Best Practices for Hiring During COVID-19

Jun 10, 2020

While hospitality and food service sectors may still be facing job losses during the pandemic, supermarkets have a different challenge on their plates: hiring more employees to handle the increased work load. And yet, like all things related to related to COVID-19, hiring in this new grocery environment has its challenges. Paulo Goelzer, president of the IGA Coca-Cola Institute, has over 25 years of experience in retail hiring, onboarding, and training, and offers his best practices for staffing up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From supply issues and constant restocking to new environmental factors—like new food safety and sanitation concerns and navigating PPE—it's no secret that the pandemic has created a whole layer of challenges for grocery retailers and their employees. Add to that the fact that many associates are already overworked and may need to tend to family at home; some associates are afraid to come to work because of the risk of contracting the virus; and the ongoing potential for employees to fall ill, and it's clear there is a real need for stores to staff up now to give your loyal team members some much-needed time off and keep the store running as smoothly as possible. 

Retailers have asked me how to navigate the logistical challenge of hiring new employees when there's not a lot of time to interview, when you need to limit the number of people who come into the store, and when you need applicants to be well-qualified. I've put a list of best practices together for retailers to follow that include considering your most critical needs and funding options for those new hires, finding the right applicants, and shifting to virtual onboarding to minimize in-store visits. 

1. Line up your resources

First and foremost, apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to aid in the financial cost of hiring more staff. This loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is intended to help businesses like IGA stores keep their workforce employed and add more employees if needed during the pandemic.  

Retailers might also be able to have the loans forgiven if they meet the criteria by using the money for payroll, rent or mortgage interest, or utilities, and if the employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks. If you think you'll need to see funding from a PPP loan, read more about the program and its requirements on the SBA website.

2. Find the right applicants

“We estimate that 42 percent of recent pandemic-induced layoffs will result in permanent job loss,” says University of Chicago Professor Steven J. Davis, a leading expert on hiring practices, job loss, and the effects of economic uncertainty. With that number of potential employees, retailers have a large pool of candidates to work with, but where can you find the applicants? 

Our retailers have a local connection to their communities, so I recommend using that connection. The most efficient way to recruit new hires will come from signs on the store's doors, their website and social media pages, and even signs posted on their plexiglass shields at the check-out counter. Usually the best source of applicants come from existing employees and customers, so encourage both to refer colleagues and friends.

Even more importantly, retailers need to find the right fit for the role(s). For example, IGA Retailer Nisha Patel from Mt. Plymouth IGA in Sorrento, Florida, recently told me that she found out many of her local high school's seniors or juniors were doing virtual schooling and were ready to earn some money on the side. Students are a perfect fit for temporary jobs that might not be necessary in the fall. 

You may also want to consider labor exchanges with hotels and restaurants who have furloughed associates. Some of my HR colleagues haven't had much success with this approach, but it's worth a try if you have local hospitality industry employees who need work—especially when you consider they come with an understanding of the industry and food service, which can reduce the extent of your training needs.

3. Hire for competencies 

Most importantly, remember to look for people with specific behavioral competencies, like empathy and the ability to stay calm under pressure, to help customers and neighbors during these unprecedented times.

Next, retailers who need employees to fill multiple roles should prioritize the most critical roles for operational success first. At the same time, it's good to look for candidates who can fit multiple roles. Since the hiring pool is so big right now, I encourage retailers to seek multi-skilled candidates who are ready to be cross-trained and pivot to work wherever needed in the store, not just in one department or role. Cross-training employees gives the staff the opportunity to learn new skills, reduces worker boredom, improves efficiency, enhances awareness, and makes your company more agile.

A cross-trained workforce is very handy in difficult times, as evidenced by Geissler's Supermarkets, which has seven stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts. President Robert Rybick said they repurposed certain employees' jobs to ensure existing employees had enough work. For example, the salad bar and hot food bar staff were reassigned to e-commerce when the store closed those bars. As e-commerce subsides a little and other areas open back up, they will reassign staff accordingly. Using this cross-training tactic can also help retailers ensure they only bring in the number of new hires they truly need.

