Dear Don: Our staff aren’t sticking around.

Dear Don, I recently read your articles about hiring better interpretive guides and really enjoyed them. I work for a museum that is currently in the process of trying to do just that, hire better guides. The biggest problem that we have encountered is getting the right people for the job to learn/hear about us. Up until this point most of our guides don’t come from an interpretive background and end up only lasting for a few short months before we have to find someone else to do the job.

We were once a small museum that relayed solely on volunteers, but within the last 10 years we have grown exponentially and are trying to improve our tours and programs. I want to start hiring some top notch guides who are not going to bail out on me after three months. But it has been and still is a major process to get my boss and other coworkers to realize that we need to stop hiring people who come and go and start hiring people who are interested in staying. People who are going to add something to the company and give the customers an enjoyable experience that makes them want to come back again. I would love any advice and or suggestions that you can give me in regards to this situation. Thanks! -S

Hi S

I’m thinking that the fact that you’ve got a three-month turnover is a bit of a red flag. Are you communicating the job well in your recruitment process? Do your candidates know what they’re getting themselves into? Your posters and ads (and phone calls) should describe accurately the nature of the work, its challenges (shift work etc) and its benefits (creativity, flexibility).

Recruitment for interpretive positions shouldn’t be a huge challenge unless you’re in a region with a very small talent pool. Even then, the job of front-line interpreter calls for skills that can be found in many different backgrounds. For student-level positions, start by placing posters in the appropriate departments of your local colleges (zoology, theatre, history, geography, and so on.) There are good job boards online, and good professional networks for interpreters. Social media is an excellent disseminator of job opportunities.

Is your rate of pay drastically lower than your competition’s? (And from a human resources perspective, your competition for talent may not be in the interpretive field.) When are you communicating your rate of pay? You should be doing so either in the job poster  or in your first phone call to set up the interview. (“I’d like to bring you in for an interview. You should know that our rate of pay is XX but we offer many tangible and non-tangible benefits that we think you will find attractive.”) And if you pay badly, can you compensate with things like flexible schedules, good professional development, a relaxed and creative working environment? I have stayed at low-paying jobs for longer than I probably should have, because they were such good places to work.

I’m not convinced that your problems will be solved by hiring people with interpretive backgrounds. Some of the best interpreters I’ve ever worked with came from non-interpretive backgrounds; some of the best career interpreters started out as people looking for a summer job with no experience in the field whatsoever. But these people require support and a good deal of investment in their first months, and I’m wondering if that’s where you’re losing your new staff.

Have you conducted exit interviews with those leaving? Exit interviews will only teach you so much—people are reluctant to be honest with you when they haven’t received their final paycheque—but they’re much better than nothing. If you haven’t asked your departing interpreters why they’re leaving, maybe it’s time for a little soul-searching as to why you haven’t done so. Are there things your employer would rather not hear?

Interpretive jobs can have high turnover for a variety of reasons. When we hire people who are young in their careers, they sometimes stay with us only long enough to get enough experience to move to their next stepping stone. But that’s the kind of turnover that happens at the two-year mark, not the three month mark. People leave after three months when they feel that a) the job wasn’t what they were expecting; or b) they’re not getting the support they need to get up to speed or c) there’s a conflict with a colleague or a direct supervisor that they feel would be best solved by bailing out.

The remedies are a) communicate the job when you recruit, and select for the knowledge, abilities and personalities that you require; b) reinvest in your training, mentoring and orientation programs and c) take a good hard look at what’s happening in your staff dynamics.

Readers, if you have any other suggestions, please add them in the comments section.


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