I know there is a move in the schools to stop teaching cursive writing but I’ve even seen printing that was atrocious. I guess Ai will do all the writing for us some day.

Two things I did learn quickly. You have to check their penmanship and if they need to perform any math, you need to verify they can do both. If you can’t read their writing that’s strike one. If they can’t do basic math, which someone who claimed to have accounting experience on their application could not, that’s strike two. I’ve already listed a ton of ways people can strike out. So now that a candidate has passed all the scrutiny and they’re hired, you have to train them properly. Give them the tools they need so you’ve set them up to succeed not fail. If their supervisor isn’t doing their part then that needs to be fixed. The environment needs to be a healthy, happy place to work and if it isn’t then you have to fix it.

To me, racing is edgy and fast and I always felt our appearance should be that way too. First impressions are everything. I don’t need to write that people dressing inappropriately for interviews don’t get hired. That’s a given. I’m now talking about what a customer or a potential partner thinks when they first pulled into the gates at my last job – one that lasted nearly thirty years. If the place looks dirty or outdated they might wonder about the quality of the product they are thinking about buying. Everything needed to be kept clean and professional looking, as well as possible, given the available funds to keep up appearances and fully operational. Don’t let me see someone in the yard pass a piece of trash. Pick it up and drop it in the can. Don’t let me see the top of a drum of race fuel covered in dust from the yard stone. If someone’s handing you $600 for that product it better be delivered looking good. And so on. Old school.

What about the first impression when someone walks into your office or perhaps even sooner, the reception area? I always felt the greeter should be attractive, courteous, and quick to acknowledge them. Not like the Waffle House chorus acknowledgement. Just say hello and “How can I help you” or “I’ll be right with you.” Simple.

What actually led to what I fondly called “The Boob Off ” we could debate, at least with my office manager, is an exercise in HR just about anyone can either get a laugh out of or be left scratching their heads. That, and so much more, can be found in FUELIN’ AROUND. By the way, if you are responsible for hiring and firing, they’ll be a blog about “Warm Body Syndrome” coming soon. In short – finding the right person for an important role within your company might be hard. But, never, ever just fill it with a warm body. That hire can kill your business. Plus the time you thought you saved with the warm body hire will cost you 2-3x that when you’ll be doing the due diligence on their replacement AND fixing everything they messed up.

Also, to keep yourself and your company out of frivolous or warranted litigation, be sure you and your team are properly trained in how to manage people from A to Z. Better to have a legal or HR professional show you the way than to sit across the table from one at mediation.

Email me at if you want some confidential advice from yours truly.


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