Engaging office staff

Despite the almost universal use of computers and other electronic and mechanised methods of carrying out office work of all kinds, the most important factor in office administration remains the human one. The people in the office are still the most vital element in achieving a satisfactory and efficient office service, without which no organisation of any kind can operate. In fact, the use of modern, advanced electronic equipment has emphasised the need for efficient, well-trained and dedicated staff because ill-trained or uncaring staff are the direct reason for all of the errors coming out of computers and similar machines: they are also the cause of much unnecessary expense by careless use of photocopiers and the like.

It is true that, just as industry and commerce generally are nowadays failing to attract some of the best brains coming out of the education system, so the office has been suffering for a long time from many recruits whose potential abilities are lower than the office administrator would like; a career in office administration as distinct, say, from that of accountant or company secretary is not one readily sought by sufficient numbers of high-level school-leavers or graduates. This is unfortunate for the reasons set out in the previous paragraph. The status in the community formerly accorded to the office worker (as distinct from the industrial worker) has been reduced in Western society, though this does not seem to be the case in the rest of the world. However, the fact remains that unless the office service is efficiently carried out, the organisation it is supposed to serve will suffer.

1. Recruitment

It seems logical in our examination of the personnel function as applied to the office to start with the subject of recruitment.

The reasons for requiring a new member of staff include the need to replace someone who has left, the creation of a new post because of an increase in the office work-load, or because of the establishment of a new department handling matters not previously dealt with. Whatever the reason it is essential that the exact scope of the post should be established. There are now two statements in use which endeavour to take some of the uncertainty out of recruitment: these are the job description and the job specification.

The job description sets out to provide an analysis and list of the principal aspects that the job entails. These include its purpose and scope, the duties, authority and responsibilities attaching to the job, the tasks to be performed, the levels of skills required, the department concerned, the type of working conditions and any particular hazards or unsocial features, any special attributes required such as the ability to operate a word processor or a VDU terminal and so on, and also to whom the worker involved should report.

The job specification seeks to describe the requirements of the job in terms of the mental and physical abilities needed, knowledge and training required, aptitudes and attitudes expected and so on.

In other words, the job description describes the job to be done and the job specification specifies the kind of person most fitted to do it. It should be noted that the term person specification is now increasingly being used instead of job specification: both terms mean exactly the same thing.

The more carefully the tasks of preparing these statements are performed the greater the likelihood of recruiting a new member of staff who will fill the post satisfactorily and, just as important, the more likely it is that the new recruit will find job satisfaction and be motivated to perform at maximum effort.

The sources of recruits are many and varied, the most usual being as follows:

1.1. Advertisements

These are usually placed in newspapers or journals appropriate to the skills sought. Thus general office vacancies may be advertised in a local or national newspaper whereas a vacancy for a company secretarial assistant may be inserted in the appropriate professional journal. It is not unknown for advertisements for some posts to be broadcast either on television or radio but most often these are confined to vacancies in the broadcasting organisations.

Wherever an advertisement is placed, to be fully effective it must state the salient points from the job description and the job specification plus some indication of prospects and remuneration. The type of industry or service with which the organisation is concerned must also be stated.

The question as to whether the advertiser should seek anonymity by using a box number is an arguable one. On the one hand, it prevents applicants from trying to make contact by means other than writing, which can be annoying and time-wasting and it discourages unsuitable candidates from making direct contact. On the other, it could be said that an organisation using a box number is being unfair to possible applicants because they do not know to whom they are responding. This can result in members of staff applying to their own employers (a certain source of embarrassment to say the least) and vacancies can be offered unbeknown to existing staff, which can cause resentment.

1.2. Official Employment Centres

In Britain these are the Jobcentres and the Professional and Executive Register run under the auspices of the Manpower Services Commission; in many other parts of the world similar official agencies operate. Some faint suspicion as to the quality of recruits from such sources is still entertained by some employers, but this is now largely unfounded.

1.3. Private employment bureaux

There are a great number of these agencies, mostly specialising in a specific area of work. The best known are those for private secretaries, shorthand typists and those with allied skills. Others include those catering for bookkeepers and general clerical workers, specialised areas such as computer operating and programming and, at the top end of the scale, managerial and professional posts such as accountants, company secretaries and the like.

