If you needed new turfgrass for your field you would probably research very carefully to find just the right one, nurture it while it established, and then continue to maintain it for long-term success. Do you follow the same rigorous process when hiring, training and evaluating employees? Your staff is perhaps the most important factor in the overall success of your facility, so we asked some sports field leaders for tips on how they approach the often complex task of employee management.

Hiring hints

At Wake Forest University, the school’s human resources department handles hiring, “but I can post jobs anywhere I see fit to broadcast that we’re hiring,” says Abby McNeal, director of turf management with the school’s athletic department. Her recruitment efforts usually include postings on the websites of Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) chapters in surrounding states.

“When I hire, I look at what skills we might be missing on our staff. I look to see if there’s an area of expertise we might be able to get out of a new employee to try to fill that gap,” McNeal explains. For example, the current staff may not have a lot of experience with field painting and an applicant might be proficient in that area. She’s found that hiring an employee with a particular skill allows them to help spread that knowledge to others on staff. “That makes all of us better, and then the rest of the staff can share their skill set back with that new employee,” says McNeal.

In selling the job to candidates, McNeal plays up the diversity in experience available at the school, since employees care for synthetic turf fields as well as natural grass fields, native soil fields and sand systems. “We have a little bit of everything, so they’ll get an opportunity to experience that hands-on,” she states. “Even when I post internships, I try to sell people on what we have to offer and how it might help them in their careers.”

McNeal’s also upfront about what will be expected on the job. “I tell them about the salary and the schedule and what overtime hours will be expected of them. I don’t hide anything because I want them to make the right decision for them, and for us. I want them to truly know what they’re walking into; I don’t want them to be miserable,” she says. Sugarcoating reality during the hiring process will just create problems down the road, McNeal emphasizes.

Clay Wood, head groundskeeper for the Oakland A’s and Oakland Raiders, agrees. “The first thing you talk about when you hire someone is the hours they’ll be working, especially during the baseball season,” he states. “You want someone to know what the job duties are, and what they are up against from a time standpoint, from a job standpoint and from a physical standpoint, because the less turnover you have down the line, the better off you’re going to be.”

Wood prefers applicants “with a little bit of experience, but not too much. If you get someone who has been molded in their way of doing things, sometimes it’s a little harder to get them to come around to do things the way that you want them done,” he explains. He’s found employees from all different backgrounds, from landscape maintenance to building maintenance to hospitality. “The key is to find people you trust to show up on time and be there to get the job done when the call comes – that’s really what you’re looking for,” concludes Wood.

A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way

Showing appreciation for the long hours and hard work they put in could be the key to retaining your staff. According to a survey by Accenture, a management and consulting firm, 31 percent of respondents said lack of feedback/recognition from supervisors would be a reason to leave their current jobs.

Other factors that would drive respondents to quit include:

T.J. Brewer, head groundskeeper with the Burlington Bees (Class A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) says that finding people who have experience with, and a passion for, a certain sport is another good way to get motivated candidates. “I’ll also look to local area baseball teams and recruit from there. Those kids are interested in baseball,” Brewer explains.

He also looks for people who pay attention to details. “It’s an industry that depends on the smallest details; people who are unwilling to focus on the small details are never going to get the big picture.” That’s not easy to determine with just an initial meeting. “I’ve had people who I think are going to be the best employee and they are not,” he states. “If there’s one sign to look for, I haven’t found it.”

At the University of Arkansas, Director of Sports Turf Operations Pat Berger tries to take advantage of any programs where participants might have a natural interest in sports turf. For example, many hourly employees within the University of Arkansas’ sports turf department are students from the university’s turf school, notes Berger. He speaks to students at seminars to let them know about the opportunities available; even for students interested in pursuing a career in golf course maintenance, working with sports turf can prove very valuable. “I point out to them that they can put this on their résumé and it’s always good to have, whether they’re interested in the golf market or the sports turf market – it’s an eye-catcher.”

When it comes to finding supervisors, Berger says he turns to sources such as the STMA and turf schools. “I’ll also talk to our suppliers to see if they know of someone who would be a good fit,” he notes, adding that networking is important when it comes to finding key supervisors and managers. “For example, we’re actually looking for a supervisor for baseball right now. I just attended the Texas Turfgrass Association meeting and talked to people there to see if they had leads. It’s a process to try to get the best candidates.”

