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Chapter 7: Handle Challenges

This blog post is a DRAFT chapter for a book being published by Origami Works Foundation. We will correct inaccuracies in the final book version. If you identify any inaccuracies, please let us know using this Feedback Form.

Challenges are a part of any talent strategy - whether or not you chose to engage with business services partners. This book is here to be a practical guide for real people doing the real work of beginning a workforce partnership, and we believe one of the best things you can do is be prepared for the unique challenges that may arise from that work.

This is where the beauty of shared insights comes into play. Taking a moment to consider how fellow employers have tackled similar challenges can be a game-changer. It's like having a friendly chat with a colleague who's been there, done that, and is more than willing to share some golden nuggets of wisdom. 

This chapter will share remedies that have been successfully applied to these categories of challenges --

  • Lack of candidates

  • The wrong candidates

  • Background check blues 

  • Process issues 

  • Lack of career readiness

  • Attendance issues

  • High turnover

  • When a partner is not working out

This chapter is long--not because you are likely to encounter all of these challenges, but because we wanted to be comprehensive about sharing possibilities and solutions. Feel free to skip those sections that do not apply to you.

Addressing challenges isn’t always easy. That said, your peers have navigated many of these issues, and your organization can also!

Handy Hack: As we dive into the specifics of potential challenges, let's keep in mind that you are not alone in this endeavor, and there's a wealth of knowledge to tap into. 

Lack of Candidates

If you’ve connected with an business services partner to refer candidates for open roles, you definitely want to see some candidates! But sometimes they can be in short supply. This can be due to factors out of your or a partner’s control, such as labor market fluctuations.

Sometimes, when a lack of candidates is your issue, there are adjustments you can make that will increase the number of applicants you see. Here are some insights and suggestions that may help get you on track. Possible solutions are presented in rough order of complexity. 

Adjust Job Descriptions

Corneisha Fowler of Cara Collective has seen a lot of job openings, and she knows that daunting position descriptions can scare off qualified candidates. Job descriptions can lack critical information, be overly complicated, or use jargon that puts potential hires on the run. 

The remedy? Team up with your business services partner to tweak those descriptions based on what they know works. Seek feedback from job seekers on what's appealing and what's not. Remember: clarity is key. Make your descriptions enticing, not intimidating. 

For example, here are some ways to adjust language to make requirements more clear and accessible. 

Original Language

Possible Adjusted Language

High school degree and 1-year experience or equivalent combination

“High school degree and one year of work experience" (so it's clear the experience doesn't have to be in this exact field or function) 

Experience in business writing, editing, and proofreading

Experience writing emails, editing and proofreading blog posts for publication

Experience, coursework, or other training in fundraising principles & practices

Make this an “optional” or “nice to have” requirement. Or replace "fundraising" with "nonprofit, operations, sales, or fundraising.” Or suggest an online article or course to read or complete prior to interviewing. 

Experience working with databases, including managing and tracking data.

Replace “databases” with "computer systems or databases" (since virtually every computer application includes some kind of database)

Matt Strauss, CEO of RiseKit, has some additional specific suggestions: “Words like ‘fresh’ and ‘energetic’ can be an indicator that the hiring manager wants younger candidates, and ‘’strong English-language skills’ can deter candidates who don’t have English as a first language.” 

And don’t just stop at adjusting language: there are many opportunities to broaden your candidate pool by adjusting your stated requirements to be more reflective of what is truly needed to be successful in the position. We'll talk more about this in the section "The Wrong Candidates" later in this chapter.

Simplify the Application Process

Occasionally it is the application process itself that might be a roadblock. Is a cover letter really necessary? Inexperienced or first-time job seekers may self-select out if they are unsure how to write a cover letter, and folks who are learning English or have limited writing skills will be left behind. Many positions require neither, so why make it a part of the application? Must an assessment be part of the process? As discussed earlier, learning is a part of all onboarding processes, so make sure assessments are not unnecessarily shrinking your talent pool.

Ensure your application process is clear, straightforward, and accessible. In a world where virtual meetings are the norm, make sure there are user-friendly options for getting online. And remember that everyone has commitments in addition to a job search, so sufficient notice of requirements is important. Accessibility is key. 

“Avoiding last-minute interview requests can help break barriers to employment as it allows candidates to prepare proper clothing or arrange for childcare, increasing participation in the hiring process.” - Matt Strauss, CEO, RiseKit

It's not just about having great jobs; it's about making sure potential hires understand them, feel motivated to apply, and can easily do so. Tweak, adjust, and keep pushing forward, and you may soon find the right candidates knocking on your door. 

Build Awareness


Another reason that you might be missing out on candidates is that potential applicants lack sufficient understanding of the quality jobs you offer. Unless your job is featured on a popular TV series, prospective employees might not know what the job entails. Or worse, they may have misconceptions about what it would be like to have that job position.

Some employers have addressed this opportunity by presenting their companies and job openings to interested candidates at their partners’ sites. Meeting folks face-to-face allows you the opportunity to answer questions and clear up misconceptions in real time. 

Handy Hack: Invite the community to come to you. Work with your partner to host site tours or shadow days to help interested candidates better understand your industry and available roles. 

For example, in seeking employees for a large upcoming transit project, the Chicago Transit Authority hosted quarterly events near the future worksite. The organization’s goal was to encourage local community members to get directly involved in a transformational project happening in their neighborhoods. The event was advertised in the media as well as through several business services partners.

