Hiring is difficult under most circumstances, but in a virtual corporation that has global operations, bringing on new employees poses special challenges. "The process is that much harder for a virtual corporation, where interviews must be conducted and skills tested remotely," observes Will Pape, cofounder of VeriFone. Here's how Pape addressed those challenges in 1995, when hiring someone to succeed himself as VeriFone's chief information officer. (VeriFone, which makes electronic payment systems, is based in Santa Clara, Calif., and has since been acquired by Hewlett-Packard.)
The key to Pape's hiring strategy? A committee. "I knew I needed the buy-in of both information systems staff and the department's internal customers," he recalls. "I'm generally not a big fan of committees, but when you're trying to draw on a variety of expertise and perspectives, sometimes they're the only way." In this case, the search committee included three people from the information systems department, a manager from another department, and Pape.
Pape believes that including subordinates in the hiring process is particularly important in a virtual company like VeriFone. "When you're reporting to someone you scarcely ever see, helping choose that person can instill much-needed comfort and confidence," he notes.
The hiring committee's duties were broad-based -- everything from updating the job description to conducting interviews to helping Pape make the final decision. The committee was assisted by 10 of the company's vice presidents, who agreed to interview the three finalists. Because none of the hiring committee members worked in the same location, the committee used telephone, e-mail, and videoconferencing to communicate. Videoconferencing was particularly helpful in the group's early meetings, Pape recalls, because some of the committee members had never met. "Initially we relegated e-mail, which is more likely to cause misunderstandings than voice or video, to logistics management," he explains. "As we got to know and understand one another better, however, our e-mail increasingly carried more substantive communications."
The committee process was not without pitfalls. "Managing a virtual hiring committee is like moderating a globally dispersed McLaughlin Group," observes Pape. "Each panel member has a viewpoint (often passionately expressed) that has been informed by geography, culture, and work environment. And because most members interact with the candidates and one another remotely, they are likely to emerge from meetings and interviews with very different impressions."
To overcome such differences, Pape asked the committee members to rank the candidates for the job every time the group obtained new information from, say, an interview or a new rÃ© sumÃ© . Then committee members would share their rankings and the reasons for them. Pape also encouraged the group to brainstorm during conference calls about subjects such as the characteristics important to success on the job. The committee then conducted most of the initial interviews via conference calls, so that each candidate could talk to the whole committee.
"Over the years, I've encountered many people who assumed they'd be good at virtual management but then -- after being hired and put to the test -- simply weren't," says Pape. "Conducting virtual interviews had become a kind of remote skills test for VeriFone. If candidates performed well in what is an inherently stressful situation, we were reasonably confident that they were up to the challenge of virtual work."
The committee's work didn't end when the new hire was chosen, either. The next step was helping her assimilate. For new employees, "most really useful knowledge comes from informal conversations with veteran workers and simple observation of how people do things," Pape argues. "The trick to assimilating a virtual employee is to duplicate those informal mentoring, tutoring, and nurturing systems."
Pape's solution? "I asked my committee members to be the new hire's 'buddies,' to help bring her up to speed as quickly as possible," he explains. "And because of their involvement in her hiring and what they felt was their stake in her success, they were very effective. One man spent hours talking with the new director about the subtleties -- both operational and personal -- of more than 60 online systems, and for three months made sure she was thoroughly briefed before she met the customers for each system."
Pape thinks that other virtual corporations could learn from the hiring method that VeriFone developed. "VeriFone's hiring process returned superb results, improving the caliber of new hires and helping build relationships between new employees and their colleagues and subordinates," he says. "For any company that operates virtually and cares deeply about employing good people, this is by far the best method I've found for bringing outsiders into the fold."