Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Hire Orientation Goes Beyond the Employee

Everyday I go to the same coffee shop. Its right around the corner from our place. I go before work, the family grabs sandwiches or desserts for outings, and we take the kids on weekends. It's one of the few nice food stops in our neighborhood, its near the subway, its great. I know the owners and all the people that work there.

So, it was funny to see a new employee there. Funny ... as in interesting. I saw this employee (lets call her Wanda) needing to demonstrate an aura of authority. She should know what muffins were the best, or if the bagels were fresh. I watched her recommend the carrot walnut muffin, 'it's my favorite,' she said. What about blueberry cream cheese or zucchini chocolate!?! Come on!

Perhaps I am going a little overboard here? Maybe I'm projecting - I once was a waiter in an Italian restaurant. On my first day I, without yet tasting any of the food for myself, told some patrons my favorite entree - penne alla vodka. A new employee steps into a role - they need to play the part of employee. They need information to do their job, get oriented and welcome - but orientation should also consider current employees and customers.

At the coffee shop, as a customer I would have loved to see the new person shadowing a current employee - with introductions to regulars when possible. I would be confident my order made it to the kitchen and feel I was 'still' part of the community - one of the gang. Maybe Wanda could have been given some canned responses, like "I hear the Apple Walnut is a big seller." It's like she knows what she is talking about without the feeling that she is making it up. Give Wanda some tools for day one with the customer in mind.

I know food service, retail, accounting departments and software engineering groups all have very different on-boarding needs. I guess I know where I lack in a lot of the common on-boarding expectations - I get busy and pass off new employees, hoping the hiring manager will take up the slack. But I see more now how important orientation is beyond just the employee. Success will depend on not only how the employee fits in and learns the tools needed to do the job - but also how these needs relate to other employees and customers.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen Wanda back.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Independent of Known Need

Recently, a former IBM employee told me about part of the interview process when he was working there. He said each job applicant had an interview form, and at the bottom of the form was the question "would you hire the candidate independent of the known need?"

I love this question. It should make you think more critically about the organization and about every potential employee you meet.

Most companies don't have the luxury (financially and organizationally) to hire a bright, skilled candidate if they don't match the job opening. If you are looking for a embedded Linux engineer, why would you hire an electrical engineer? But wouldn't it be nice to grab talent when you see it!

Recruiting unemployed hotshots is a 'hot' strategy in this poopy economy. However, the small and mid-size companies I've worked with haven't had the luxury to hire folks that weren't already in the 'plan' (not even with a good economy). Start-ups often don't have the right 'plan' - you just don't know exactly who you will need and when.

I think this is where the HR function needs to add value. Independent of immediate need, how can we utilize top talent? Can we reorganize organizational inefficiencies and do things differently? Can we pull work in-house from contractors or other outsourced services? We certainly want to stay away from unnecessary cash burns, but why is this candidate appealing if we weren't looking for them originally? If we can't hire, maybe it's a contracting deal, tapping into their expertise for a small client specific project. You create a connection to them and keep them learning about the company.

Our intern program has flourished independent of known need. When we weren't looking for interns, we came across a competent go-getter with just the right technical match for most of our current projects. Even when he went back to school he contributed directly and significantly - and has come back to work with us every break since then. When we began looking for Java developer interns, we found a sharp electrical engineer. We weren't thinking of the great new hardware she could develop or resources she could provide. Thinking independent of known need has helped us.

I guess this isn't brain surgery - don't we all go through these steps when we meet a talented person? But I really liked hearing about "Independent of Known Need." It's helped me look at every applicant in a new light.