Even if you are a much smaller employer, you can invite community organizations or classrooms into your worksite. Don’t be shy about showcasing your great jobs and eagerness to hire. 

Make Jobs More Appealing

If you lack applicants, is it possible that the job itself is not appealing, or the compensation is falling short? 

Michele Smith at Advocate Aurora Health stresses the importance of evaluating whether you're offering a wage that can support a family. Mandee Polonsky from Northwestern Medicine agrees, highlighting the challenges of recruiting for demanding roles with modest initial salaries. Many folks may be unable to support their families or other financial obligations if the initial salary is not in line with their current needs. 

If you cannot increase the salary or hourly rate, maybe it’s possible to make the role more economically appealing in other ways. Here are ways to sweeten the deal that you can consider --

  • Provide compensation during training (funding may be available)

  • Support students in certification programs to sweeten the deal.

  • Offer flexible work arrangements, shared jobs

  • Organize employee resource groups (Black/Latinx, single parents, etc.)

  • Enable employees to access health and wellness options (e.g., gym memberships)

  • Provide access to transportation subsidies or vouchers

Your business services partners may be able to help you access funding to cover or offset the costs of these initiatives.

Offer Meaningful and Transparent Career Paths  

If you're looking to create a workplace where your team feels valued, motivated, and eager to grow, then defining and communicating clear career paths for entry-level positions could make all the difference.

DEFINITION: A Career Pathway is a roadmap for an employee’s career progression within their organization. Clearly defined opportunities for advancement are a best practice for creating an inclusive workplace as it removes the uncertainty employees may have regarding the skills they need in order to advance within the organization. 

When you lay out potential avenues for advancement within your organization, you're not just giving your employees a job—they're seeing a career with real potential. Take a cue from Christine Hill at Lettuce Entertain You, who highlights how dishwashers can aspire to become prep cooks and with the right attitude and willingness to learn they might just continue to move up the ladder. It's all about nurturing that sense of possibility. 

“There are many different career paths at National Tube Supply. All of our frontline supervisors are people who have been promoted from entry-level positions at our warehouse. They started in their initial role, then progressed to a lead role, and then moved into a supervisory position.” Kraig Kistinger, National Tube Supply

When your employees know there's room to climb the ladder, they're more likely to stick around. Michele Smith of Advocate Aurora Health understands this. She emphasizes how offering opportunities for growth means your team is more likely to stay put and truly value their experience with you. 

“As an organization, career mobility is extremely important to us. The more opportunities we can provide for our teammates, the more likely they are to stay with us and value their experience. For many positions, there are clear levels of progression that an employee may move along.” - Michele Smith, Advocate Aurora Health 

Not only does this keep current team happy, it also helps to attract talent. When prospective hires see that you're invested in their long-term development, they're more likely to choose you over the competition. Early childhood program Christopher House combatted a lack of candidates by defining various career paths that could originate in entry level positions, and spelling out the education and support associated with moving team members along those career paths. For example, the team identified how an entry level position such as Food Aide could grow into a career in early childhood education, with support from the school to earn needed certifications and diplomas. They made this information available to applicants, to demonstrate the potential in the role. 

Below is an excerpt from one of Christopher House’s brochures for current and prospective team members. 

Be sure to share the standout stories. Kraig Kistinger notes that the current President of National Tube Supply started out in the shipping office. 

Employers: it's time to get proactive. Consider mapping out career paths for your entry-level positions, highlighting training and support every step of the way, and communicating those opportunities to both current and prospective team members.

The Wrong Candidates? 

Maybe you have a partner or partners referring candidates to you, but you’re finding that their participants do not meet your minimum qualifications. 

This could be a very quick fix. You might be able to address expectation gaps through better communication with your partner. Talk it out, be crystal clear about your expectations, and make adjustments if needed. Fewer referrals of qualified candidates is better than a lot of resumes that miss the mark. 

In extreme cases, you may find that the partner’s candidate pool is not right for you, and you need a different partner (see When a Partner Is Not Working Out, at the end of this chapter).

On the other hand, there may be steps you can take yourself to get the right candidates for your job openings. Here are some ways that employers like you have made adjustments and found success.

Reimagine Educational Requirements

Are your listed job requirements really required? 

If applicant and team diversity is among your goals, consider how certain requirements might dissuade candidates from applying. Is a four-year degree really required for that role? Maybe not; maybe it’s just the way jobs have always been listed for your company. Could you gain qualified applicants by rethinking your qualifications to be more reflective of what the job actually requires from day one?

Un-Fun Fact: College requirements can exclude individuals from already challenged groups. According to Cara Plus’s Advokit: “70% of new jobs require a four-year degree, yet less than 50% of the workforce has a four-year degree. Those who identify as Black or Latinx are disproportionately impacted; 65% of Black workers and 55% of Latinx workers identify as STARs [Skilled Through Alternative Routes] compared to 49%% of White workers”.

According to a November 2023 survey of 800 U.S. employers conducted by, 45% of companies plan to eliminate bachelor’s degree requirements for some positions by 2024. Onboarding for any position at any level requires a certain amount of training and learning, so why not be open to someone with less previous experience?

Some employers are finding that traditional expectations no longer fit today’s labor market. Mandee Polonsky of Northwestern Medicine says, “We're updating job descriptions to be more inclusive, focusing on potential rather than unnecessary experience, so more people with just a high school diploma can jump right in.” 