Reputable private employment bureaux can normally be expected to have carefully selected the clients they offer for particular posts, which can be a considerable advantage to a busy personnel department. Staff consultants are highly specialised executive employment agencies who carry out all the recruitment procedures in respect of management and executive vacancies right up to the point of final selection.

1.4. Professional bodies

Many professional institutes and associations operate an employment service for their members and student members, and a prospective employer can be assured that the candidates offered are properly qualified and of professional competence and integrity.

1.5. Schools and colleges

All educational establishments, from schools to universities, are likely sources of recruits at most levels, from the office junior leaving school at 16 or thereabouts to the graduate having a specific degree suitable for a particular type of work. Most colleges of further and higher education produce students with various qualifications from typing to all stages of the professional examinations such as accountancy, personnel, market­ing and so on.

Private colleges and training establishments are also fruitful sources of new staff; many such establishments have the highest reputations.

1.6. Staff and ex-staff

When a vacancy arises it is often possible to fill it from within the organisation, especially if the post entails a promotion or a change to a different kind of work. Such a procedure, though, means another vacancy is created. Vacancies can often also be filled by ex-employees, especially where a specific skill is entailed. Normally, such people have left of their own accord and a frank and truthful knowledge of why they left must be obtained. Where this is not done experience shows that the person concerned often leaves again because the previous frustrations remain. This does not generally apply to women ex-employees who have left for family reasons and subsequently find themselves able to return to work.

1.7. Personal recommendations

Current and past employees, business contacts and many other people will from time to time recommend recruits for vacancies or potential vacancies. Where the contact is known to be reliable such a source can be valuable.

Many of the more enterprising job-seekers will also communicate with potential employers on their own initiative and such applications should be given serious consideration even if there is no immediate vacancy. This type of initiative would be a valuable trait in any employee.

1.8. Other methods

It is not possible to list all the other various ways of seeking recruits to staff, which may include simple posters outside the office premises to requests to trade associations or manufacturers of office equipment. Whatever method is appropriate in any particular case, especially if other methods have failed, should be pursued.

2. Selection

The selection of a new member of staff has two stages. The first is the choice of those applicants most likely to be suitable for the post and this is done by reference to their detailed applications. This is most easily accomplished if all candidates are required to complete a standard application form so that all aspects of their education, experience and other attributes can be compared point by point.

Many organisations make an initial selection on the basis of letters of application, itself a tedious task because there will be no uniformity in which the various abilities and other qualities are presented, and some points may be ignored altogether. To improve the situation after the preparation of the short list such bodies often ask those chosen to complete an application form when they arrive for interview. This is unfair to the interviewees because they may have difficulty in such a situation remembering some aspects of their experience or training (especially as some of them may be a little apprehensive already). It also places the interviewer at a disadvantage because little time is given to digest the information before the interview.

The preferred method is to make a general selection on the basis of letters of application and to send application forms to those who seem most likely to fill the requirements of the vacancy. When the completed forms are returned a final short list for interview can then be made on the basis of direct comparison of the forms.

The second stage of selection involves interviewing the candidates and assessing their suitability for the post.

3. Interviewing

An interview is a face-to-face verbal exchange that endeavours to discover as much information as possible within the limited time avail­able. It is, at best, an imperfect instrument but to date no other method has been devised that succeeds so well in bringing out an applicant’s nuances of personality and character, as well as the more readily ascertainable attributes such as education and qualifications, without considerably greater expense.

To derive the utmost benefit from it care must be exercised before and during an interview. It could be said that there are four elements to an effective interview: planning, conducting, making assessments and arriv­ing at a decision.

There must be a clear plan as to what the interview is required to achieve, what it is required to discover, the kinds of questions to put and their scope, the approach and the venue. A structured interview is preferred by some interviewers with a list of topics and questions, possibly using a form on which to record the interviewee’s responses. Others prefer a less formal approach, nevertheless having a guide to keep the interview on course.

The interview should be conducted in adherence with the plan, but this must be viewed as flexible depending upon circumstances arising during the course of the meeting, particularly with regard to the personality and reactions of the interviewee.

