Hiring Staff Choosing the Best People for the Job

Working for any sort of multifamily community–whether it’s a condo, co-op, HOA or rental–requires a certain amount of skill and training. After all, staffers carry out many duties, and often have access to residents’ property and personal information. 

That’s why managing agents have to be very careful in the hiring process, which must include screening to weed out people with unacceptable criminal histories, spotty employment records, or other personal issues that would compromise their ability to do their job successfully. 

Filling the Roster

Who these employees are depends on the size of the community in question. In a small building, they mainly consist of superintendents. In larger or more upscale buildings, doormen may be involved. And in large multi-unit developments, there may be entire staffs of maintenance men, groundskeepers, and in some cases on-site security personnel.

Conventional methods, such as online job posting sites, are often used to attract candidates for on-site co-op/condo jobs. But other times, managers network with each other. Margie Russell, Executive Director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), says that there are several organizations of apartment managers that maintain databases of resumes available to building management. Sometimes, managers also ask vendors for referrals.

Regardless of how an applicant arrives at a building or management company, there are several tools that managing agents use for screening prospective employees. Among them are credit reports, criminal background checks and drug testing, reference checks, verification of applicants eligibility to work legally in the U.S., and of course the interview. 

Background checks are usually outsourced by a third-party company, while references are typically checked internally by the person handling the interview or human resources, says Matthew Smith, COO for The Liberty Group, a nationwide staffing company that specializes in the real estate industry.

Red Flags

The ‘red flags’ that employers in the multifamily real estate field must look for in an applicant’s work history are generally the same ones that staffing professionals would look for in any other industry. Things like long gaps in employment history, or constant “job hopping” with no explanation should be questioned, says Smith.

Another red flag might be an unanswered question on the employment application. Again, this might be an innocent oversight—but it might mean there’s something to hide. “Fudging” dates of previous employment to make it look like an applicant has been there longer than they actually were (or to hide their age) is also fairly common. Also, look out for people who can’t answer detailed questions about their educational degrees or certificates.

The Interview Process

The kinds of questions an interviewer should ask an applicant depend upon the job. For a doorman, it’s important to ascertain people skills, as well as whether he or she has the stamina to stand for long periods of time.

When hiring maintenance people in particular, it’s important to get a clear sense of their skill set. For big plumbing and electrical repairs, you need to call in a licensed plumber or electrician. But for leaky faucets, stopped-up toilets, and the like, the maintenance person or super is the one who will have to respond to the job – especially on weekends or at night.

“When we look at an [applicant’s] resume, we look at the past history, how long they have been at a job, the reason why they [left] the job, what their duties were. We also require at least three references,” says Simon Sarwa, CEO of Brooklyn-based Trillion Asset Management. The amount of experience desired, he adds, depends both on what the board is looking for and the amount of money the board has budget for the position. “Generally speaking,” he says, “the more experience, the higher the salary.”

Russell has her own perspective on this aspect of the hiring process. “What [interviewers] should seek out,” she says, “is information about the building they work in, more than the task they did.” For example, if you’re hiring someone for a 10-building complex made up of 20-story buildings, a maintenance specialist coming from a similar complex would have a greater sense of what’s required of him or her than someone whose only experience was in a six-story apartment house.

What Is Allowed, and What Isn’t?

No matter the size of the community or the position being filled, it’s important that the interviewer know which questions are acceptable to ask an applicant, and which aren’t. Of course, it’s not okay to ask questions that might indicate discriminatory intent—asking someone their religion, their marital status, or their age, for example—but it goes much further than that. 

For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law last year saying most private employers can no longer ask a prospective employee their salary history. While the intent of the law was to protect women or minorities who could have been “locked in” to low salaries at their previous jobs because of discrimination, this can apply to anybody.

Brooklyn attorney Chuck Otey says that one should stay away from asking applicants whether they’ve ever been arrested. “There are many people who have been arrested, but not convicted.” It’s safer, he says, to ask whether someone has ever been convicted of a crime. “When I’m cross-examining a witness on the stand,” Otey says, “I can ask someone whether he’s been convicted of a crime, but not whether he’s been arrested.”