If your job opening has educational requirements, consider alternatives like "associates degree or four years related experience." Could a required certification be earned after hire, rather than before? It's not about lowering standards; it's about expanding opportunities. 

Consider Customized Training

Maybe your pipeline is full of ready-to-work candidates, but your role requires job-specific knowledge and skills which your applicants do not yet have. You can tap the resources of the workforce ecosystem to help you address that challenge.

Many business services partners can help with customized training to help deliver on-the-job performance. Remember Alita Bezanis from Pete’s Fresh Market? Some of her team members’ lack of experience using English on the job was hampering their ability to provide great customer service. So Alita teamed up with Instituto Del Progreso Latino, crafting an ESL curriculum that focused on customer service language. Alita shares, "It was such a rewarding experience for everyone, especially after seeing the pride our ESL employees felt during their graduation." 

Alita's analysis also revealed the demanding nature of the cashier role. Building on prior success, Pete’s introduced a streamlined two-day onboarding process and a weekly training program for that role. Alita shares how their efforts impacted quality and the bottom line: "Our retention rates improved significantly, and our cashiers have grown more adept at handling customer interactions." 

Sure, you can build your own training programs without partners. But why not take advantage of free or subsidized help, from agencies who have significant experience raising the skills of workers similar to your team members? Take a cue from Tom Vranas, and access public funds (In his case, from Cook County) to raise the skills of new hires; the county may cover a some percentage of payroll and training costs for the first few weeks or months on the job.

Consider Apprenticeship

Speaking of the value of partners, let's talk about a real game-changer: apprenticeships. In the United States, apprenticeships have often focused on pathways into the trades. Today, apprenticeships have gone beyond the traditional trades and into the realm of "white collar" professions, thanks to innovative employers in Chicago and Cook County.

Take Aon, for example. They're offering apprenticeships that pave whole new education-and-career paths in human resources, finance, and IT. Aon apprentices are paid a salary, enjoy benefits, and earn an associate degree from a local community college—all while working and learning on-the-job. Apprentices spend three days per week on the job, and two days in class. Aon covers the tuition and fees, and nonprofit partners are there to offer a safety net of support outside the office. 

Aon’s experience demonstrates that apprenticeship involves an investment on the part of the employer, but has a potentially large payoff. When the curtain falls on the academic journey, most apprentices continue as full-fledged Aon employees. With an 80% retention rate, Shay Robinson from Aon believes this shows "the real power of apprenticeships."

Fun Fact: Since 2017, the Chicago Apprentice Network has grown from three founding companies – Accenture, Aon and Zurich North America – to more than 110 companies across multiple industries. For more apprenticeship information and success stories, visit Chicago Apprentice Network

Advocate Aurora Healthcare also has a lineup of apprenticeship programs, from culinary arts to information technology. According to Michele Smith, “We sponsor a majority of the payments for classes, helping staff move from entry level positions in food and environmental services, for instance, to middle skill high paying careers within our organization.” Some of Advocate’s programs, such as the facilities maintenance, culinary arts, and laboratory tech programs, are structured as cohort- based learning programs with online educators. In some programs, team members can take classes on nights and weekends. 

Advocate is not just financing education; they're propelling team members from entry-level gigs to high-paying careers within the organization. In their world, apprenticeship is a journey of growth. 80-85% percent of their apprentices stick around after completing the program. 

So, if you're eyeing a game-changing investment in people, skills, performance, and retention, think apprenticeships. 

Background Check Blues

Are your partners referring candidates, but many of them are unable to pass your organization’s background check or drug screen policies? 

Your organization may not be able to change the fact that candidates for certain positions are required by law to pass a drug screen or background check. If this is the boat you are in, you might consider looking at a partner with a different pool of candidates (see When a Partner Is Not Working Out, later in this chapter). 

If your policies stem from your own organization’s processes or history, consider whether you might become more flexible or “background-friendly.” Don Biernacki of Related Midwest understands both the injustice and the impact of the situation: “It’s not fair that returning citizens are constantly asked to wear the proverbial scarlet letter. This disproportionately affects black men and leads to issues across Chicagoland and in communities nationally. As employers, we have to be able to provide more opportunities for this population.” 

Un-Fun Fact: When White Americans have a criminal record, their chances of getting a callback job interview decreases from 34% to 17%. Conversely, when Black adults have a criminal record, their chances of getting a callback decreases from 14% to 5%. 

So what to do? Consider a range of options, from adjusting policies to simply clarifying them for candidates. Here are some ideas. 

Adjust Policies

Are your criminal background or drug policies thoughtfully tailored to the reality of workers’ ability to perform roles at your company? Based on facts, many employers have stopped automatically ruling out candidates who have been involved with the justice system. According to Kevin Herman of Schulze & Burch, “We have plenty of people who have worked here for a long time who have criminal records but have paid their debt to society, and they are some of our best employees.”  

DEFINITION: Fair Chance Hiring means that employers refrain from including on a job application any questions about conviction history before a conditional offer has been made. They also avoid asking about or considering a job candidate's criminal history before a conditional offer has been made. This effort helps to remove common barriers faced by justice involved individuals.

At BMO, Julie Garfield found that the FDIC's stringent rules on criminal backgrounds, particularly financial crimes, can disqualify banking job candidates. But that didn’t stop the organization from doing what it could. “Our HR team has evolved to better navigate these guidelines, effectively identifying which convictions do not necessarily disqualify candidates,” says Julie. “This has underscored the need for case-by-case evaluations and transparent communication with applicants.” 

