Riggs Construction didn't act quickly enough to terminate a difficult executive and so subjected its entire staff to his toxic attitude for five damaging years. By contrast, a criminal background check that is part of the meticulous hiring process at Rockland Inc. prevented the company from putting a convicted sex offender in clients' homes.

Sound hiring and firing practices are essential to avoiding management disasters. Unfortunately, stiff competition for skilled employees tempts many remodelers to hire impulsively and extend endless second chances to employees with behavioral or performance problems. The key is in knowing when to be patient and when to be decisive.

Hiring at Newport, Del.-based Rockland Inc. begins when president David Heaney grades resumes on an A-to-F scale. Strong candidates are invited to complete an application, take a construction test, complete a personality profiling assessment, and sit through an interview adapted from Topgrading, a book by Bradford D. Smart. Those are just the initial hoops. “If I've learned anything the hard way,” Heaney says, “it's that it's not enough to hire based on experience,” which brings ingrained bad habits as often as good ones. He cares far more about a candidate's attitude, core values, and “philosophical alignment” with his company.

If the first interview goes well, and the test and assessment suggest a potential fit, the candidate is invited for a second interview — and maybe a third and a fourth, for critical positions such as production manager. Further steps include calling the candidate's references and asking “30 or so questions a lot of different ways,” Heaney says, followed by the criminal background check, which he considers essential for anyone with access to clients' homes.

Only then is an offer extended, but Heaney is considering adding one more hurdle: a credit rating. His inspiration is a former carpenter —“an incredible technician with a serious gambling problem” — whom Rockland nursed through two bankruptcies, repeated demands for more money, and, finally, abuse of company funds. “If someone can't manage their own money,” Heaney asks, “can I trust them with mine, or in clients' homes?”

Rockland fires decisively while ensuring that it fulfills its legal obligations. Every hire gets an employment manual that details 19 “serious offenses that will lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” The first offense triggers an oral warning. The second leads to a written warning, on Rockland letterhead, signed and dated by the employee and Heaney. As clearly stated in the letter, “If your work habits do not improve to the satisfaction of the company principal, this can lead to immediate termination.”

A similar three-strikes rule is now in effect at Riggs Construction, St. Louis. Amie Riggs, vice president and sales manager, says that she and president Tom Riggs vowed to “keep the company clean” after the devastating experience with the toxic executive cited above.

As with Rockland, the Riggs employment manual spells out its three-strikes policy, which includes a written notice signed by the relevant parties. The policy isn't harsh; something as minor as a single late arrival is forgiven, for instance, and in some cases the company creates a plan “to get them on the right track,” Amie says. But repeated problems are noted, and flagrant offenses — stealing from a client's home — are grounds for immediate termination.

Thankfully, Riggs Construction hasn't had to fire any employees in some time, Amie says. “Our culture is one of our most important things. And if people aren't living the culture, they don't belong here.”

Leah Thayer is a senior editor for REMODELING.