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Setting honest expectations for your agency employees from the start

Don’t sugarcoat it when writing up a job description or interviewing potential new hires – painting a rosy picture that doesn’t match reality will only cause you headaches down the road.

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss the importance of being open and honest about work expectations at your agency, including hours, tasks, and working conditions. They emphasize the need for clear communication during the hiring process to ensure the best fit between you and your employees.

None of this gives you license to abuse your team members, but it is better to acknowledge things that new employees may not like before you bring them on board and have a much bigger problem to solve.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “If you are an agency where you’re expected to work 60 hours a week because it’s the only way that the business can make ends meet, at least be honest with your employees about that up front.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Expecting employees to work 60 hours a week consistently is not going to fly. You shouldn’t be working more than 40 hours a week and they shouldn’t either.”
  • Chip Griffin: “It’s not just around the number of hours or the working conditions. If there are other things that you know people have had concerns about, you should get that out on the table during the hiring process.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Line out what your expectations are, and then you will attract the kind of people that are a good fit for your business. And then you as the agency owner won’t be frustrated because they’re not living up to your expectations.”



The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, I expect that we are going to take the next 60 hours to record this and get this show exactly perfect. We’re just going to keep going and going and going. No breaks, no sleep, no snacks, nothing.

Gini Dietrich: You will not want to see me at the end of 60 hours if that’s the case.

Not good.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I, I’m not sure I look good at the start of the 60 hours, so probably another 60 wouldn’t be good.

Gini Dietrich: I would be cranky, hungry, tired.

Chip Griffin: But, but it, it does bring about the, the question, I mean, the agency industry has a well-deserved reputation built up over many decades.

Gini Dietrich: Yes.

Chip Griffin: For often being a very difficult place to work.

And we’ve talked about this before about how agencies don’t price correctly, which means they can’t staff correctly. And so people have to work all sorts of extra hours and that kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons why one of the first things I ask a new agency owner is. How often do your employees work more than 40 hours a week?

And if they tell me all the time, I know we’ve got a fundamental problem, probably with pricing, but certainly with resourcing. And I think the biggest problem though, is that a lot of agencies pretend this is not what they are. And so in the hiring process, they are not clear about this. And so, so I, what I want to talk about today is to encourage you to be open and honest about the work environment that you actually have.

If you are a place where you’re expected to work 60 hours a week because it’s the only way that the business can make ends meet. At least be honest with your employees about that up front. And it is, it is something a number of months ago, I think it was David C. Baker shared a job description that someone had posted for an agency job.

And it basically said, we are a sweatshop. I mean, it just, it went through in excruciating detail what the expectations were, and it sounded like an absolutely miserable place to work, and most people chimed in and said, this is just awful. And I said, well, on the plus side, they’re at least being honest about it.

And so I, I think that you need to be honest with yourself about the work environment that you have. And then communicate that honestly to prospective hires. So they know good or bad what they’re getting into.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. And if you are that kind of place and you are communicating it honestly and transparently, great. But you also have some work to do because expecting employees to work 60 hours a week consistently is not going to fly. So to your point earlier, you know, there are some fundamental issues in this. You’re not pricing correctly. You’re not resourced correctly. You’re not scoping correctly. There are a lot of things that are happening at your level as the agency owner, that is not happening correctly.

If your employees are consistently working more than 60 hours a week, more than 40 hours a week, that’s just not, it’s not okay. And you know, I grew up in the big PR firm world. We were expected to bill 40 hours a week. Our admin work was about 20 hours a week. And then we had another 20 hours a week of new business at least.

And that’s if you wanted to be promoted. And so I think a lot of us come with that expectation of this is what you have to do. But as we talked about last week with the younger generations, they’re not going to do it. And good for them because they shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t be working more than 40 hours a week and they shouldn’t either.

Chip Griffin: Yes. I mean, it is certainly not the right thing to do, but I think that, that If you are doing it, you at least need to communicate that expectation. And I think the expectations for new hires, it’s not just around the number of hours or the working conditions or that kind of thing. If there are other things that you know people have had concerns about, you should get that out on the table during the hiring process.

So for instance, when I was in public affairs, when I was doing hiring, I would always be very direct about the kinds of clients that we were doing work for to make sure that if anybody had any discomfort with the issues that we were dealing with we got that out in the open from the beginning. Because, you know, if you’re going to work for a political candidate or something, it’s often very obvious what they do.

And so you can make that judgment before you even apply. When you’re talking about public affairs firms oftentimes, nobody really knows who the clients are or they don’t have a good understanding as a prospective hire. And so I always tried to make sure they understood these are the kind of industries we’re working for.

