It's All About the People: Obtain & Retain the Ideal Team

Margaret Byrnes

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

New Hampshire is unique, and we like it that way. Our municipalities run on the commitment and dedication of two major groups: employees and volunteers. These individuals come from varied backgrounds and give to the community in so many ways, from those who fundraise or donate time to staff a table at an event, to those who serve on boards and committees, to town managers, administrative assistants, and road agents. Many of them have other major commitments, families, and even other jobs.

We benefit from this diverse experience; just like on any team, your municipality needs the right people with the right expertise to fill each position. However, although their differences are valuable, they all must be working towards the same goal: whatever is best for the municipality. But, how do you obtain—and then retain—the right people for each position, while cultivating that spirit of teamwork and commitment towards that common goal?

Before we discuss some ideas to help answer that question, let’s take a moment to clarify the legal difference between a “volunteer” and an “employee.”

Under RSA 275:4, II, the term “employee” includes every person who may be permitted, required, or directed by any employer, in consideration of direct or indirect gain or profit, to engage in any employment. . . .” On the other hand, the word “volunteer” is used in many different contexts—someone who provides a service and receives no compensation, a member of the United States “volunteer” armed services, or the fire chief of the local volunteer fire department. However, just because we call someone a “volunteer” does not mean that is the individual’s proper title under the law. Pursuant to RSA 508:17, V(c), a “volunteer’’ is an individual performing services for a nonprofit organization or government entity who does not receive compensation, other than reimbursement for expenses actually incurred for such services. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines volunteer similarly, but additionally emphasizes that individuals must volunteer “freely and without pressure or coercion direct or implied from the employer.”

The regulations governing the FLSA spell out three requirements that must be met in order for individuals to truly qualify as volunteers:

  • They must not be paid for their services, except that the entity may pay them for their expenses, reasonable benefits, a nominal fee, worker’s compensation and other insurance, or any combination of those.
  • A clear understanding between the individual and the entity (the town, city) that the person is volunteering without any pressure or coercion from the entity and without any contemplation of pay for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons.
  • Employees cannot provide volunteer hours to do the same duties they are paid to do, even if the employee offers to do so. This does not mean employees can’t also volunteer for the town or city, but be certain they are not putting in “unpaid” time to do the job duties they are also paid to do “on the clock.” (FLSA §3(e)(4)(A) and 29 C.F.R. §553.101, .104, .106.)

There is one more classification worth mentioning: unpaid interns. FLSA requires interns in the private sector to satisfy a 7-part “test” before they can legally work without compensation. However, there is no such equivalent requirement for interns in the public sector. Instead, we can assume that as long as interns meet the three-part “volunteer test,” they can be unpaid. (See FLSA Fact Sheet # 71).

So, why is it so important to understand these labels? Liability. If you improperly label someone as a “volunteer” when the individual is actually an “employee,” that individual can seek unpaid back wages, taxes, and penalties against the municipality. So, take care to categorize people correctly, and if you’re not sure, get in touch with NHMA or your local counsel before you take another step further.

I. Obtaining the Best People

A. Employees

Maybe you think that in the world of municipal employment, you have little control over the applicants you have to choose from. If you are in this mindset, you may feel fairly helpless in the selection process. But you have more influence over the selection process than you think.

The reality is, what your job advertisement says matters and can have a direct impact on the resumes you receive. It’s not just about listing the skills and experience you want for the position—although that’s clearly important—it’s also, just as significantly, about what the type of employee you want, wants. In other words, if you could create your ideal candidate for the position, what would that individual be looking for in a job, and how can you offer it? What’s exciting about the opportunity? What’s challenging? Will the candidate have the chance to grow? Ideally, your job advertisement needs to convey the benefits of the position, beyond the typical “benefits package.” With a little rudimentary googling, you can find employment blogs and websites with examples and tips about how to make your job advertisement informative, accurate, and attractive.

