Building a Positive Culture
It has always been a struggle to find and keep a highly professional and motivated workforce in the pest-control industry, but with the plethora of opportunities for workers because of the unprecedented, post-COVID labor shortage, the challenge is only growing.
Developing a business culture that allows employees to feel empowered, valued and compensated is the first step in overcoming this challenge, said Stacy O’Reilly, president of Minneapolis, Minn.-based Plunkett’s Pest Control, a mid-sized pest management company serving over 7,000 residential and commercial clients in over 20 states, predominately in the Midwest and Mountain West.
Instituting a strong corporate culture that respects and empowers employees—and promotes diversity and inclusion—is a central component to retaining employees, she said. "No positive culture, no company," O’Reilly, whose company employs 600, stated, "We are in a service industry. People who hate their job serving customers are a recipe for disaster."
Prior to the pandemic, employees were looking for a job where they could earn a good living, receive good benefits, work for kind, competent people and serve customers in a way that is worthy of their hard work and commitment, she said.
"What seems to have changed is that there are so many job opportunities that wash upon our employees from job boards day after day," O’Reilly explained. "With hiring so tight, promises of better pay or better work are constantly barraging our team members. Employee loyalty used to be that they did not actively go looking for another job. Employee loyalty today is that they actively decide to stay with you each day despite the options being pitched to them."
For Plunkett’s, building that positive culture begins with communication, and specifically communication that starts with questions, not answers, she noted.
"We started asking employees what they liked about our company, our industry and our culture in earnest a few years ago," O’Reilly explained. "It was based on a talk some managers attended about cultural behaviors. When we are at our best as a company and as a team, what are we doing?"
The next step is active listening. "We are trying to listen to our team," she said. "We are trying to codify what makes our team enjoy their work and deliver great service to our clients. Then we are trying to reinforce what our team described as our best cultural behaviors in a myriad of ways, including team meetings, training opportunities, customer compliments, our company newsletter—any way we can think of."
The strategy appears to be working, if a quick perusal of employee review forums on Glassdoor and Indeed job sites are any indication. Workers consistently rank Plunkett’s around four of five stars, well above industry averages.
"There was a saying that people don’t quit the company, they quit the manager," she said. "The company is no longer getting a free pass. We need to pay well, communicate well, give employees the support and flexibility they need and ensure everyone is trained well on the soft and hard skills of pest control."
Since it opened its doors in 1915, Plunkett’s has had to work hard to find enthusiastic and committed employees, O’Reilly said.
Even before COVID, finding motivated employees was extremely difficult, O’Reilly said, despite the company offering very competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement. "You don’t get many people saying, ‘I want to grow up and work in the pest control industry,’" she laughs, noting that as a third-generation owner, she’s one of the few that can actually say that she wanted to get into the industry. O’Reilly has steered Plunkett’s for the past 20 years.
"I think if someone saw an advertisement on a job board for a crane operator position, they could visualize that job," O’Reilly said. "But they see a pest technician job post, and they can’t. At best, they don’t know what’s involved in working in the industry, or at worse, they dismiss it thinking it’s gross or hazardous."
The goal is to get potential employees to consider this industry and apply for the job. "You can try lots of things to catch a potential employee’s attention, by advertising your dollars per hour, the job’s flexibility and the employee’s ability to have independence and engage in problem solving," she said. "During the initial interview, a team member or manager can explain the industry and our company in a way that allows the potential employee to see the opportunities," O’Reilly said. "But we have to get them to take that first step and apply."
What doesn’t work are signing bonuses or other promotions that could attract only short-term employees, she said. "We are seeing lots of applications from prospective employees that have changed jobs three times in the past year. That’s not what we are looking for. We want our employees to stick around. We invest a lot in every employee to ensure that they are properly trained. Our goal is a stable, vibrant workforce and that is what our customers have come to expect."
The good news for Plunkett’s and others pest-control management companies is that once employees are trained and begin work, most really enjoy it and often make a career in the industry, O’Reilly said.
"In our industry, it seems that if people like the career enough to stay a year, they stay for a very long time," O’Reilly said. "Employee retention historically has been less of a concern than attracting people to the industry. COVID has upended hiring and retention in our company. Employees who were planning for retirement at some unknown date in the future seemed to pull the date closer and simply retire. That meant we had to hire more people than we might have planned. Attracting new people to the industry did not get easier with the seemingly endless supply of ever-better paying jobs. All in all, we have been fortunate to have so many employees stay with us and work through the unusual circumstances patiently."
Diversity and inclusion are important components of a positive corporate culture. "It’s not just about race, it’s about ensuring that all kinds of different people—from rural to urban, from men to women, from college educated to technical backgrounds, and of course different races—are included," she said. Because hiring is so challenging in the pest control industry, new hires often come from a pool of existing employees’ families and friends. For that reason, failing to actively promote diversity can perpetuate the problem.
For Plunkett’s, diversity and inclusion initiatives are key to ensuring corporate growth. "A successful program should reveal itself in [sales] growth," she said. "But it also reveals itself in continuous quality improvement."
Diversity is important not only to increase the pool of applicants, but to bring different perspectives, ideas and talents. "When a diversity program works, it opens up a whole new frontier and employees and the company are forever changed and improved," O’Reilly said. "This adds so much joy on the job by bringing in new ideas, new communities and new passions."