During the course of the interview the interviewer will form an appraisal of the person being interviewed, which will be modified from time to time as knowledge of the interviewee is gained and consolidated. This gradual assessment will normally crystallise by the end of the interview and when this happens the meeting should be terminated.

An immediate decision as to the course of action to take is sometimes possible directly the interview is concluded, but often it is wiser to delay this for a short time so that the information gained can be properly digested. It should be made absolutely objectively on the basis of the evidence presented. Certainly the temptation to come to a decision during the course of the interview, and not wait till its conclusion, should be firmly resisted.

It is preferable to inform the interviewee at once if a firm decision has been taken at the end of the interview. Failing this, notice should be given as soon after as possible. In any event, the interviewee should be informed when a decision will be arrived at and no hint should be given of a likely decision in case of disappointment.

The basis of the plan for staff selection follows the requirements of the job description and the job specification and in general seeks to enlarge on the information given by the applicants on the application forms, as well as trying to assess the probable future performance of the can­didates. In order to try to draw from the interviewee all the information that is necessary to make a wise staff choice the personnel profession has formulated a number of interviewing topics with this in mind. Called the ‘Seven-point Plan’, it embraces the following seven points:

  1. Physical make-up. Is the candidate agreeable in bearing, speech and appearance? Do there appear to be any defects in health or physique that might make the candidate unsuitable for the job?
  2. Where was the applicant educated? Were any edu­cational qualifications acquired and if so what were they and at what levels? What relevant training and experience has the candidate had?
  3. General intelligence. What standard of general intelligence does the candidate display? To what extent does the applicant’s career to date give evidence of general intelligence?
  4. Special aptitudes. What special talents does the candidate have? Is there, for instance, an aptitude for the use of words, or for mathema­tics? Is there any special manual dexterity?
  5. What sort of non-professional interests does the applicant have? Are these activities practical, socially biased or intellectual?
  6. Does the candidate give the impression of being self­reliant, self-disciplined, dependable? Does the candidate appear to be a good mixer, or argumentative?
  7. What are the applicant’s family and domestic cir­cumstances? If appointed, would the applicant find the journey to the employer’s premises easy and reliable? Would the vacancy, if filled by the applicant, be mutually advantageous to the candidate (from the points of view of personal and career development) and to the organisation?

It is quite impossible to obtain precise information on these seven points at an interview and only an opinion can be formed about each. If a series of interviews can be arranged, or if social contact outside the interview can be organised, such as a lunch or a visit round the undertaking’s premises, then a deeper insight into the candidate’s attributes can be achieved.

We can make the most effective use of the interview by observing the points made in this section. We should also keep in mind other principles appertaining to communication, such as using language the interviewee can understand, making sure that there is a logical development of questions and discussion, and that sufficient time is afforded for com­plete answers to questions. In addition, the interview should be kept free of outside interruptions.

4. Interviewing Panels

Often interviews are conducted not by one person but by a panel of two or more people; especially is this so when an important vacancy has to be filled. Usually, of course, the various members of the panel have differing interests in the applicant.

In essence the principles appertaining to interviewing by one person also apply to interviewing by several. However, it must be recognised that the presence of a panel makes the proceedings very much more formal and usually places a greater strain on the interviewee, who finds it much more difficult to relax in the presence of a panel than when in the presence of a single interviewer. Great efforts must be made, therefore, to relieve the increase in tension likely to be experienced by the applicant.

Further, there is every advantage to be gained by structuring the interview. Each member of the panel will, in all probability, be expert in a particular field and will be anxious to put questions on points particularly appertaining to that area. Unless the interview is structured, and understood to be so by all concerned, there is the risk that the interviewee will be assailed by questions from all sides with little or no logic applied to their order or content. In such circumstances the applicant may quite easily become confused, or, at least, tense, and quite unable to present the most favourable impression. Under such con­ditions, in a competitive interview, it is quite possible that a less than satisfactory decision may be made by the panel, with the reward going to the candidate with the strongest nerves rather than the one with the highest ability for the position. However, much can be done to ease the situation if the panel is under the control of a firm and understanding chairman.