One option for adjustment is to consider severity and timing. Can you declare low level drug convictions or convictions in the distant past irrelevant? Consider limiting your lookback period to 5-7 years.

“We do ask at the appropriate stage of the process if there are any felony convictions and review that as an appropriate risk management step that our current employees would expect us to take. We need to check and see if we're considering risk of violence in the workplace. Convictions don't mean somebody is going to be violent, but if there is a job related pattern there we do feel we need to ask about it.” Heather Ronnow, Chief Human Resources Officer, Kronos World Cuisine

Some employers go beyond adjusting policies to actively try to help applicants eliminate barriers. Discover's Camille DeCicco shares, “We explain to applicants opportunities they might look into pursuing to remove barriers to employment, or how to navigate the court system in order to provide us with the info we need to finish our background check process.”  

Ditch the One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Every candidate has a unique story, and blanket policies across your hiring board might not cut it. According to Kevin of Schulze & Burch “If something shows up in a background check, we take into account the severity and when it happened before we make a decision.” Flexibility and case-by-case evaluations can open doors to a diverse pool of talent. 

The nature-time-nature approach is one way to consider each applicant individually. 

  • Nature: What was the nature and gravity of the offense? 

  • Time: How much time has elapsed since the offense? 

  • Nature: What is the nature of the job being sought? 

The nature-time-nature test helps an employer determine if the offense and surrounding circumstances are sufficiently correlated to negatively impact the candidate’s ability to perform a role. If the candidate’s past criminal history has no strong connection to the role or organization, then the employer may consider moving forward in the hiring process. 

For example, if a candidate applies to be a delivery driver, a DUI conviction may be a barrier to employment, as the responsibilities of the job and the nature of the offense are deeply correlated. However, if the same candidate applied instead for an administrative position where driving is not required, the conviction wouldn’t relate to the skills required for the role.

Define Your Policy Clearly

Whatever your policies are, don't leave candidates in the dark. If your hands are tied by regulations, risk management, or other constraints, be up front about it. 

Cara's Advokit suggests specifying what convictions are deal-breakers and how far back you look. Clarity helps candidates make informed decisions about applying, increasing the chances of finding the right fit. According to Cara’s Advokit, “Even the simple act of specifying what [you] will/will not accept can increase applications from qualified candidates who may otherwise not apply when they see broad language around a background check.”

“We are trying to better communicate to applicants that our practices are equitable. We want to minimize the number of people that count themselves out before applying.” Camille DeCicco, Discover  

Similarly, clarity around a drug policy can help get the right candidates in the door. Do you conduct testing? Do you test for drugs that may be legal in your state, such as marijuana? Are there exceptions for medical marijuana prescriptions? Clarity and specificity can save time for both you and potential candidates.

It's all about building bridges, not barriers. Be fair, communicate openly, and, who knows, you might find some of your best employees among those who've overcome past challenges. 

“The point is not to tip the scales toward an inappropriate hire, but to recognize that there is already inherent bias against hiring someone with a record, and there is a need to develop a system that creates a process grounded in fair consideration and finding the best person for the job.” Jeffrey D. Korzenik, Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for your Business and the Community

Process Issues 

Ever felt like the hiring process is moving at a snail's pace? Some employers have found that the path from connecting with a partner to seeing candidates can be longer than for a traditional job post. 

If you feel that the process is taking more time, you are probably right! Some partners require a site visit and a job analysis to ensure a good match for their participants. Additionally, Corneisha Fowler from Cara Collective highlights that different industries have different speed limits. Food service might clock in at two weeks from application to onboarding, but healthcare and casinos? Brace yourself for a potential two-month journey. Background checks, drug screenings, and vaccinations are like traffic lights slowing things down. 

While some up-front time investment may be necessary, there are often steps employers and partners can take to speed things up. Let's dive into why your timeline might be dragging and how we can grease the wheels.

Expect Mitigating Tradeoffs Down the Line

Before drawing any conclusions, be sure to get all the way through one end-to-end process, and then repeat. Getting a partnership established can take time. But keep in mind that your partner’s active involvement can streamline other parts of hiring, and save you time in the future. Response times from independent applicants can lag, while a proactive partner actively champions its participants, following up promptly on applications and advocating for them and you. This proactive approach can expedite even the longer processes typical of certain industries. 

“While the timeline varies from employer to employer, it typically takes a month to get everything established. We generally begin with an introductory appointment. During the initial meeting, we listen closely to understand what a business's needs are and what occupations they are looking to fill. We use this as an opportunity to educate the business on the WIOA requirements and determine whether they are interested in tapping into the WIOA funding opportunities. We also use this to assess and gain buy-in early on in the relationship.” - Kathleen Brannigan, Business Services Manager, Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership

Keep in mind that the first time through with a new partner requires some investment of time, but with practice, knowledge, communication, and repetition, things will begin to go faster. 

Employ Persistence 

Anyone in business knows that initiating a new partnership can take a little time and effort; for both parties! Getting past the “cold call” phase can sometimes require a little persistence. Nonprofit organizations generally run on a combination of public funding, philanthropic grants, and donations from individuals. They want nothing more than to hear from you and help their participants get connected with the great opportunities you have to offer, but they do occasionally need a little grace on your part. 

