This year we canvassed the Inc. 500 for smart ideas on managing fin-de-siÈcle growth. Not surprisingly, all we heard about was employees--finding them and keeping them. So we're devoting this entire section to the subjects of recruiting and retaining the staff you need to grow. --The editors

The Screen Machine

When Kent Richeson scoured in search of a job 15 months ago, he stumbled upon the Taylor Group (#266), a $10-million systems integrator located in his own backyard, in Bedford, N.H. He E-mailed his rÉsumÉ to and left a voice- mail message with HR manager Laurie Murphy. Soon after, Murphy sent him an E-mail message indicating a job match.

But as Richeson would learn, there was a lot more to getting a job with the Taylor Group than that.

Richeson's rÉsumÉ was quite attractive. He was a family man with an engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and a five-year history of sales-management success. But before Richeson could come aboard the good ship Taylor, he needed first to pass through the gantlet that is the Taylor Group's hiring process. It wasn't until he'd made four separate visits to--and endured eight separate interviews at--the company's headquarters, over the course of a month, that Richeson was hired as a sales manager. He hadn't even met founder Dan Taylor until the fourth visit.

In a tight labor market, in which it's tempting to snatch up any carbon-based life-form, the Taylor Group has mastered the spartan art of hiring methodically--often to the dismay of impatient prospects. "If someone pressures us for a quicker response, we don't succumb," says Murphy. The process helps weed out those who aren't positively smitten with the company and reduces the chances of a cultural mismatch.

What really separates the Taylor Group's screening process from standard multiple-interview techniques is how systematic and deliberate it is: each interview probes a different aspect of the candidate. By the time management is ready to make a decision, every proverbial stone has been overturned. All 120 current employees have survived the process, and gladly participate in it to help preserve the distinctive culture they've joined.

The screening begins with preliminary E-mail questions and a phone interview. Here, Murphy looks for a good cultural fit rather than skills. About 25% of candidates are eliminated at this stage. Murphy sees if there's an alignment with the Taylor Group's mission and values. A favorite question is, When deciding between offers, what are your top three criteria? She's looking for answers--such as "great coworkers," "time for my family," "a place where I can learn"--that don't put too much stress on material compensation. "Generally, people who put money first don't get a second chance," she says.

Murphy then writes a detailed report of each phone interview, often including verbatim quotes from applicants. The reports inform the next interviewer, the candidate's prospective manager, about potential weaknesses in the candidate, such as questionable ability to function as part of a team or deal with a fast-growth atmosphere. Managers crack down on skills weaknesses, too: Richeson's was that he'd never sold software before; so vice-president of marketing Tom Brennan had to drill Richeson on whether he could contribute to the Taylor Group. Richeson was able to convince Brennan that his selling skills were transferable to the software industry.

Managers also administer on-the-spot skills tests. Sales candidates, for example, do mock presentations--say, on why a business ought to choose a particular accounting software--with no preparation. Beyond checking for basic skills and performance under pressure, the tests measure the ability to respond quickly to new instructions, something essential if you're pushing products in an industry where the products change rapidly. "It helps me see if they can sell a new product right away," says Brennan.

On Richeson's second day of interviews he met with Carol McCutcheon, director of marketing; Mark Moreau, a veteran salesman; and Brian Rooney, a new salesman. All were screening for team compatibility. If hired, Richeson would be Moreau and Rooney's manager, yet both salesmen had the power to affect whether or not he would be hired. The ultimate decision is consensus driven, but a serious objection by any interviewer is enough to derail a candidate. Though it's rare, notes Murphy, that only one interviewer raises an objection.

The second group of interviewers do not see the notes from the HR write-up, lest they form preconceptions. They do, however, take part in a post-interview debriefing. Sometimes Murphy holds group meetings to discuss a candidate's credentials; other times she requests that interviewers all E-mail their thoughts to her. In Richeson's case--a talented candidate going for a key position--Murphy dashed from office to office just after the interviews, recording instant impressions.