5. Service Contracts

Strictly speaking a written service agreement is not necessary between an employer and employee and, indeed, many organisations, especially the smaller ones, rely on verbal agreements and the formal letter of appointment. In these cases the letter of appointment sets out the basic terms of employment such as place of work, hours, salary, holiday entitlement and so on. Other organisations rely on a staff handbook which sets out in much greater detail the terms under which employees in various jobs are engaged.

It is however, a much more satisfactory practice to have a formal written agreement signed by both parties, particularly where more senior posts are concerned. This avoids misunderstandings and sets out clearly the responsibilities and duties of both parties. Such a contract should cover the following points:

  1. The precise designation and capacity of the member of staff con­cerned.
  2. The place of work and any requirement to travel.
  3. The full extent of the staff member’s responsibilities and duties.
  4. The extent of the authority devolving upon the person concerned and to whom such member is accountable.
  5. If applicable, the hours of work (in a senior position this would rarely apply).
  6. The immediate salary agreed and what the provisions are for salary increments, as well as any provisions for the payment of overtime where this is applicable.
  7. If there is a formal arrangement for paying incentive or other bonuses what these are for the member concerned.
  8. Entitlements in respect of holidays.
  9. Entitlements in respect of sick leave and sickness benefits.
  10. Maternity entitlements.
  11. Superannuation arrangements, including contributions and entitle­ments, and at what age retirement is required.
  12. Rules concerning dismissal and employee’s voluntary termination of employment. Lengths of notice for both sides and, in the case of dismissal, redundancy payment provisions, should be made quite clear. If the contract is for a fixed term this should be clearly specified stating starting and termination dates.
  13. Rules concerning absences other than for sickness or holidays: these would include paid leave for such circumstances as family weddings, funerals and the like.

This list is by no means exhaustive. In some cases additional provisions may be required. For instance, a technical clerk engaged in a research department may be required to agree not to take a post with another employer in the same line of business within a stated time.

As all contracts, and especially service contracts, may become the subject of disagreement of interpretation it is a wise precaution to have them drawn up by, or at least checked by, the organisation’s lawyer or its legal department if it has one.

Finally, it must be remembered that in Britain the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act, 1978, requires an employer to give all employees with contracts of employment of 13 weeks or more a written statement of the terms of employment within 13 weeks of starting work. It must be emphasised, however, that this is not a contract (though it is often stated as such) but more a statement of the facts of the basic terms of employment. Very often this statement is embodied in the staff handbook where one is issued.

At this point we should consider the unsuccessful applicants. Whilst it is necessary, of course, to inform the selected candidate it should also be the rule, as a matter of courtesy, to inform all the others who have been interviewed that the vacancy has been filled. Some employers do also circularise those who have applied but have not been short-listed. Normally, however, this is not absolutely necessary except in cases of very senior appointments.

6. Induction

As a new employee always feels strange it is vital that such a new member of staff be made to feel part of the organisation as soon as possible. This is the function of induction. An induction programme is designed to acquaint the new recruit about the organisation, its policies and its objectives; to indicate where the new entrant’s job fits into the department and the importance of the department’s work to the organis­ation as a whole. This aspect of the induction programme is designed to generate a personal commitment to the undertaking, an enthusiasm for the job and to promote loyalty; in effect, it endeavours to promote good morale.

The induction programme is also involved in the more personal aspects of the newcomer’s employment. These include the names and status of the senior members of the undertaking, the new recruit’s immediate managers and supervisors and the members of staff of the department and other departments with whom the newcomer will be working. It is probable that such matters as terms of contract, promotion policy, working procedures and the many other aspects of the actual job will have been discussed at the selection interview and will appear in the staff handbook (if one is issued) but they should also be reiterated during the induction programme.

Many organisations recruit groups of new workers at the same time, especially school-leavers or those leaving college or university. In these cases it is advantageous to arrange group induction programmes. This allows the presentation of lectures by senior members of staff on domestic matters such as the history and future objectives of the undertaking, personnel policy, security, welfare provision and so on, and facilitates the showing of films on various aspects of the organisation and its activities. Where recruits are engaged singly then the newcomer should be put under the care of a supervisor or senior member of staff by whom guidance and information about the undertaking can be given. Those aspects of the organisation best shown by films or talks can be dealt with at intervals when the number of such new recruits has become sufficient to make this type of presentation convenient.