In addition, although this may seem obvious, it is crucial that your job description accurately describes the position you are seeking to fill. Inaccuracies in this area often occur when job descriptions are not updated regularly over the life of the position. In fact, Alison Webb, Human Resources Director in the City of Dover, has recently been reviewing the city’s job descriptions to make sure that the city is hiring for the actual position that is open. As she puts it, in communities with employee longevity—which of course, is a good thing!—“the position becomes the person.” Stop and think—my guess is that most of you can think of at least one employee who was hired for one job and, through his or her hard work and initiative and the changing community needs, now plays a role that really cannot be contained within the four corners of the original job description. Webb comments that it is much harder to replace people than it is to fill an open position. Therefore, it is important to regularly update and revise your job descriptions over time, something that can be done in tandem with regular personnel reviews.

Finally, use technology to reach as many potential candidates as possible. Think bigger than advertising in just the local paper, the municipality’s website, or a New Hampshire employment site. For more information, see related article, Technology: An Important Human Resource.

Even though we can probably all agree that it’s generally easier to succeed when your team has the best players, don’t forget that “common goal” requirement mentioned earlier. The “best” candidate does not necessarily have to mean the most experienced or skilled; instead, up there with “skill set” and “experience” should be a determination that this candidate will fit in well.

B. Volunteers

Volunteerism is worth encouraging because it helps municipalities maintain the bottom line and promotes a collegial and positive community spirit. It may even help skeptics, who, when getting an inside glimpse at what it takes for their town or city to function, discover newfound faith in local government. Volunteers come in many forms in New Hampshire municipalities. Whether it is experienced tradesmen mending the town hall’s winter-weary roof at no cost or teenagers helping town tots stay active in the recreation summer program, volunteers form the foundation of our communities.

It may pleasantly surprise you to learn that many municipalities don’t need to lift a finger to bring in volunteers. In Hooksett, Kiwanis, a world-wide volunteer organization, has a strong presence, doing everything from collecting jackets in the winter to helping to attract more community volunteers. Similarly, in Dover, there’s no outreach necessary: each town department has a few regular volunteers, some of whom have been helping out for many years, many of whom are retired people.

However, if you are not one of the municipalities with a bountiful supply of volunteers, think about how you can attract people to donate their time. Obviously, you can’t market any monetary benefits, but there are other benefits that volunteerism brings: meeting people in the community, learning about the community, or helping to support a project that will make local life better for all residents. Public support and recognition of volunteers can also motivate others to get involved. See section Don’t Let the Good Ones Get Away, below.

Sometimes, municipalities grapple with over-committed, unreliable, underperforming, or even difficult volunteers. Overeager individuals may sign up for more than they can handle, while others don’t follow the rules and get in the way rather than support
progress. Consider two possibilities. First, you may be able to create a better pool of volunteers to select from through volunteer agreements. In
addition to creating written evidence that the individual is properly categorized as a volunteer—e.g., wasn’t coerced, is volunteering without any contemplation of pay—the volunteer agreement can help “formalize” the commitment, hopefully instilling in individuals the importance of following through.

Second, promote the importance of true commitment for those who sign up to volunteer. Encourage enthusiastic individuals to start with just one or two volunteer commitments so that they can determine whether these additional responsibilities really fit into their lifestyle (and so that you can determine whether they are “team” players). Keep track of attendance on boards and committees. Rather than asking a volunteer to leave a position due to lack of attendance, consider using the attendance record as a way to determine whether to reappoint that particular volunteer when his or her term ends. If volunteer attendance is a rampant issue in your community, consider a policy that establishes a minimum number of acceptable absences. (Taking a Close Look at Volunteer Attendance, New Jersey Municipalities, Jan. 2015).

II. Retain: Don’t Let the Good Ones Get Away

A. Employees

When Johnny Damon went to the Yankees, Red Sox fans felt it. It’s hard to see a great player do so much for your team and then leave—especially to the direct competition!

It can be similarly devastating to see a great employee—especially one trained on the municipality’s dime and time—leave to use that knowledge and experience elsewhere. It may be even more painful to learn that onboarding—the process of bringing on the new hire—costs, on average, one-fifth of the employee’s annual salary. Therefore, to protect the budget and maintain your effective team, retention is crucial.

The retention issue may even be more prominent today than it was years ago. Alison Webb has noticed a difference in the way people think about their jobs from generation to generation; her experience has shown that younger generations are a lot more mobile than their ancestors and value moving on and up over tenure and consistency. This can make it a constant challenge to retain those enthusiastic, smart, younger hires who could potentially have a long, mutually benefit career with your municipality.

