5 Counter-Intuitive Strategies for Hiring & Retaining the Best Funeral Home Employees

Every funeral home in the nation seems to be looking to hire more staff these days. Articles in funeral publications suggest that the increased call volumes from Covid, the retirement of Baby Boomers and the effects of the “Great Resignation” are converging to create a hiring boom in funeral service. From licensed funeral directors and preneed specialists to the office staff and unlicensed funeral assistants, funeral homes need outstanding employees for all areas of their business.

But finding the right person is challenging. And because hiring has enormous implications for your culture and retention of your current employees, I want to offer five tips that some may find counter-intuitive from traditional business advice. I hope these strategies will help you find your next great employee:

1. “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill”

The airline industry is known for cost-cutting shortcuts and terrible customer service, but Southwest Airlines is the exception. Before 2020 — a challenging year for all airlines — Southwest was profitable for 47 consecutive years. They have received awards for being a top place to work for women and Veterans while being the leading economy airline in the US.

Part of their success can be attributed to their late founder’s philosophy on hiring. Herb Kelleher is noted for saying, “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” Kelleher argued that it is relatively easy to train someone in the technical aspects of a job, but virtually impossible to teach someone to have patience, empathy and a positive attitude.

The key takeaway: Regardless of the position, look for interactions where you witness someone with a great attitude and customer service. I personally know funeral home owners who have hired entry-level grocery store employees and paid for their mortuary training because of the individual’s positive attitude.

2. Years of Experience Are OveRRated

Try this experiment: Think about a funeral service position (e.g., preneed counselor, licensed funeral director, office staff, etc.) that you will need to fill in the near future. Next, think of the best person you know who has worked in that position but does not work in your company. If you could go back in time, would you hire that person in their second year in the field? Of course, you would! Strong performers have always been great employees.

Years of experience often have very little to do with how strong an employee is at a job. We can all think of examples inside and outside of funeral service where mediocre staff continues to hang around. In many cases, more years of experience can entrench bad habits and make workers less likely to improve. Instead of years of experience, focus on demonstrated skills. It rarely makes much difference if they have been doing something for two years or 20.

3. Emphasize Time Over Money

When it comes to staffing, funeral home owners are often faced with a critical choice: Do they either hire more people with comparatively lower salaries but flexible schedules or hire fewer people with higher salaries and stricter schedules? I believe there are several reasons why the first option is the better option.  

Nowadays, the trend for most employees is to emphasize their lifestyle and work-life balance. By having more employees, you can provide them with a more reasonable schedule. And having more employees makes it easier to adjust to staff changes, including maternity and paternity leave, vacations, employee illnesses and injuries and staff attrition. If you choose this path, be sure to emphasize your work schedule in your job postings and conversations so you can attract applicants who value their work-life balance.

4. De-Emphasize Resumés, Emphasize Trials

A resumé rarely reflects an individual’s actual potential. Yes, if a resumé arrives with ten spelling errors, you may not want to trust that employee to write an obituary. But with modern software and templates, it is relatively easy to create a decent resumé. Instead, focus on a work trial.

You can implement work trials in several different ways. One of the best work trials is to have an apprentice who is pursuing licensure. The length of an apprenticeship ensures that you will see your potential employee on their best and worst days. You will have an accurate view of their current skills, desire to learn more and ability to get along with their colleagues. You can also create a formal work trial for other positions as part of the employment process. This type of trial may work well for new preneed professionals who have promise but do not have a clear track record in sales. 

5. Fire Sooner Rather Than Later

I never hear an owner or manager say, “We fired that person too quickly.” It is always the opposite; they waited too long. What does firing have to do with retention? Managers and owners often focus on how poor performers affect their client families, but they should pay more attention to how these employees affect staff morale. When the troubled employee lacks the necessary skills, has a bad attitude or is unmotivated, it affects their co-workers more than anyone else. Waiting to fire a toxic employee can often cost you one or more of your strongest performers.

Hiring, firing and retaining employees is stressful and the stakes are high. Traditionally, funeral home owners have emphasized traditional metrics like resumés and years of experience. But to find new and exceptional employees, I encourage you to focus on attitude, actual performance and the rewards that today’s employees value most.

Subscribe to the Homesteaders BlogGet the latest funeral service tips and insights delivered to your inbox.