If you do not get an immediate response, follow up. And try a different communication approach, or even more than one. Be sure you’re reaching out to the right person. Many nonprofits don’t have the luxury of a central receptionist who knows the inner workings of the organization and can get you to the right person right away. Look for the section on their website named something like “for employers” or “business services” or “employer outreach”. Those will give you a better chance of connecting with the correct person right away.

The effort you put into starting your relationship on the right foot will pay dividends down the line when you are able to go to your trusted partner for assistance with any talent needs that arise.

Invest in Success

If you have more than one business services partner, investing in efficient processes, routines, and even teams might pay off fast. 

Mandee Polonsky of Northwestern Medicine says, “With our established system and dedicated staff, integrating new partners into our employment process is quite efficient and turnkey. We maintain a special application link for candidates from our partners, and our team holds bi-weekly calls with these partners to discuss candidate progress, including who's moving forward, who needs additional support, and attendance issues.” 

Employers may also consider a solution like RiseKit (see chapter 5, Identify and Research Partnership Options). According to Matt Strauss of RiseKit, corporations typically spend 50 hours per year establishing an alliance and feedback loop with just one community partner. Employers using RiseKit will significantly reduce time-consuming tasks and enhance efficiency, helping companies have more interviews, find an untapped talent pool, and partner with more community organizations. 

Matt Strauss estimates that a company could reduce the costs of collaborating with partners by up to 95%, while dramatically increasing the number of partners and candidates it sees. 

It's a journey, not a race. Find that sweet spot where efficiency meets excellence. 

Lack of Career Readiness

So, you've got some new talent on board, but you’re hearing that the on-the-job demeanor or behaviors of your new teammates aren’t meeting the expectations of their supervisors or peers. 

Heather Ronnow of Kronos Foods has experienced this. “We struggle to re-train on core societal, emotional, conflict management, and life skills. We assume that people are coming in with that, and they're not.” 

But before dishing out critiques, make sure it's a fair game. These types of issues aren’t exclusive to hires made through your partners. Issues of job readiness tend to be the same for hires from all sources, including traditional recruiting practices. Be sure to keep the lens clear and unbiased when evaluating employees that come from your partners.

“A common misconception is that candidates from social or workforce programs aren't ready or suitable. Employers might doubt their readiness and potential. Our job is to change this view by highlighting our track record of successful career placements and the comprehensive preparation we provide. This includes job readiness, executive skills training, career coaching/advising, and work-based training, including On-the-Job Training, Paid Work Experience, Pre-Apprenticeships, and Apprenticeships (OJT).” - Anissa' Jones, Senior VP of Employment and Human Services, E&ES

There are strategies to tackle those challenges in a way that's fair, professional, and effective. We'll cover some solutions such as --

  • Consulting your business services partner

  • Ensuring your workplace is equitable

  • Exploring mentorship

  • Adding learning opportunities

Collaborate for Realistic Improvement 

When on-the-job issues arise, turn first to your business services partner. Describe the situation and its effects. It’s likely that your partner has seen something similar, and will have some suggestions. 

We’re not saying that a partner’s first suggestion is always the way to go. Marisela Williams at Freedman Seating reports that partners are not always in tune with employers’ expectations and limitations. For example, her organization experienced an issue when workers were spending too much time on their personal mobile phones during business hours. The referring partner’s suggestion? For the employer to collect employees’ mobile phones daily. That just wasn’t going to work in a real-world work environment. Marisela says, “Community organizations' requirements can be limiting, and they sometimes lack insight into business realities.” 

Maybe this first suggestion from this partner wasn’t a good fit, but they are clearly trying to help. Maybe this solution has worked in the past for another employer. The point is: you are the most qualified person to know what will and what will not work for your business. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and use your experience to collaborate with your partner to find a solution. Who knows? Perhaps your solution will be a perfect fit for another employer in the future.

“This system works best when all parties are upholding their responsibilities. We’ve walked away from some organizations where the communication from their team was lacking, particularly during the hiring process. We’d ask follow-up questions about a candidate and not receive any feedback.” - Tom Vranas, Chief of Staff, Innovation, and People, Zentro

Work directly with partners to create programs that consider the real challenges faced by both employees and employers. 

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Check

When considering complaints, give your organization's "career readiness" and "professionalism" standards a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) check. Be careful that your organization’s standards are not merely reflections of the dominant culture.

If complaints are ringing a bit hollow, think about whether it’s time to re-set expectations around what “career ready” or “professional” really means in the context of a diverse employee base. Not long ago, it was considered “unprofessional” for women in the workplace to wear skirts without pantyhose… or even wear pants at all! We can all agree that this particular custom is outdated, unfairly targets women, and is no longer relevant. Is it possible that some of your current workplace standards are unfairly targeting another group? Be prepared to listen when employees voice concerns from a place of curiosity. 

Un-fun fact: A 2023 CROWN Workplace Research study found that, despite some progress over the past few years, race-based hair discrimination still remains a widespread issue for Black women in the workplace. Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.

Ebony from the Chicago Housing Authority shares a common issue with their youth employment programs – young participants not quite acing the professional decorum game. Ebony notes, “Employers sometimes expect them to act like adults in professional settings, which can lead to misunderstandings.” Setting realistic expectations up front can help, especially if you also advise supervisors on where to turn when help is needed. 

This can be especially important when hosting interns or other talent that is by definition inexperienced. 