These are the kinds of challenges that they have that we’re often dealing with. Does that work for you? And so I think whatever those issues that you know exist within your business that might cause anxiety or problems down the road, get them out in the open before you’ve brought them on board. Don’t go into this process of hiring where you just, you make it sound like you’re the best place to work and everybody gets to kind of do it.

Because every one of us has warts in our businesses. There is no perfect business out there and everybody, we’ve all got our idiosyncrasies. I certainly – people can see mine because I share most of them on this podcast and elsewhere. But you want to make sure that that there is that good fit and that you’re sharing enough in the hiring process that the expectations are absolutely clear.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, because I think what happens if you don’t is you as the agency owner get frustrated. A day in, a week in, a month in, 90 days in when somebody is not performing at the level that you expected them to. And it’s because you didn’t communicate your expectations. So we tend to have these expectations.

Oh, well they’re going to work 60 hours a week and they’re going to be fine about it and they’re going to put their heads down and work hard and they’re not going to expect feedback unless it’s you know, constructive criticism and they’re not going to, they’re going to not going to expect a promotion within six months.

Like we have all these expectations in our head and you’re exactly right. We should say this is what we expect. We work Monday through Friday, nine to five with an hour lunch. We expect you to bill X number of hours a week. We expect that you will not be promoted in the first year. We expect your first 90 days

we’ll do this. Like line out what those expectations are, and then you will attract the kind of people that are a good fit for your business. And then you as the agency owner won’t be frustrated because they’re not living up to your expectations.

Chip Griffin: Right. And so, you know, if you’re sharing all these expectations and it’s even things like, you know, what, what availability do you expect outside of normal working hours?

If you email them on the weekend, what do you expect? Now we would sit here and tell you, you generally shouldn’t expect your employees to respond nights and weekends. But there are certainly agencies. If you’re in crisis, if you’re in some kind of public affairs type, there are certain spaces that you’re in where that becomes necessary.

And so at a, at a minimum, you need to be communicating that and helping prospective hires understand what they’re getting into. And I think part of the challenge is that most agencies, particularly small ones, when they’re out hiring, they are so desperate to get the resource in because everybody waits, or most people wait too long to hire.

Gini Dietrich: Yep.

Chip Griffin: Which in general is good. You want to be conservative on hiring, but if you wait till the point where it’s a crisis, where you’re just, your team is completely overloaded, where you’re not able to meet client commitments because you don’t have the staffing, you will tend to do everything you can to get someone in the door.

And that often means really sugarcoating what reality is. And that may get the person to come in the door, but it’s not going to keep them around very long and it’s not going to make them happy employees. And so you need to be thinking about these kinds of things. And I mean, expectations are so important on all levels, right?

I mean, it’s, it’s why a lot of client relationships fail. It’s why a lot of employment relationships fail. Be clear about it because there, there are people out there who will be okay with it. There are people out there who don’t mind you reaching out to them as an employee nights or weekends. Find those people.

There are even plenty, I mean, early in my career, I had no problem working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. I enjoyed what I was doing. And, and those people absolutely exist.

Gini Dietrich: Yep.

Chip Griffin: Find them. Don’t try to fit someone in who is not comfortable with that, who is not happy with that approach. That’s just not going to work for anyone.

Gini Dietrich: When I started my business, I had an employee. Who was, he was, he was a great employee. He did a really good job. He also loved to leave for afternoon Cubs games, which was fine. Like I didn’t have a problem with that, but I learned very quickly that I had to set the expectation with him. That if you were going to leave for an afternoon Cubs game, your work had to be finished.

You had to meet your deadlines. If you had a deadline tomorrow and it wasn’t finished by the time the Cubs game started, you can’t leave for the game. And I didn’t outline that as an expectation because I didn’t realize that that was one that I had until it happened that he had a deadline on a Thursday and he left on Wednesday at 12:20 to go to a one o’clock game and he didn’t get his work done.

And it caused some major issues. So my point is, is that you’re going to evolve this as well. Like things will happen where you have an expectation and the employee doesn’t realize it. And then you have to go backwards and say, okay. Because this happened, this is how we’re going to work it next time. And, and I, he was, he was super pissed at me.

I said, listen, I’m not your mom. I don’t want to be your mom. I don’t want to babysit. But the work has to get done. Your client work has to be done. And your deadline to your teammates has to be finished. So if you want to go to the Cubs game, by all means have at it. We’re flexible enough that you can do it, but the work has to be done.