Training techniques

Once a new employee has been hired, it’s important to give them the tools (i.e., training) to do their job successfully, says Berger. For starters, the university provides training manuals for employees, including equipment operation manuals that they must read and sign off on. “Then we go out and do one-on-one training, going over each piece of equipment and asking them questions to be sure they know the answers – how to check the oil, what the weight capacity is, things like that,” he adds. There are also monthly safety meetings, and attendance is mandatory.

It’s hard to find employees who are available for the entire baseball season, says Brewer. “It’s sort of a revolving door at times, and that means there’s almost constant training throughout the year,” he explains. He prefers to tailor training to the individual rather than trying to follow one set training program. “I try to get a sense of the individual’s abilities, and then style the training around how they learn,” says Brewer.

At Wake Forest, morning meetings let everyone know what needs to be done that day and also gives employees a chance to make suggestions. “I don’t always tell employees exactly how I want them to do something. I try to empower them,” says Abby McNeal, director of turf management with the university’s athletic department. Photo: Wake Forest

New employees start out working directly with him or another long-term staff member, which provides a chance to ensure that the new employee comprehends what is being explained to them. “I also start them out on simpler tasks to make sure they have the focus and attention to detail that’s required to do some of the more high-profile jobs,” says Brewer. “It’s a process: Once somebody is able to do one thing well regularly, we’ll move them on. As they learn, they’ll get more responsibilities. They earn responsibility depending on their ability.”

At Wake Forest, the sports field maintenance staff holds meetings every morning. “It’s participatory; I tell everyone, ‘If you have an idea, bring it up,'” says McNeal. “They might say, ‘Did you ever think about trying this?’ And I’m all for that, because they’re the ones out there doing the work … I don’t always tell employees exactly how I want them to do something. I try to empower them, and I have a very open management style.” But she emphasizes that she sets the standards for where the fields need to be and the end results that need to be produced.

While Wake Forest has a handbook with basic expectations regarding attendance, uniforms, etc., and both safety and pesticide trainings are required, when it comes to actually learning the job McNeal favors hands-on, peer-to-peer training. Even for new employees who have past experience running mowers and other equipment, she makes sure they are trained on the particular equipment being used at the university. “We walk them through what we do and how we do it. We try to keep it relaxed so they feel comfortable asking questions along the way,” states McNeal. “If they want to learn something more, I want to see their initiative rather than just sitting through a training seminar.”

Evaluating employees

Berger says he is careful not to fully evaluate an employee during the initial training period. “In my opinion, it takes six to eight weeks for a person to let their hair down and become who they are on the street. Then you can analyze about whether you made a good choice. You can’t make just a rash, quick judgment,” he says. “Even if a person makes some mistakes, it may just be because they’re nervous.” Typically new employees just want to fit in, and having the boss constantly coming by to watch them is likely to intimidate rather than aid in the training, he adds.

At Wake Forest, employees are evaluated annually on their goals, which are determined by the job description. Part of that process includes the employees evaluating themselves, and McNeal says she expects employees to do that. “I also look at what their goals were for the last year and how close we came to meeting them,” she adds. “And I tell them that my form is no different than theirs; I also have to sit down with my supervisor.” McNeal also reviews the evaluations midyear to see if each employee is on track to meet their goals.

Brewer uses an evaluation form to help document employee performance. “It’s not necessarily a monthly or yearly evaluation; I do evaluations to help employees know where they need to pick things up. If that individual starts doing better, I’ll do another evaluation as a morale booster to show them that they’ve improved,” he explains.

Evaluating employees in an effort to improve job performance is an area that Brewer finds particularly challenging. “I’ve found that the high school and college students that I hire now have grown up in the ‘participation award’ generation. Everything they’ve done has been right. Even if they came in last place, they’ve been treated like they won,” he explains.

While boosting morale is a great thing, an expectation of constant praise makes it difficult to offer constructive criticism, Brewer observes. “If I try to tell some employees, ‘You’re doing that wrong; let me show you how to do it right,’ they are devastated. I tell them, ‘I’m not mad at you. You’ve never done this before, so I expect you to do it wrong.’ It just seems like the ability to handle negative feedback is being lost.” He tries to determine the best way to correct employees without discouraging them. “My biggest challenge is figuring out how to keep them from breaking themselves down,” Brewer explains. “I just try to be as encouraging as possible. Every employee is different, and you need to find the best way to reach them.”