“I think that it is important when working with any intern to be flexible and understanding of the fact that they're still figuring out their working style. They may not be skilled in advocating for themselves or navigating professional conflict. They may still be learning time and task management skills. We learned to be flexible and to help our interns improve their soft skills through coaching and demonstrating healthy behaviors.” Jasmine Nelson, Sr. Manager of Post-Secondary Coaching, UtmostU

Embrace Mentorship

When everyone agrees that growth and change are called for, Ebony Campbell at Chicago Housing Authority stresses the power of mentorship. A partner can be a supportive coach. Ebony says, ”We step in with support services, like counseling, to understand and address the root causes. These young people often bring their entire range of experiences to work, including their home and community life, and may struggle with adapting to new environments and people.” Remember, everyone brings a unique life mix to work, and adaptation takes time. 

“I hosted weekly one- or two-hour working sessions with [our intern] Jada where we sat together but worked separately. This allowed me to create an environment where we could organically discuss the logistics of how to accomplish various work tasks. In these sessions, I focused on modeling my working style openly, rather than imposing one on her. I learned that this method was very helpful in helping Jada to adopt new practices in a neutral setting.” Kimberly Hawkins, Director of Advancement, UtmostU

Your business service partner might Include mentorship as part of their services. And, you also can provide guidance that is unique to your workplace by matching each newcomer with an incumbent employee who can help them navigate the formal and informal norms and practices at your workplace. Having a person to go to with questions and concerns can help ease the transition of a new employee, and costs virtually nothing to provide.

Add Learning Opportunities

If gaps in career readiness seem to be happening consistently, another option is to provide opportunities for new team members to learn and grow on the job. Just a few hours of training per week can clarify expectations and provide opportunities to practice new skills and behaviors. 

Heartland Alliance provides up to 15 hours per week of professional development for people affected by gun violence. Their approach combines cognitive behavioral interventions as well as skill-based workshop opportunities to help Chicagoans integrate more smoothly into a new workplace.

“Programs like Heartland Alliance's READI Chicago have supported employee integration, particularly for those overcoming trauma.” - Marisela Williams, Freedman Seating

This approach worked wonders in the Chicago Housing Authority’s summer youth employment program, when feedback revealed that young participants lacked financial literacy, specifically understanding their paychecks and taxes. Confusion around why paychecks were lower than expected was impacting morale, so CHA implemented a program to teach them what to expect not only at this job, but for all future employment as well.

"Our Level Up program provides basic financial education, and we're now expanding these efforts through strategic partnerships for more comprehensive and clear instruction.” - Ebony Campbell, Chicago Housing Authority

Attendance Issues


Let's talk attendance. While employees from partners often bring unparalleled loyalty, life's twists can create attendance hurdles for everyone, not just partner referrals. 

“Challenges such as grief, loss, and external incidents like bank robberies significantly affect our staff,” says Julie Garfield of BMO. “Childcare is another major concern. Despite offering a parental leave package, employees with young children often struggle to balance work with childcare needs. A national, stable childcare infrastructure would greatly aid in addressing this ongoing issue.”

Employers can take steps to promote consistent attendance in the here and now. A key is investigating and understanding the causes of attendance issues. 

“Sometimes, personal circumstances make consistent employment difficult for employees. While we aim to support, there's a balance to maintain between community aid and business needs. We often offer second chances, and except for severe issues, we keep the door open for former employees to return.” - Marisela Williams, HR Director, Freedman Seating

Some actions other employers have taken to address common causes of attendance issues are --

  • Offering transportation support

  • Leveraging continuing support from partner

  • Addressing personal challenges

  • Seeking outside resources

Transportation Support

Are team members missing work because of transportation challenges? If you see a pattern here, you may want to follow the lead of employers who have tackled the issue head on.

For example, some employers have invested in rideshare options. At Kronos Foods, Heather Ronnow calculated that an UberPool from the closest train stop would pay off. The company arranged for a couple of authorized supervisors to call for an Uber each day. This approach Improved attendance and had the additional advantage of giving the students a built-in community from sharing their commute.

Matt Strauss of RiseKit notes that “businesses can collaborate with their community partners and set up transportation services, such as buses, to provide job seekers with transportation to the interviews and educational programs. Or they can cover transportation costs through bus vouchers or train vouchers for the first few weeks to a month of employment.” 

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) offers benefit programs that can save money for both employees and employers by allowing employees to pay for transit through pretax dollars. If your workplace is accessible via the CTA, you can help offset transport costs by enrolling in their program.

Continuing Support from Partner

If a smattering of different issues appears to be affecting attendance, you might want to consider a business services partner that continues to support their program participants after placement. 

For example - 

  • The Cara Program stays in touch with graduates for the first year of placement in a job

  • New Moms follows up with participants for up to two years after they exit the program 

  • Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) provides wrap-around supportive services: financial coaching, benefits enrollment assistance, legal referrals, and much more

“We had a situation where an employer partner called us because one of our participants did not show up for work and they were unable to get in contact with her. This was very unusual and the employer wanted to know if we knew what had occurred. Moments later, the participant walked through our doors with news of the fire and a request to use the telephone. This turned out to be a great opportunity for us to step in and support her not only with rebuilding, but also with maintaining the relationship with her employer. Because trust had been established and communication channels were already in place, when tragedy struck, the participant, employer and our organization were able to find a resolution together.” - Gabrielle Caverl-McNeal, New Moms

Address Personal Challenges 

What are the issues that lead first to attendance issues, and eventually to attrition? Family illnesses. Vehicle breakdowns. Unexpected expenses. Childcare gaps. In other words, life. It impacts everyone. And some team members have fewer resources available to serve as a safety net. 

