Studio Business: How to Build—or Whittle Down—Your Staff

Asking the right questions in an interview will reveal if a candidate's goals are aligned with your studio's values.

Hiring the right teachers can seem overwhelming. Where do you find the most qualified candidates? What are the best interview questions to ask? What if you have to fire a faculty member? What's more important, experience or attitude? Do references matter? Questions like these—not to mention assessing someone's actual teaching and choreography skills—can leave many studio owners scratching their heads. And although a human resources (HR) department isn't a requirement for a dance studio, implementing professional hiring standards should be—to ensure your next faculty member is the perfect fit for your studio.

The Search Is On

Hiring the right teachers involves knowing where to find them. Kristine Smith, co-founder and artistic director at InSpira Performing Arts & Cultural Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says tapping into her own network—including faculty and former colleagues—is the best route.

Facebook is also a valuable resource, filled with local dance groups (public and closed) that are easy to join and inquire within. Other proven options include posting an ad on Craigslist or at a local college's dance department. “Even if we don't have openings, we're always looking," says Suzanne Gerety, co-owner at Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. You never know when you might need a new staff member, so keeping prospects on your radar will ease any future hiring.

#ProTip: What to watch out for Poorly organized resumés, how well a candidate follows your application instructions and the duration of previous jobs are all indicators of someone's work ethic and employee dedication.

Hire Away

When interviewing a candidate, start with the basics. Ask questions regarding their dance background, experience, teaching philosophies and problem-solving techniques. Inquire about their strengths and weaknesses and how they collaborate best with others.

Establishing that they possess the general skills for the job is necessary, but even more important is asking the questions that will help you determine if they'll fit within your culture, says HR recruiter Ashley Meunier. The most important question? According to Meunier, it's: “Why do you want this job?" Today's job market is competitive. Pinpointing someone's motivations and passions will separate the good contenders from the great ones and reveal if their goals are aligned with your studio's philosophy.

Smith agrees: “You could have the best resumé but still not be the right fit for our culture," she says. To get a good sense of the person's character, she conducts a series of interviews (over the phone and in person), plus she requires candidates to teach a trial class. During an interview, Gerety looks for these top-three qualities, in addition to experience and credentials: Do they have a positive attitude? Are they coachable? Are they a self-starter when it comes to troubleshooting and choosing music and costumes?

A required interview standard is avoiding questions about race, gender, nationality, age, marital status, etc., says Meunier. If the candidate brings up a touchy subject on his or her own, don't continue the conversation. (You can always research the legality of a question or topic later.)

#ProTip: For your reference When it comes to an applicant's references, Meunier says they're usually not that valuable, because there are few people who can't find someone to vouch for them. If you do reach out to references, ask open-ended questions in an effort to see how well they know the person. Consider vague responses from a co-worker or supervisor a red flag.

In the Line of Fire

Though asking the right interview questions will minimize the chances of having to let an employee go later on, firing a staff member can be an unfortunate reality. Gerety once hired a teacher with amazing credentials and choreography, but he wasn't connecting with the students or fitting in with the studio's neighborhood dance-school culture. Parents were complaining and kids were dropping out of classes, posing a potential threat to her business. Gerety was left with no choice.

“You'll know soon when someone is not a good fit," says Gerety, who listens to her gut. “Ideally, you have a teacher finish the whole year to avoid any disruption to the students, but sometimes that's not possible. Sometimes the longer you wait to let someone go, the more damage that will be caused in the end." To make a clean break, be straightforward with the teacher—and, afterward, with your students. Be communicative, convey enthusiasm for the future and ask parents to come to you if they have further questions, so the rumor mill won't start churning.

#ProTip: Let it go (professionally) If you think it's time to let an employee go, gather all necessary information and reach a final decision (with any senior staff, if applicable) before the meeting with the employee occurs, says Meunier. In the meeting, don't offer apologies, and don't allow negotiations. Be kind but firm, and have a third party present.


Protect Yourself—with Professionalism

Conveying professionalism—from the interview process all the way until your new hire signs a contract—will create a trickle-down effect and let your faculty know you're serious about your business. Suzanne Gerety, co-owner of Kathy Blake Dance Studios, has a faculty of 16 and 4 office staff. She suggests consulting your accountant on making everyone W-2 employees, versus independent contractors, whether they teach 1 or 20 classes a week. You'll avoid the IRS challenging the legal validity of your employee classifications and potential unemployment benefit payouts. Know the employment laws in your state, and consult an attorney if you need guidance.

For further protection, consider adding noncompete and nonsolicitation (employees can't solicit your students to join nearby studios after leaving yours) clauses to your contracts. It's important to make your business values clear to new employees.

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