He was super pissed at me for a couple of weeks, but it gave us the opportunity to put that out in the open to everybody else too. We are talking right now about doing a four day work week and we’re all communicating about what that would look like. The agency has to be open five days. So, you know, everybody of course wants a Monday or a Friday off, right?

That’s not possible. So we’re right now trying to figure out what those expectations are. I also, as the agency owner would like a Monday or a Friday off, right? So what are those expectations and how are we going to do it? And we’re working through that as a, as a team to figure out what that looks like, cause we don’t know. This is the first time we’re doing it and not, there aren’t many agencies or businesses out there that do that, that right now.

So there isn’t a sort of a, a template to follow. But when you have an organization where you’re open and you’re transparent, you can have those kinds of conversations about what your expectations are and receive feedback from your team too, to include it in. And then you can include that in your job description as well.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I love that you said you, that you didn’t realize that you had an expectation until you did.

Gini Dietrich: Right.

Chip Griffin: And so I think that that’s a key part of this is, you want to learn from, you’re not going to get everything right with your first hire and communicate, but as you, as you do more hiring, as you manage more employees, you start to see where are those things that cause friction?

Where are those things that, that you become frustrated with so that you can then work on setting the expectations. Or explaining the situation even from the beginning. And so for me, you know, there, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is you have to be really clear with people when you’re hiring.

If there is a bunch of work that’s not going to be enjoyable that they have to do, right? So, so when I ran CustomScoop, one of the roles was reviewing sources and configuring newspaper sites to be set up in our system so that they were accurate and all that. And it was mind numbing work. And so, you know, what we tried to do was create roles where that was only a percentage of the day and the individuals doing something else because we learned that you couldn’t just have someone do that all day long.

But every agency has things that are not fun to do that are, and you need to be really careful that you are being clear with your perspective new hires about what they will really be doing and share with them what a typical week work looks like. So don’t make it sound like they get to, you know, do a lot of high level strategy of what they’re really doing is, you know, maintaining media lists every.

Yep. That’s, that is a recipe for disaster because someone is coming in thinking they’re doing this big picture thought stuff. And, and you’ve probably found someone really talented who’s interested in that. And now you’re telling them you have to maintain media lists. You have to just, you know, send out blast emails every day.

You know, these are not the kinds of things they were necessarily told in the beginning. So you need to be clear about that when you’re setting those expectations and hiring.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. If you hired one of us, And you, you said, okay, we’re going to do strategic, you’re going to do strategic, high level work. And then you got into the role and found out you were maintaining media lists…

That’s the fastest way for me to be like, peace out.

Chip Griffin: Yep.

Gini Dietrich: That was fun. No freaking way.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and, and, and that comes down to your expectations have to be aligned with what you’re actually hiring. So, you know, it, and you know, this was something again, that I learned the hard way. You know, I, I hired a lot of assistants over the years, back in the day when, you know, physical offices and travel.

But I would, I would often expect that they would be able to do that, but then also help me with research or other things. Sure. The problem is that people who are good at one or enjoy doing one are often not good or enjoy doing the other. And so, so I learned the hard way that it was really hard to, to mesh those two jobs together because even if they could do the admin side, if I was having them do the other stuff that was more exciting, they would tend to gravitate over and prioritize doing that work.

And so I was always having to pull them back and say, no, but we need to get this.

Gini Dietrich: But I need, I, I need to go to DC.

Chip Griffin: Right. And so

Gini Dietrich: Tomorrow.

Chip Griffin: Yes. And I don’t have a flight

or a hotel.

Right? Start with the flight. At least if I, I mean, that usually helps most, most of the time, unless it’s around inauguration, you can get a room somewhere in the DC metro area.

But, but these are the things that you need to think about so that when you’re communicating those expectations, it’s a realistic expectation. Right. I mean, if you find that you’re out there and talking to prospective employees and they all say, no, pass, not interested, then you need to think about have I designed this role in a way that it gets me what I need as an agency owner, but it’s also something that is realistically available out there in the marketplace.

Sometimes you need to make adjustments to whatever you’re hiring so that you have that, that mesh between what the talent pool has and what you need.

Gini Dietrich: That’s super good advice because I think that goes for a lot of things that we do in our agency life too. Pricing, scope of work, all of those kinds of things.

You know, I always know that when I price something and the prospect doesn’t balk at it or try to negotiate that it’s too low. And so I will say to myself, Oh, okay. So next time when we do this, We’re going to up it up. And I, I continue to increase the price until somebody goes, Oh, well, can we maybe talk about, you know, negotiating this or what the scope of work looks like or something like that?