Also, Otey continues, “You can’t use one application form for a younger person, and a different one for one who’s older.” Apparently, some employers may have been doing just that, as a way of screening out older people.

Criminal Records and Drug Testing

What if an applicant does have a criminal record? Should they immediately be disqualified, or should the age, circumstance or nature of the offense be taken into account?

According to the pros, employers need to weigh the nature of the conviction and how it would affect the type of job the applicant is applying for. For example, if someone has been convicted for burglary, you might not want that person to be a superintendent. Still, you should check with your attorney before making a decision. In addition, if the conviction happened many years ago, that person may deserve a second chance.

In the final analysis, the decision must be made by the individual board. Sarwa says his management company hires a screening firm to do background checks on prospective employees. “If there are any serious issues [with an applicant], we disclose them to the board, and they have to decide.”

Drug testing is also a controversial topic. Pre-employment screening is fairly common for certain types of jobs, and re-testing is sometimes called for when an employee suddenly starts performing poorly, starts taking large amounts of time off, and/or starts being involved with accidents at work. One particular contract with the Service Employees International Union (Local 32BJ) found online says that the company, when doing drug testing, must use “state-of-the-art” testing administered through an expert third-party drug-testing company. 

“Some companies do pre-employment drug testing, and some do not,” says Smith. “It’s completely up to the company. Most companies reserve the right to test after hire based on accidents or other issues that warrant testing. As with background checks, the company policy needs to be clear on pass/fail factors and when/how random testing may be done and why.”

As we’ve mentioned, there are firms that specialize in employee screenings. Such firms can be found on the internet, and Consumer Affairs even rates them. They often work online, and the screening firm searches various databases and records. In such cases, the applicant needs to give written permission to get the background check done.

Ongoing Training Courses

Say an employee has now been hired. That doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t need training and/or continuing education courses. That’s where the aforementioned Local 32BJ SEIU, the powerful union that represents security officers, doormen, porters, maintenance workers, drivers, window cleaners and more, comes in. 

Rachel Cohen, communications manager for the union, provided us with information about the 32BJ Training Fund, which is a joint labor-management partnership that offers training to eligible union members at no cost.

“The fund is supported by contributions negotiated between 32BJ SEIU and participating employers,” she says. “The fund’s mission is to train every participant to grow to the next level and continually raise the standards of the industry by providing 32BJ members with the tools they need to meet the challenges of a changing industry.”

A wide assortment of such courses are listed on the union’s website, including citizenship preparation; carpentry basics; computer spreadsheets; fire alarm systems; first aid; English as a second language; locksmithing; gas range repair; and much more. Some of the courses can lead to certifications given by the Fire Department, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and other government agencies. 

Of course, Cohen reminds us, these courses are meant for union members, not the general public. In general, says Russell of NYARM, “The training school at 32BJ offers the best training that’s out there.” Of course, more specialized trades, like electricians, have their own unions, which likewise offer training courses.

“All positions should have regular training and a defined standard the employee is expected to meet,” says Smith. “To build the staff, you must be recruiting constantly.”

Embarrassing Moments

One of the functions of staffers is to protect not only the residents’ physical safety and their property, but their personal information. Most employers, if not all, will have work rules that prohibit staff from giving out information about residents. There are some exceptions—most notably, police officers investigating a crime. However, most employees will rarely have to deal with this situation.

While each management company has different rules, it should be part of a building’s regulations that employees are expected to notify management when they see suspicious or illegal activity. In doorman buildings, the doormen are often the eyes and ears of the development. Of course, many buildings don’t have doormen, but even these often install cameras in sensitive areas—cameras that can be seen from the management office. 

If a building employee sees a resident doing something embarrassing or improper, they need to report it to the management, says Sarwa. “We tell staffers the residents are not their friends. You can’t be personal—you must be professional.”

“It is inherent in building staff’s jobs to protect residents, visitors, and the people who work there,” says Russell. “That is the essence of why they’re here.”         

Raanan Geberer is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Cooperator. 

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