4. Interviewing: How to do it, what to ask, and what to avoid

Interviewing in a pandemic is tricky when your time is short and you're limiting the number of people in your store. Accept applications online, host initial screenings via telephone, and provide the potential hire with digital materials instead of having in-person interviews.

When it comes to interview questions, apply the 80-20 rule: candidates should speak 80 percent of the time. Use open-ended questions focused on behavior to get candidates talking. Here are some examples:

  1. Share a circumstance when you made a decision that was unpopular. How did you handle implementing your decision?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from your own. How did you overcome challenges?
  3. Describe a time when you made sure a customer was pleased with your store’s service. How did you go above and beyond?
  4. Why are you interested in this position/company?
  5. How do you go about prioritizing shoppers’ needs?
  6. Share a circumstance when you failed. How did you deal with the outcome?
  7. Give an example of a time when you were able to successfully persuade someone at work to see things your way. How did you change their opinion?
  8. Describe a time when you had to deal with an unhappy customer. What did you do to resolve their complaint? (This is an especially important question during the pandemic, as it will help you understand the applicant's capacity for empathy.)

Also keep in mind special considerations during the interview process related to COVID-19. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has indicated that an employer may screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, provided the employer does so for all applicants in the same job classification on a post-offer basis now. All employers should follow the guidelines and suggestions provided by the EEOC, CDC, and state/local public health authorities, and check these guidelines often, as they change frequently. 

The IGA Coca-Cola Institute has many resources for retailers looking to hire new employees, including online courses about hiring, job descriptions, management, and employee retention, as well as courses to expedite the online onboarding.

  • Hiring and Training 
  • Engagement 3 - Hiring and Corporate Culture
  • Engagement 4 - Job Resources and Demands 
  • Introduction to Supervisory Skills I 
  • Introduction to Supervisory Skills II 
  • Learning Leader Series - Strategies to Improve Retention 
  • Learning Leader Series - The Learning Process 
  • Learning Leader Series - Training Formats 
5. Set expectations

Grocery stores are seeing very unique circumstances throughout this pandemic, with retailers needing more employees right now. But they might not need as many once the pandemic subsides. To set expectations with applicants about current and future workload needs, they need to be upfront about the nature of the job and how long it may last. Even more importantly, they need to find the right fit for the role(s). 

As I mentioned earlier, local students can be a great fit for roles you know will be temporary. Alternatively, applicants from the hospitality industry might need more flexibility, as they may wish to return to a restaurant or hotel job when they reopen at full capacity, but we don't know when that will be. It's hard to plan for the future with this pandemic, so being open with your applicants and asking them to be open with you will help manage expectations on both ends.

Another very unique circumstance that retailers are facing right now is with pay rates. With the government offering a special COVID-19 unemployment "bonus" of about $600 a week, some applicants might want retailers to match that, so how are they to compete? I believe that the person who is looking for a job right now, instead of collecting the extra weekly $600 is telling a lot about themselves—it is almost a free character assessment! While I do not blame a person for taking the federal benefits to reduce the financial stress, if their choice is to stay on unemployment to collect the benefit instead of accepting a job, then I wouldn't want to hire them anyway. Those applicants may also want to be aware that the benefit may end in July, and many jobs may be taken already.

6. Virtualize onboarding with IGA Coca-Cola Institute resources

Once you hire a new employee, start the training process at home to reduce the number of visits the employee makes to the store. The IGA Coca-Cola Institute offers e-learning modules for many positions, as well as COVID-19 specific training. Existing staff and new hires alike should complete the Institute's free COVID-19 courses that focus on the latest safety and sanitation procedures:

Despite the challenges, I believe that our retailers will come back from the pandemic stronger than before. By hiring wisely now and continuing to train current employees, we can emerge with a well-qualified team who are cross-trained to work in any department and environment.

*Editor's Note: This article was last updated on December 15, 2020 to reflect the latest IGA resources and CDC guidelines. 

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