Three R’s of building a strong workforce: Landscapes 2018

At NALP conference, how to attract and keep the most valuable employees
Use a matrix to help identify which employees should be retained or promoted.

Landscaping companies that are struggling to find and keep talented employees need to think of retention as an integrated concept, according to Steve Cesare, head of human resources at The Harvest Group.

[Related: Struggle continues for H-2B temporary worker relief]

“It’s no longer just one concept. It’s a whole series of interdependent” responsibilities including recruitment, replacement and retention, Cesare said during a session at Landscapes 2018 on Wednesday.


Performance reviews let firms document how an employee is performing today, of course, but Cesare recommended supervisors also consider a worker’s potential.

“What’s the likelihood that they’re going to be promoted in the next 12 to 18 months? Not everybody is retainable,” he said.

He recommended using a matrix to identify which employees should be retained.

“Deadwood” employees are those with low potential who are low performers, Cesare said.

Problem employees aren’t performing, but have the potential to be good employees.

“You recognize they have some talent, they’re just not activate it. Something’s going on,” Cesare said. He recommended targeted coaching in one-on-one sessions to identify the problem.

Workhorses perform well but don’t have potential to be leaders. “We never ever want workhorses to leave,” he said, but they need encouragement and recognition to keep going.

The stars are high performers with high potential. “These folks need a development plan. They don’t want to get bored,” he said.

Those employees need a defined career path and a way forward through the company or they’ll start looking for another opportunity, Cesare said.

Reinforcement, leadership and the work itself are critical to keeping employees engaged.

Pay equity and benefits are part of reinforcing a worker’s value. However, public recognition goes a long way toward reinforcing value and doesn’t have to cost anything.

“When someone does a good job, let them know. They need it. That keeps them engaged; that keeps them on the job,” Cesare said. “Employee engagement means they bought into the culture and they’re part of the team. They‘re willing to put in discretionary effort.”

That discretionary effort could be as small as picking up litter on a job that someone else walked by, but those little actions add up to better performance and happier clients.

Explain how workers’ actions are directly tied to the success of the business, Cesare recommended. When they see the impact they have on the company and how they benefit from it, they’re more likely to buy in to the overall success of the company.


Sometimes firms are afraid to replace poorly performing workers for fear of legal actions.

[Related: 6 steps to a lower workers’ comp premium]

Cesare stressed the importance of employment practices liability insurance. “You’re going to get sued. Let the insurance company pay,” he said.

He compared performance reviews to checking the oil in a car. It’s critical to keeping the car running smoothly, and regular maintenance is simple and can prevent serious trouble down the road.

He urged supervisors to use very precise language in reviews, demanding “immediate, significant and sustained improvement.” Incremental improvements that only last a few weeks or next season don’t help the firm now.


“Don’t just recruit when you have a vacancy,” he said. Having a pipeline of potential hires will make it easier to replace an underperformer.

A recruitment program should have explicit goals, metrics and a budget. Firms need to identify a person who “owns” recruitment and what success looks like for the program.

Also important is alignment between the recruiter or HR team and operations. The recruiter needs to know what the company needs to identify qualified candidates.

“If you’re recruiting someone and you didn’t try to retain them, and you didn’t replace the bad guys, you’re going to have an inverted model.”

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