So, how can you address the issue head-on?

First, show employees you are investing in them and that you value them. “Invest” does not always need to refer to the spending of the money because, let’s face it, it often can’t. Investment, in major part, means supporting employee development. To learn more about employee development, and the distinctions between informal and formal development, see related article, Benefits of Employee Development.

Second, recognize everyone’s contributions. We all know that we’re going to hear about it when we’ve done something wrong, and that only makes it more important to hear when we’ve done something right. Simple recognition—in the form of an email or “thumbs up”—goes a long way and does not impact the bottom line. And while it’s easy to recognize major contributions that impact the municipality on a large, public scale, never forget to recognize the contributions that more easily go unnoticed. Direct supervisors are also not the only ones who can communicate positive feedback; we can all cultivate an environment in which people recognize and support each other. For example, imagine how satisfied you would feel if a supervisor from another department sent you an email and Cc’d to your direct supervisor, thanking or complimenting you for something you had done. Imagine, further, the positive “domino” effect that such practices could inspire.

Other types of recognition that will incur some costs should also be a priority to the extent possible. Annual employee recognition or awards ceremonies are common place in many municipalities. For example, in Dover, the police department hosts an awards ceremony, recognizing employees for things like community outreach. In addition, a City Manager Report goes out each month, communicating the “goings on,” and even includes a “blurb” about a different employee each month, helping to forge a connection between staff and the council that might not otherwise exist. The city council will even recognize stand out employees at their meetings, which are broadcast on television. These types of public acts create happy employees and promote an environment that others will want to be part of it.

Similarly, the Hooksett Town Council is given a list at its meetings of people who are going above and beyond, such as by engaging in additional, voluntary job trainings. And at Hooksett’s annual Employee Appreciation Day, the council pulls out all the stops: at this summer BBQ, the council closes down town hall on a Friday, puts on the aprons, and makes lunch for the staff. They also hand out prizes, all of which are printed in the annual report.

Third, emphasize communication. In the back of our minds, we know that communication is one of the keys to maintaining any relationship, but because it’s not always easy, we may shy away. One way to facilitate communication is to make time for people to come together. In Hooksett, the town council hosts an annual workshop for staff, at which the council sets goals for the year. Bethlehem, like many municipalities, holds monthly department meetings to talk and collaborate on current issues and concerns, and the Town of Jackson makes time for quarterly employee lunches.

You may not realize it, but the employer-employee communication starts from the moment of hiring. Communicating effectively from the beginning and creating a smooth “onboarding” process for the new hire may directly translate into employee retention. Therefore, always follow a standard, organized process to diminish, as much as possible, that “new kid at school” experience. Here are a few onboarding basics to keep in mind. First, internal preparation is key. Every individual involved should be aware of his or her role in the onboarding process. The new hire’s schedule for the first week should be set before the start date, and the workspace should be ready to go before the new employee arrives to make the employee feel welcome. You might even want to consider not starting a new employee on a Monday, when people are often busy and playing “catch up” on tasks they hoped to have done the week before. Second, communicate with the new hire prior to the start date: send a “welcome packet” with information that will help ease potential first-day jitters, such as where to park and what to expect over the first few days. Third, all the administrative aspects of the job should be covered early on, such as work performance expectations, the employee handbook, important forms, and risk management and safety orientation. Check in on the employee at the end of the first few days to ensure that things are running smoothly to let him or her know a support system does exist. Finally, make sure to actually conduct a probationary period review at the conclusion of the probationary period. Communication early and often will help the employee get on the right track and stay there, leading to a happier new hire who will mesh more quickly with the rest of the team. (Onboarding: How the Right Orientation Can Reduce Problems Down the Road, Oregon Cities, Jan. 2015).

