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May 2012
Finding The Right Fit
By Zenda Douglas

     Embarking on 15 years in business, Ethel Harris doesn’t yet know what form her anniversary celebrations will take, but one thing she does know is the theme—gratitude.

     “I want to let it be known how much I appreciate the support of the Charlotte business community over the years,” says Harris, owner of her namesake business, Ethel Harris, Inc. “It’s been a real privilege to get to know so many people and be involved in making the connections that further their lives, careers and businesses.”

     A staffing solutions company, Ethel Harris focuses on permanent, temporary and temp-to-hire employee candidate placement based on specific skill sets. Specializing in office administration, the company handles staffing needs caused by unexpected emergency, illness, planned leave, regular staff vacancy and surge-in-business human resources needs.

     Resourcing is done for positions including administrative assistant, accounting specialist, bookkeeper, clerical personnel, data entry, executive assistant, legal support, purchasing / buyer, paralegal, receptionist, and security-cleared staff. Placements are also made with engineers, IT people and upper-level warehouse staff. Harris says she excels with the rapid pace of administrative placement as opposed to more drawn out executive searches.


The Placement Biz

     Located in uptown Charlotte in the Plaza Building, Ethel Harris works with employers in the extended Charlotte region. Its goal is to save clients valuable time and turnover utilizing its extensive staffing network and an ever-evolving pool of qualified candidates. Typically, employers are companies with 25 to 500 employees and include those in manufacturing, sales, distribution and construction, and those with corporate offices in the region.

     “We work for quality versus quantity so we don’t work with the huge conglomerates,” says Harris. Weekly activity varies but the company typically has 50 to 75 workers out in the field, selected from thousands of registrants in the company’s database. More than 50 percent of placements end up in permanent hires, according to Harris.

     Placement fees are paid by the employer. Our fees are fairly standard in the industry, however, Harris notes that the recessionary market has at times demanded more competitive fees.

     “The recession has been rough on everyone,” says Harris. “We’ve done like everybody else—held on, and cut all the expenses we could.”

     Still, Harris has little patience for negativity. “When I hear people talk about the recession and how bad things are, I want to send them a copy of ‘Pollyanna,’” says the Paula Dean-style gritty Southern belle.

     “Things are picking up,” Harris continues, “We are twice as busy as we were a year ago and I expect the jobs to keep coming back. The human resource field is always a barometer of the economy.”

     “Since I’ve been in business, there have been four periods of ups and downs,” Harris says, but the recession of the past few years has been nothing like she’s seen before—more severe and of longer duration with double digit unemployment rates.

     Harris explains that when the unemployment rate is low, it is easier to obtain job orders than to fill them. When the unemployment rate is high, there are many people available and few companies with open positions.

     “Human resources is a lot different than when I first went into business,” says Harris, referring to the loss of client exclusivity and the duplication involved in the use of job boards. “Plus, business used to be conducted in a more verbal fashion.”

     Harris also cites significant changes in technology; mostly for the good. More national companies and fewer small companies are handling human resources, even temporary services.

     “Also, it takes more tenacity to get to the right contact than it used to,” she points out.


A Handshake Approach

     Ethel Harris’s handshake logo means you do what you say you’re going to do, and if you can’t, you tell the client why, says Harris. It’s also a reminder that she runs the company on the golden rule: Don’t do anything to someone that you would not want done to you.

     “I like working with people who have high ethics; it’s really important to me,” says Harris. She describes her company as a faith-based business in that every decision is made after lots of prayer. “My faith and trust is why this business has survived and why we’re where we are.”

     Harris spells out her company name in lower case letters: “I do that so I don’t forget where I came from and that someone else is in control—and it isn’t me!”

     Ethel Harris’s approach is one of interpersonal connections and personal touch.

     “We don’t start and stop with shooting emails,” says Harris. “Nor could we recruit over the telephone without meeting people. We really work on the behalf of the client and the candidate. We network until we find the right person for the job.”

     Harris compares the difference between her company’s services and the use of Internet job boards to the difference between going to a general practitioner versus seeking out a medical specialist.

     “When a new client calls,” she says, “we go out to see them because we want to see the environment and get a feel for the atmosphere. Is there mahogany furniture or metal; offices or cubicles? Is it a warehouse setting or corporate office? Is it casual or formal? This helps us tremendously in identifying a candidate who will be comfortable and effective in that setting. Plus, if it’s someplace that we’re afraid to go, we won’t send someone else there.” An example, we visited a client that has “dog” day on Fridays. It would not be good to send someone afraid of dogs.”