7. A Specimen Outline Induction Programme

It is not possible for a new recruit to assimilate all the points an induction programme seeks to present at one sitting, and it is, therefore, preferable to spread the induction programme over a few days dealing with only one or two points at a time. The outline of such a programme might be as follows:

Day 1. The supervisor to take charge of the new employee directly on arrival, allocate a desk and make introductions to the newcomer’s immediate colleagues. First introductions should be few because most people cannot remember too many names at once.

The newcomer to be put under the charge of a colleague of similar status to whom the recruit can turn for advice.

Work of a more routine nature should be started under the supervision of the person being replaced or the newcomer’s immediate colleague or supervisor. This will help to induce confidence.

Where used, a staff handbook should be handed to the new employee and, also where used, a procedure manual relating to the job. Time should be allowed to the newcomer to study these.

Day 2. The supervisor should spend an hour or so with the new recruit, providing more detailed information concerning the job and also con­cerning the rules and regulations of the undertaking. The contents of the staff handbook and the procedure manual should also be discussed, where this is relevant, and questions answered.

Day 3. The supervisor or other responsible officer should outline the company, giving brief facts as to its history, place in the industry, future plans and so on.

The newcomer should be taken round to the various other depart­ments with which the job is connected to acquaint the newcomer with less immediate fellow-workers and to indicate how the job and the department fit into the organisation as a whole.

Day 4. As soon as convenient after the previous steps (not necessarily the next day) the recruit should be conducted round the rest of the organisation for identification with the organisation as a complete unit. Generally. During the first few days it should be a deliberate policy for immediate colleagues to be encouraged to talk to the newcomer so as to engender a feeling of being a part of the group.

8. Training

The efficient worker is the trained worker and there are few organis­ations nowadays who do not provide some form of training to both newcomers and established staff. Newcomers are trained in order to learn the jobs they are to do and the particular way their employers prefer them to be done; established staff are given training to fit them for more responsible work, or to fit them for a change of job in the case of internal reorganisation.

When recruits are engaged straight from school, high performance in any of the office skills is not expected but it is true to say that even at this stage where the newcomer is to be employed in certain areas such as typing, operating duplicators and the like a modicum of proficiency is looked for and training will be given to enhance performance.

Undertakings that are large enough usually operate their own training schemes, sometimes staffed by full-time training officers and sometimes by senior or semi-senior members of staff who combine this work with their other duties. Occasionally, in both cases, outside speakers are invited to talk on specialised subjects. Many manufacturers of office machines and equipment provide this facility as part of their after-sales service or their public relations programme.

Smaller organisations usually assign a senior member of staff to oversee the training of a new recruit and the newcomer is then often put in the care of an experienced member of staff for actual instruction. In its lowest form training is given on the basis of ‘sitting with Nellie’ which simply means that the newcomer picks up working practices by doing the work whilst understudying the experienced member of staff. This is the most inefficient method of instruction and leads to the perpetuation of inefficient methods as well as denying the recruit a total insight into why the work is being done as well as how. The more enlightened employers send their staff to external establishments for training, such as secretarial colleges and colleges of further education. Not only is this done for new recruits but it is a practice followed for the benefit of established staff who are being groomed for promotion or for a change of job. Staff selected for specific areas of supervision, management or professional work such as accountancy, personnel and the like are often sponsored on external courses to obtain the relevant national or professional qualifica­tions. Such courses are run by colleges of higher education and many private educational bodies.

Staff training is a highly technical matter and programmes should be formulated and implemented by those with proper knowledge and experience of the subject. Thus, it is advocated that the office adminis­trator, whilst being ultimately responsible for the efficiency of the office service and for the staff that provide it, is not the ideal person to design and operate the actual training programmes. Training and instruction are properly the province of the appropriate section of the personnel department who should be required to set up such programmes in consultation with the office administrator. In this way the needs of the administration can be filled using the special skills of those experienced in training and instruction.

Where an organisation has no personnel department assistance can be obtained from outside, such as from colleges of further education and other similar training establishments. Certainly, where supervisory and management training are to be provided outside sources are indispens­able to a successful programme.

Source: Eyre E. C. (1989), Office Administration, Palgrave Macmillan.

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