That’s why some employers offer general support to help employees make it to work. For example, Advocate Aurora Health experienced very high attrition during the pandemic, particularly with employees in entry-level positions in their Environmental Services, Transport, and Food and Nutrition units. After surveying the team, the organization learned that more often than not, personal challenges were impacting employees' attendance.

So Advocate instituted a “Success Coaching Program” that provided not only support and advice, but also resources to address career-threatening issues and crises. And the organization achieved outstanding return on its investment. 

“The Success Coaching Program systematically provides wraparound support to staff, in the form of grocery gift cards, cafeteria vouchers, emergency child care resources, and a variety of additional supports. This program is in place to ensure team members are able to continue employment even through difficult personal challenges. This program has been quite a success, and we’ve seen a 80% retention rate among participants.” - Michele Smith at Advocate Aurora Health

Toby Eveland of Saul Ewing LLP partners with Bright Horizons Chicago who provide employees with additional resources for their families, including emergency child care, elder care, and pet care, thus decreasing the number of callout days an employee has due to care needs at home.

“We aim to enhance mental and physical health support for our employees, recognizing the impact of health disparities on attendance and performance.” - Julie Garfield, BMO

Seek Outside Resources

Is support called for, but you lack the budget or other resources to provide it? Maybe you can rely on your partner, or an additional business services partner, to provide free or subsidized help. 

“Once a participant secures a job through Cara, they receive one year of retention support. Each participant is paired with an Individual Development Specialist (IDS), essentially a retention coach, who accompanies them throughout their journey, from pre-employment to job placement. These coaches conduct regular check-ins, initially twice a month and then monthly, to offer support in both professional and personal matters, including assistance with transportation fares and rent.” - Corneisha Fowler, Corporate Account Specialist, Cara Collective

Look into free and subsidized support services. Seek out partners who help team members show up as well as ride out the inevitable challenges that life throws at all of us. 

Everyone, not just talent from workforce organizations, faces challenges both on and off the job. Understanding, empathy, and support can increase the value of your investment in talent partnerships. 

High Turnover

If the employees you hire through partner referrals aren’t staying on the job, that can be very frustrating. What might the reasons be? Investigate the source of attrition, and respond accordingly. Read on to learn from other employers what questions to ask, and think about these possible responses. 

Clarify Expectations

Are the requirements of the role crystal clear? In their enthusiasm for a successful partnership, both employers and business services partners might gloss over some of the challenges associated with a specific job description. Overtime expectations, scheduling variability, unexpected physical demands - any of these might lead to turnover down the line. 

“It’s tough to find people who want to work in some of these roles, even in the current economy. It’s important that partners be clear with their clients as to what to expect in a manufacturing environment to make sure that it’s a good fit.” - Kevin Herman, Schulze & Burch

Possible solution: Clarify everything around what to expect on the job, and make sure that information is getting through to candidates. Ensure clarity about the role and its demands. Three shifts, long hours—spell it out. It's better to set expectations right from the start for a mutually beneficial journey.


Foster a Welcoming Workplace

Could lack of inclusion be making it difficult for employees to stay on the job? If so, there are steps employers can take to make the workplace more welcoming. 

“We have recently started a program called Coco that focuses on making sure that the job sites are free from discrimination and are safe and welcoming of all, particularly women and minorities. We acknowledge that a culture of respect and decency contributes positively to a person’s safety and well-being. We have to be sure that we are cultivating environments where people are always being treated fairly.” Don Biernacki, Related Midwest 

If you find that you are losing good talent because they don’t feel comfortable on the job, consider bolstering inclusion practices. Details of how to do this are beyond the scope of this book, but there are resources you can consult, and plenty of examples of how to do this successfully. Searching for business services in the “Retention & Inclusion” category on Talent Solutions Connector would be a great place to start if you are interested in learning more.

Handy Hack: The Chicago Resiliency Network offers cohort-based programs for employers aiming to improve their workplaces by helping employees grow and thrive while achieving better business outcomes. It is a great resource for employers looking to create a trauma-informed workplace that supports employees from all backgrounds.

Ensure your workplace is a stage for everyone. Cultivate an environment free from discrimination. A culture of respect and decency keeps the environment positive, and will produce benefits beyond higher retention.

Enhance Workplace Culture

If you’re losing valuable team members, ask your business services partner to share any feedback from referred employees who did not stick around. Are there issues on the job that could be easily addressed? Can you be creative about addressing those issues to improve the experience of new hires? 

Irene Sherr from The Cook County Bureau of Economic Development offers an insight—your workplace culture matters. In the evolving landscape of what constitutes a 'good job,' comp and benefits are not the only considerations. Factors such as workplace belonging and employee voice are important also. If you're facing talent shortages, consider revamping your internal culture and workspace to attract a diverse range of candidates. Make your workplace a magnet for talent.