And then I know I’ve hit the right, the right price. Same thing with this. You know, if you’re out there and you’re, you’re completely honest about what the job is and you say. We expect that you’ll work 60 hours a week and some of that will be nights and weekends. And this is what we expect. And you’re attracting candidates.

Then it’s probably okay. I have a niece that has my work ethic and she’s like, that’s great. I would love to do that. I would love to work 60 hours a week because I know that I’m contributing to an organization. So they are, they do exist. That’s for sure.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, if you’re being honest about it, you’ll find those good fits.

If you’re not honest about it, you’re just creating problems. Okay. for yourself that will only get worse over time. And so, you know, being really thoughtful about this and, you know, I mean, even things like, you know, what level of control do you want to have? I mean, there are a lot of agency owners who are micromanagers.

If you’re a micromanager, you don’t necessarily have to come out and say, I’m a micromanager. But you should be communicating that you have very high standards and expectations and you review everything that goes out and, you know, and then someone can decide if that’s for them or not. I mean, if I had to have every one of my, you know, emails or drafts reviewed by a boss, I’d be like, pass.

Thank you. I’m good. I’m good. I can, I can handle that stuff. And if you don’t think I can, then I’m not the right fit. Yep. Unfortunately, most prospective hires are not going to be honest with you. So you need to be honest with them so that they can at least make an informed decision and, and help them.

I mean, even share with them, you know, what those early days are going to be like, because there are some particularly in small agencies occasions where, in fact, many occasions where you just want to throw them into the deep end of the pool and you want them to contribute from day one.

Gini Dietrich: Yep.

Chip Griffin: If that’s your expectation, communicate that.

There’s a certain kind of individual who’ll be fine. Sure. Absolutely. Day one, throw me right in. I’m happy to jump into a client call on day one.

Gini Dietrich: Yep.

Chip Griffin: There are others who will say, well, hold on. I need to, you know, you need to get me up to speed. You need to teach me this and that, and I need time to acclimate to my colleagues and be honest.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, that’s really good advice. Actually. I’m going to tell, make sure that a client of mine listens to this because putting in there that you have a way of doing your work, that it’s the agency’s way that you’re going to be expected to do it that way. And that does include the owner reviewing everything that goes out the door, that should be in the job description.

I think that’s really good advice. I’m gonna make sure she listens to this.

Chip Griffin: And there are a lot of small agency owners who want to review absolutely everything.

Oh yeah, for sure.

That’s a separate conversation, something we’ve touched on before. You absolutely shouldn’t be doing that. But if you’re going to do that, if you can’t let go of it.

At least let people know Yep. That you can’t let go of it. And the, the last piece on expectations that I would say is I, I think you need to be really clear about your expectations around compensation reviews and…

yes. Promotions.

And you know how you handle that. Yep. Yep. So you often, oftentimes I will see a hiring manager who’s got someone coming in and, you know, they say, well, you know, I’d really like to be making a little bit more than that. And you say, well, but you will, we’ll review it within, you know, the first 90 days or something like that. If you’re going to do that, first of all, I don’t love that, but if you’re going to do that, make, make it clear that it’s not every 90 days, it’s going to be reviewed.

Because presumably that’s not what you mean. What you mean is we’ll do a 90 day check in, review it, and then, you know, we’ll go on to annual after that or something like that. But, but helping people to understand what they should expect in terms of reviews, of compensation adjustments, what your structures are regarding bonuses or any other things like that.

Make sure they understand those. They may not, particularly if you’re hiring newer workers, they may not be savvy enough to know what they should be asking. Right. And so instead of hiding it, you’re better off volunteering it to them and help them to understand, you know, what is the total compensation package look like and how often do you review it going forward?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I actually think that’s, and that’s another subject for another, episode as well. But you know, we talked, we’ve talked about helping them understand how the agency makes money. I think showing them how much the compensation packages, because so many, especially young professionals come into the, into the workforce and they’re like, Oh, this is my salary.

And they don’t take into account all the other things that you’re paying for too. So I think the, the point here is be very clear about what it is. Be very clear about what your expectations are and be honest. Like there may be things that kind of suck right now and you’re trying to change it, but be honest about that and say, you know, this is what we expect right now and we’ll continue to evolve as we grow.

Chip Griffin: And if there’s something you’re not comfortable sharing, that’s probably the first thing you ought to share.

Gini Dietrich: Probably. And probably the first thing you should change.

Chip Griffin: Generally speaking, yes. Yep. Well, with that, my expectation is we’re going to draw this episode to a close because we’ve run out of time.

Gini Dietrich: That’s a good expectation then.

Chip Griffin: I’m going to hit the stop record button in just a moment. So, I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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