Staffing > Merchant Voice

What I look for in an employee

What should you look for in an ecommerce employee? In this post, I’ll describe my hiring process.

To start, I list job duties. Then I list skill requirements in two columns: what can be taught and what cannot. I focus on the “cannot be taught” elements, which are typically just three items:

  • Intelligence.
  • Commonsense.
  • Ambition.

An applicant that cannot satisfy these three items is a non-starter.

Intelligence. I am not looking for a genius, just someone who can understand the business and can learn what needs to be done without my having to repeat the instructions many times. I don’t need detailed experience or specific expertise so long as the person is intelligent. She or he can learn.

Commonsense. This requirement is vital. Without commonsense, an employee requires micro-management. I cannot trust such an employee to make the right decision when an unusual development occurs, or if I step away briefly.

Employees with commonsense are typically self-motivating. When one task is finished, they do not sit around, waiting to be told what to do next. When something unexpected happens, a person with commonsense will usually sort it out. It may not be what I would have done, but it would be sensible.

I have employed people with no commonsense. It does not work out.

Ambition. A more accurate description is a lack of ambition. Most small businesses have little room for promotion or advancement. An employee with outsized ambition will stay a year or two, learn the business, and move on to a bigger company.

Employees with no such ambition can be extremely valuable. They are hopefully happy working for my company. They do not seek unusual advancement. They want to be more involved with the business and stay on for years. If I expand, open a second shop, or develop a new market, an intelligent and commonsense employee can step up and assume more responsibility. The key is to explain the realities from the start, during the hiring process.

One of my best employees was a lad named John. He had no ambition but lots of commonsense. He was also very intelligent. He ended up (i) running all of my mail orders, (ii) maintaining the website, and (iii) composing humorous but accurate product descriptions. Moreover, he became a master in product photography and was excellent at customer service. He stayed with the business for more than 10 years. We parted ways when outside circumstances forced me to relocate to another city, which he did not want to do.

It is difficult to quantify how much employees such as John are worth. But if you find them, keep them.

Richard Stubbings
Richard Stubbings
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