     Candidates are thoroughly interviewed and screened by Ethel Harris staff and undergo testing to assess experience and skill before being placed to assure an excellent fit.

     “In this business you are dealing with a person’s life and where they are headed. It’s hard to know where they will fit without knowing something about them,” says Harris. “We build relationships.”

     There is one constant, says Harris: “Each person that comes through these doors is going through some kind of change, whether it’s around employment challenges, marriage, divorce, death of a loved one or other life situation.” Ethel Harris staff is experienced in recognizing these situations, according to Harris, “It makes them more empathetic and compassionate towards the candidates.”

     Harris believes that there’s a job for everyone. One of her employees is in her late 70s and used to be the porter in their office building. “We got to be real good friends,” says Harris, “Now she helps put folders together, shreds and supervises the break room.”

     It’s a Harris habit to stay in touch with her placements. “We’ve maintained relationships for many years. It’s so interesting to see the cycle of life—to watch someone who was hired as a file clerk in their younger days and has risen to the head of human resources in their company.”

     Asked what makes a good client, Harris releases her infectious laugh…“They pay! Seriously, some clients are a joy to work with; they tell you exactly what they want. Even if they don’t, it’s still so much fun for me because I enjoy figuring out how to handle the situation.

     Since their inception, Ethel Harris has maintained offices in the Plaza Building on South College Street. “We started on a shoestring but I knew that I needed to be uptown,” says Harris, who had worked in the area for seven years prior. “That’s how the companies knew me; that continuity was important. Logistically, that’s where I needed to be.”


A People-Person

     Harris was raised on a farm in Chester, S.C., in a large family with eight older siblings.

     “There were always so many relatives around that I became adept at reading people,” she admits. The need and desire to help people were instilled early on. A sister with Down syndrome became the responsibility of Harris and her brother as youths. Married young, Harris had four children and worked in data entry jobs while they were in school. When the youngest child got his driver’s license, she decided it was time for a change.

     So when the minister’s wife, Lenora Cave Conway, asked Harris to answer phones in her office, Career Consultants & Temporaries, she accepted readily. It was a mere two weeks before the company discovered that Harris had a true knack for human resources. Taking over management of the temporary division, she worked for the company for five and a half years in the ’80s. Conway remains as her mentor and friend to this day.

     Harris’s work for the temp agency ended when one of her sons was killed in a car accident, a tragic event that greatly impacted Harris’s direction in life. After taking a year off, she went to work for an accounting placement firm, starting an administrative division there. Soon after, a company merger resulted in Harris leaving the firm in 1997.

     “I felt too young to retire and too old to be displaced again,” reflects Harris, who was also still reeling from the loss of her son. “Your life changes, and you have to decide if you are going to continue living or quit. Quitting wasn’t my nature, so I threw myself into business—literally.”

     Harris spends much time with family and friends. Her church is also very important to her. Her favorite charity, CROP Hunger Walk has benefited from her love of exercise and walking.

     “I haven’t missed a year for 32 years,” says Harris, who has consistently raised between $4,000 and $5,000 each year for the cause. “My friends will tell you, ‘Ethel doesn’t ask if you’re going to contribute; she just sends you an invoice—and it’s true.’”

     Harris works with Habitat and spent 20 years cooking meals at the homeless shelter every third Friday. Her charitable work, like her business management, is very hands-on.

     Ethel Harris has the unusual policy of sending someone from the company’s staff to fill in if the temporary employee cannot show up for work, which is extremely rare. Once, while filling in herself for a bartender, Harris greeted each patron with a cheerful smile, saying, “I’ll be happy to make that drink for you if you tell me how.”

     “We won’t let the client down,” she smiles. On another occasion, when a client, with no notice, wanted to interview a candidate, Harris met the woman and switched clothes with her so that she was properly dressed for the meeting. “We get the job done.”

     As for the future, Harris says she has no plans to retire in sight. “If I weren’t doing this, I would be looking for another way to help people.

     “This business has given me the opportunity to meet so many people and make such a difference in their lives…It’s a rare gift to enjoy what you do as much as I do—and I appreciate it.”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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