Employ Supportive Tactics

In addition to the strategies above, there are some relatively simple and inexpensive tactics that some employers have found make a big difference in attracting and retaining frontline employees. Julian Posada is the founder and CEO of LiftUp Enterprises, a business that intentionally recruits team members from generally overlooked talent pools to provide cleaning, landscaping, pest management, and other services. For his team members, Julian has found that the following make a big difference -- 

  • Weekly pay: Getting paid weekly, rather than bi-weekly or monthly, is helpful for team members who may not have much savings  

  • Employer provided loans: Easy access to small loans to handle unexpected expenses

  • Referrals: When a team member is experiencing a life challenge, Julian’s firm can refer them to a supportive organization to provide food, health, childcare, and other support. 

In seeking a competitive advantage for his business, Julian also has found that a broader array of support for not only employees but also their family members makes a difference. To that end, Julian set up a nonprofit organization, LiftUp Communities, to provide additional support in the form of wraparound services. 

“You have to look at an employee’s entire life and factor in circumstances that have nothing to do with the job. If someone is dealing with an issue that impacts their sister, mother, uncle, or child, for instance, that is going to affect the worker. If I have a landscaper whose wife isn't working, that will affect my employee. We are considering a person’s whole life situation and providing many avenues of support for that person and those in their network. “ - Julian Posada, LiftUp Enterprises

Sometimes all it takes to increase employee retention is to remove some of the unnecessary pain points they are experiencing.

Make Work More Rewarding 

With or without engaging with the workforce development ecosystem, and with or without employer services partners, employers with many front-line team members can seek competitive advantage by improving jobs. 

One set of strategies is suggested by the Good Jobs Institute. This think tank recommends four primary strategies -- 

  • Focus and simplify: Simplify operations to be consistent with your value proposition. This reduces firefighting and non-value-add work, enabling better service

  • Standardize and empower: Standardize tasks that benefit most from efficiencies and consistency, while empowering team members to adapt to local conditions, solve customer problems, and continuously improve

  • Cross-train: Train every employee to flex into various roles when needed

  • Operate with slack: Staff higher than the expected workload to meet customer demand at peak periods, keep up on task lists when demand goes down, and provide good work life balance to teams 

According to the Good Jobs Institute, employing these strategies produces “lower turnover costs (recruiting, training, productivity ramp), less waste/shrink, less wasted productivity due to operational problems, and higher sales from more engaged and experienced employees.” Additionally, it’s an ethical choice, because “higher wages, stable schedules and career paths have tangible effects on the health of individuals and communities.” 

Read an overview of the “good jobs strategy” on Medium.

When a Partner Is Not Working Out 

So, you've hit a few bumps with your business services partner. It happens. Now, the million-dollar question: Should you tough it out or jump ship? 

Don't Give Up

Not every match is made in heaven.

“In some cases, the agencies could do a better job of vetting candidates and ensuring that their participants will truly be a good fit for the position. I had an experience with an agency where they initially told us about 20 job seekers, but once we showed them our openings and waited for some time, we ended up with zero candidates. That particular experience went poorly, and I gave that hard feedback to the director of the organization.” - Kraig Kistinger, National Tube Supply

In some cases, you may find that the costs of addressing challenges are outweighing the benefits of a partnership. But before you pull the plug, ask yourself --

  • Does the partner own up when things go sideways?

  • Are they offering helpful suggestions for next steps?

  • Do they have a game plan to dodge similar issues in the future?

If your team offers up a chorus of "heck yeah," maybe it's worth a second try. Share your thoughts, team up on fixes, and let's see if round two hits the sweet spot. 

Or, Move On

Sometimes, it's just not the right partner. You like the organization, but the talent pool or training or support isn't playing out the way you thought it would. No hard feelings; it happens.

There are plenty of partners out there and at least one of them will have what you're looking for, whether that's new faces, fresh training styles, or maybe a long-term support package.


Summing Up

In this chapter we've tackled some hurdles – from hiring to on-the-job adventures to knowing when it's time to change the game. Now, let's wrap it up with a tool you can use to apply the lessons learned in this journey.

Use this worksheet (or something similar) to diagnose, analyze, and plan how to handle the challenges you are facing. 


Severity of Issue

Notes on Likely / Possible Causes

Solutions to Consider

Lack of candidates

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Adjust job descriptions

𝤿 Simplify application process

𝤿 Build awareness

𝤿 Consider Internships

𝤿 Make jobs more appealing

𝤿 Other: 

Wrong candidates

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Reimagine educational requirements

𝤿 Consider customized training

𝤿 Consider apprenticeship 

𝤿 Other: 

Background check blues

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Adjust policies

𝤿 Take a more individualized approach

𝤿 Define policies clearly 

𝤿 Other: 

Process issues

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Await mitigating tradeoffs

𝤿 Employ persistence

𝤿 Invest in success

𝤿 Other: 

Lack of career readiness

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Collaborate with partner on solutions

𝤿 Conduct DEI check

𝤿 Provide coaching

𝤿 Add learning opportunities 

𝤿 Other: 

Attendance issues

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Provide transportation support

𝤿 Offer wraparound support services

𝤿 Offer success coaching

𝤿 Seek outside resources

𝤿 Other: 

High turnover 

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Clarify expectations 

𝤿 Foster a welcoming workplace

𝤿 Enhance workplace culture

𝤿 Other: 

Partner not working out

𝤿 Not present

𝤿 Mild

𝤿 Moderate

𝤿 Severe

𝤿 Collaborate for improvement 

𝤿 Make a change 

𝤿 Other: 

Every challenge is a chance to make a positive impact. Here's to building a future where every workplace is a beacon of inclusion and every individual's potential is unleashed. Onward and upward! 



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