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How to identify and retain fantastic talent with Alex Tolbert

Check out this Q&A with Bernard Health founder Alex Tolbert on Authority Magazine

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was in graduate school learning about the healthcare system when Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) were created. Many were predicting that HSAs and more consumer involvement in healthcare could help our healthcare system be more effective. I believed that, too, and wanted to start a business to support it. A mentor asked me to think about what kind of business I would start if I were not going to raise any money.

My response was that I would become a health insurance broker, and call on HR at employers to help them adopt HSA-based health plans. And that is exactly what I did. I became a broker and called on HR, which was the primary result-getting activity of my job for several years. Those years gave me a tremendous amount of insight and experience with the challenges HR faces.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career?

My first sales presentation to HR talked a lot about the history of the U.S. healthcare system, how we got where we are as a country, and how HSAs could help make things better.

The funny thing about that is that most of the employers I called on had far more pressing, immediate problems related to their own businesses — the history of the healthcare system might have been something I was passionate about, but I was nowhere close to meeting my prospects where they were and addressing their actual needs. I’ve gotten a lot better about that.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

Yes, absolutely. Our HR software is available through over 200 brokerage partners in 43 different states. We are always working on initiatives to help them help their HR customers minimize the amount of time they have to spend on transactional activities. Every time we save them time, it’s exciting.

You’ve also caught us in the midst of launching a new product, BernieForms, which will allow more small employers take advantage of health insurance savings that are usually only available for much larger employers.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.

First and foremost, it is extremely important to remember that you want a big candidate pool. I see employers put together job applications that are way too arduous, especially in today’s competitive hiring environment. Your job application should be as simple as possible with just a few screening questions and way to upload a resume. I recommend no more than 2 or 3 simple screening questions. Furthermore, don’t make candidates create an account with your applicant tracking system before they can even apply. Account creation shouldn’t be required of candidates until they have at least passed your initial screening. If you require it before that, you’ll miss out on great candidates even applying.

Once you’re getting a steady stream of candidates, the second thing I encourage is that you need to follow up with them in a timely fashion. Timely does not mean this week. It means within 15 minutes of them applying, or at least no later than the end of the day. Great candidates likely already have jobs and might only be applying out of curiosity while standing in line at Starbucks. Furthermore, many job sites make applying so easy that they might apply for 20 jobs. If you wait several days to apply, they may not even remember you.

The third tactic I recommend is that you immediately call the best candidates who apply. Don’t just email them. We’ve noticed that a lot of employers are still hiring like it’s 2009. The hiring environment is a lot different now than it was then. Most people applying already have a job, and you need to stand out and show you’re really interested in your top candidates.

Fourth, if you are not doing some sort of personality assessment early in your application process you are being a penny wise and a pound foolish. I hear many employers say they wait to do a personality assessment until after the candidate has passed the face-to-face interview stage to avoid paying the fee for the personality assessment for a candidate who doesn’t pass the face-to-face interview stage. The data an assessment gives, though, makes that stage so much more productive. Not having it before the interview is a big mistake.

Fifth, train your managers on the STAR interview approach. This approach is designed to learn about actual past behaviors of the candidate, which can give you the best information about how they’ll behave in the future. For example, instead of asking “How would you approach a conflict with a colleague in the workplace?” the interviewer asks “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a colleague in a prior work environment, what the conflict was, the action you took, and the result of that action.”

Thank you for those insights. With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

If you have a specific idea of candidates you want to reach in a short period of time, LinkedIn is probably the best resource out there. Its searching and filtering options are ummatched and can really accelerate getting you in front of the people you’re looking for quickly.

If your time horizon is longer, one good approach is to begin sponsoring the industry associations that matter to your candidates. For example, if there are meet-ups that take place on a regular basis and you can sponsor them somehow, that can help get your name out there.

Another idea for a longer time horizon is to build relationships with the schools that educate the kind of people who you are trying to hire. This can mean being at their career fairs, but also having relationships with the people in the careers office as well as with the professors.

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

It’s important that the hiring manager lead the hiring process, and that he or she be someone who is good at giving feedback. All of our managers go through training on the principles outlined in the book “Coaching for Improved Work Performance” by Ferdinand Fournier. If employees feel like they are learning and growing in their role based in part on getting good feedback from their manager, they are more likely to stay.

A second important ingredient to retaining employees is making sure that they know what the company is trying to achieve and what their role is in achieiving it. Seems pretty simple, but we see a lot of organizations that don’t even have an annual goal that they are pursuing that is transparent to employees.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to emphasize that employers should offer competitive pay and a full line of benefits for employees. What was competitive a few years ago may not still be competitive today. It is also likely not enough just to offer health, dental, and vision when so many employers today are offering health, dental, vision, life, voluntary life, short term disability, long term disability, critical illness, identity protection, legal protection, and more. Administratively that may sound like a lot for a small employer to manage, but online software tools can make it easy and make you stand out.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

Yes, absolutely — just like any professional, it is important for HR to stay abreast of the latest trends. This doesn’t mean adopting all the latest stuff, as sometimes it is smart to wait to let a new development mature a little bit. One easy way to keep up-to-date is to attend webinars put on by your vendors. These are often free and a great way to keep up with what is going on.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

I think offering a 401(k) with the organization contributing at least 3% of an employee’s compensation to it every year without a match requirement is one of the best things a smaller employer can do to set itself apart.

First of all, what makes it creative is that very few smaller employers offer a 401(k) at all. Second, you can scale into the cost by having a 1-year waiting period before an employee is eligible. Third, are you really sure that your employees don’t deserve a 3% pay bump anyway? Maybe you are, but the point is that when you’re hiring and choosing target comp for a given role there is usually a range that is more than 3% anyway. Fourth, by making it so that you contribute 3% whether the employee contributes at all you make it much easier to manage administratively.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Someone recently suggested to me the idea of organizations providing a financial incentive to their employees to get involved in helping disadvantaged youth in their community. I’ve been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters for many years, and so this idea resonated with me.

Big fan of that cause! Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Successful people are those who make a habit of doing the things that unsuccessful people don’t like to do.”(Albert E.N. Gray)

My dad used to say this all the time growing up, and I remind myself of this quote whenever I’m in the middle of doing work I don’t enjoy but I know is important to help us get to where we want to go.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Joel Spolsky.

Joel founded Glitch, Stack Overflow, and Trello. Most important to me personally is his blog Joel on Software. It gave me just enough knowledge while also inspiring me to start my software company, BerniePortal. It would be great to meet him and thank him in person.

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