This week, small business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about hiring right.

Sarah Greener is an owner of 35 Degrees South Aquarium Restaurant and Bar in Paihia, which has a core team of around 25 staff, with staff numbers doubling to around 50 during the peak summer season.

How have your hiring practices changed in the business over time?

We bought the business in May 2013, and in our first six months we grew really quickly because we built a second venue in the same location. We had a massive requirement for new staff and we were basically throwing bodies at the problem.

We had an entire tree of CVs stacked up in the office, but what we were doing didn't work. The staff weren't being set clear expectations, there was no company culture, and there was no reason for them to turn up other than to get their paycheque, which is never enough.

And it showed in the service the staff provided, in the experience that people had in our venues, and in the business' turnover. So we learnt quickly that there needed to be more systems and processes around who we were employing and why, and that it wasn't necessarily around skills; it was more about who they were as people and whether that fit with our vision and values for the business.

So what's the process you go through now when you hire staff?


Setting the culture starts from the word go. We use technology across the business and one of our clear goals is to become paperless, so we don't accept paper CVs; all applications are taken through our website, which is a first filter.

Once they've done that they'll go into a system that schedules an interview time, and we tell them what to expect in the interview. Previously people would just rock up, but now we clearly tell them to come dressed as they would for work, that they'll be asked to work front of house, they'll be shown around, asked numerous questions to determine if they're a fit with the business, and also to come prepared with some questions for us.

Before candidates come on board they also all go through a trial process, where they'll spend a day in the job. It's all very well having a nice interview and walking around the premises, but until you've spent a day in the business and worked with the people you won't know if it's a good fit for you.

What factors help you assess whether someone's going to be a good cultural fit with the business?

A key thing is we've done is change our interview questions. They used to be typical questions like 'have you had a customer service role before?' whereas now it's about 'what are your values as an individual?'. We do things like ask them to describe their closest friend, and if people talk about things like honesty, family, community and teamwork that flags that their values align with those of the business.

COMING UP: What are the experiences of some small business owners who have built up longstanding relationships with their suppliers over time, and how are they extracting the most value out of those relationships? If you've got a story to share about supplier relationships, drop me a note:

Another important thing we ask is 'where do you want to be in five years' time?' For our guys it might be travelling in Thailand, or wanting to buy their first house. That gives us a clear understanding of what they're looking for, and how we might be able to add value to them as a business other than just through their wages, because if I'm wanting my employees to be more valuable I need to develop them as individuals.

The other step comes after they're hired, when we bring people on board with a thorough induction process.

What payback are you seeing from these hiring practices?

Our retention is far better than it has been before, so we're spending less on training. We also have fewer people doing the same job. During our first summer we had about 80 staff, and we've had 42 this summer. That's because the standard of our staff is higher but also because we're clearer on our expectations that we're a priority for our staff, and we're not having to work as much around other work commitments they may have. And we now have more buy-in to the business. For example, without prompting one of our staff members recently said he thought our cleaners should be able to get us a better rate on our toilet rolls. Turned out that suggestion is saving us $600 a month every month. I think having staff who realise that those kinds of wins for the business are also wins for them is a major asset.