Of course, don’t make the mistake of letting that probationary review be the last review; regular annual reviews are crucial. Use the annual review to both critique the past year and to set goals for the next year so that both you and the employee know what to expect and what you are working towards. But never wait until the annual review to address performance issues; instead, actively engage in performance management. Immediately confront problems because waiting to address them does not benefit the employer, the employee, or the other staff members. Communicating positive and negative feedback to employees throughout the year also ensures that the employee’s annual review is not a surprise. Furthermore, if you are actually communicating with employees, you are not only more likely to keep them on track, but you are also more likely to pick up on employee discontent that you might not otherwise spot until it’s too late. For more information on personnel reviews, see related article, How Am I Doing? A Look at Annual Performance Reviews.

Finally, here is a pointer that we cannot emphasize enough: follow your personnel policy precisely in hiring, discipline, and all other personnel-related matters. Selective compliance harbors contempt amongst employees and exposes the municipality to liability. This, of course, also means you must have a comprehensive personnel policy that complies with all state and federal law and that is reviewed and updated regularly. For an excellent reference on some of the major federal employment laws, see Table 1 on page 14, Selected Equal Employment Opportunity ("Anti-Discrimination”) Statutes.

B. Volunteers

It is just as important to communicate with your volunteers, but it may be even more difficult because volunteers do not have consistent or regular schedules. To combat this problem and to support communication and relationship-building, some municipalities hold an annual “all boards” meeting, where members of the many boards, commissions, and committees can come together, communicate, and meet each other, an opportunity that might not otherwise occur due to everyone’s busy and varied schedules. Notably, the Jackson Select Board recently engaged in some self-reflection and determined that it could improve communications with the other town boards. As a result, the select board held communication focus group meetings and a public “analysis night” to scrutinize its communication strengths and weaknesses. What a great way for the governing body to show its commitment to the long-term success of the community!

Don’t forget to recognize volunteer contributions just like you recognize employee contributions. Hold some sort of annual event, such as an annual volunteer appreciation day, and consider holding it on a weekend—a Friday night or Saturday—like Hooksett does to accommodate the fact that your volunteers often have full-time jobs. Hand out awards and publish them in the annual report.

Finally, use whatever resources you can to support volunteer efforts. If volunteers get frustrated and constantly find roadblocks rather than support, they are less likely to continue volunteering. Make someone a contact person for volunteers to communicate with. When a group or board needs space to meet or work on a project, try hard to accommodate. Ultimately, communicate through your conduct that volunteers are important.

C. Training: Something for Everyone

Training is really a retention issue because training and continuing education are investments in employee development and communicate to staff, volunteers, officials, and all other contributors that you see them as a crucial part of the team. Training also satiates personalities that require constant learning and improvement to be content in their roles.

Training and education can cost money, but you are likely already paying, at least in part, for training opportunities that you could take better advantage of. For example, as an NHMA member, low or even no-cost trainings and educational opportunities are available throughout the year: monthly webinars, Local Officials Workshops, Land Use Law Lecture Series, the Annual Conference, Right-to-Know Workshops, and our numerous publications, to name a few. With On-Demand Trainings, one of our attorneys will come to you, and to reduce the cost, you can work with neighboring municipalities to host the event and split up the cost. Primex, Property-Liability Trust, and HealthTrust can provide education and training, as does the University of New Hampshire. For example, in Hooksett, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension hosted a two-day “Community Profile” event, where the staff, volunteers, officials, and town residents came together to critique the strengths and weaknesses of the community, which resulted in a report that the town is using to improve itself going forward.

Be as flexible and accommodating as possible with scheduling trainings and allowing individuals time and access to training and education opportunities. There are plenty of opportunities for online training, which is usually the most convenient option. Finally, as Hooksett Town Administrator, Dean Shankle points out, remember that volunteers don’t necessarily have the skill set to do the work that’s being asked of them. What they have are good intentions, but that is not enough to assist them in some of the more complicated issues they may be faced with. Therefore, it is crucial to seek out training opportunities to support your volunteers, both for the benefit of the volunteers and your municipality as a whole.

While there may be costs involved in putting these suggested practices into action, the costs created by turnover, inconsistency, and dissatisfaction amongst your staff and volunteers are much greater overtime. Overall, remember that when your team succeeds, your municipality succeeds.

Margaret Byrnes is Staff Attorney with the New Hampshire Municipal Association. She may be contacted at 800.852.3358 ext. 3408 or at