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

Welcome to America

Milan Patel, CEO of ACS International Resources Inc. (#296), doesn't pull punches with the new employees he recruits from overseas. On their first day at the IT consulting company, based in Wilmington, Del., he presents them with their very own can of deodorant.

"It's blunt, it's rude, but it works," says Patel. Whether or not his new hires were accustomed to ameliorating their personal musk in their home countries, Patel wants them to know that they're now in America, land of the innocuous underarm. "That's the number one most offensive thing you can do to clients, send them a person who stinks up the joint," he says.

While some may argue that it's Patel's tactic that's offensive, some recruits actually appreciate the CEO's efforts. Sudheer Ghanathe, a recent ACS recruit from India, says Patel's lecture was valuable. "We're not that used to chemical things like those in the United States," he says. "It takes a bit of time to understand."

Patel's technique speaks to the lengths to which CEOs are willing to go these days to meet their staffing needs. A growing number of Inc. 500 companies--especially those with computer-programming slots to fill--are looking abroad to India, Russia, Israel, Canada, and other countries. U.S. employers can bring in foreign workers under H-1B visas, for which demand generally exceeds supply: 1999's quota of 115,000 visas was met in June. But even when they can import the warm bodies, employers are finding that the recruits need some extra help to master life in the United States, from basic needs such as housing to finer points like personal hygiene. After all, the company isn't just introducing a worker to a new job. It's acclimating him or her to a whole new culture.

A simple welcome is a good start, says Peter Stevenson, president of Innovative Technology Solutions Inc. (ITS) (#429), an IT consulting company in Piscataway, N.J., that recruits about 60% of its employees from overseas. When ITS brings in an employee from abroad, someone from the company invariably meets him at the plane. "They see the company really cares about them," says Stevenson. "I don't want them to get oriented by the limo driver."

Next come the basics: a U.S. driver's license, and a local bank account. ITS advises recruits to obtain an international driver's permit before leaving home. Once foreign recruits obtain a U.S. license and Social Security card, they are ready to open a bank account, says ITS account executive Altaf Huq. "We have a good relationship with our bank, and once we introduce an employee, the bank takes the account right away," Huq says. Employees can obtain a credit card from the bank as soon as they open an account, he adds.

The new hires need wheels, too. Kannan Srinivasan, CEO of Best Computer Consultants (#258), based in Overland Park, Kans., says that it wasn't easy to persuade banks to make car loans to Best's foreign recruits until the company agreed to cosign the loans. Now the company is typically coguarantor on a one-year loan at prime rate.

The new employees also need a place to drive to--besides the office, that is. Several companies, including Best and ACS, provide temporary housing in the form of furnished guest houses, wherein a small group of foreign hires can live for a few weeks, dorm-style, until they can find their own permanent housing. ITS puts up recruits at a local chichi hotel, banking that a taste of luxury will pay off in employee loyalty; then, after two weeks, Huq helps them find a permanent place.

For most recruits the biggest adjustment is a cultural one. (See the earlier deodorant example.) In ACS's comprehensive cultural indoctrination for the approximately 50 programmers that it recruits from abroad every year, grooming tips are only the beginning. During a two- to four-week orientation period, CEO Patel buys new employees American food for lunch--subs, pizza, Taco Bell--and asks them to watch one or two hours of television daily to pick up on idiomatic American speech. He discourages them from speaking their native language at work, so that they can pick up English faster. And since most of his overseas hires are men who leave their wives and children at home, at least temporarily, Patel and his human-resources manager roll up their sleeves to make sure the newcomers pick up some housekeeping skills. "I will show up there on Saturday and say, 'It's cleaning day,' " Patel says.

At Best, where almost 70% of the company's hires come straight from India, managers have the task of passing on cultural dos and don'ts. In India, says Srinivasan, who knows from personal experience, one might catch another person's attention by touching his or her cheek. Here, he says, "that could cause a serious problem." Best is currently developing its own cultural-training CD-ROM, so that employees can bone up on their own.

When Dallas software and consulting company Akili Systems Group (#241) began importing Russian programmers, last year, it gave its foreign recruits one-time bonuses of $10,000 to $15,000 for completing an English class at a local community college. The company also paid for instruction in American culture and manners. And human-resources director Michael McGaughey and several employee mentors introduced the recruits to daily life in America, from explaining the local school system to taking them to supermarkets and the Gap.

Getting the new workers settled took a lot of time and planning, says McGaughey--"I basically disappeared for three weeks," he says--but it was worth it. There's a noticeable difference, he says, between those workers and a couple of earlier Russian recruits who didn't go through an orientation program. "They acclimate differently--how they feel about the company, how much they feel like a part of the group," he says. "It's a very powerful thing. --Emily Barker

'Do I Know You?'

Maybe you're not importing programmers from Asia. You still face the challenge of introducing newbies to your company's culture. But with the steady influx of new faces at your average high-growth company, it's often difficult for staff members to meet recent recruits. And fresh-faced employees typically feel kind of dorky when nobody knows who they are. How, then, do you integrate new employees into your staff?

For Persistence Software (#440), in San Mateo, Calif., bagels and bran muffins are the answer. On mornings when someone new joins the 110-person company, a tray of breakfast food is placed strategically near his or her desk. An E-mail invites everyone to come nosh and meet the new colleague. Explains CEO Christopher Keene: "If you just send out an E-mail announcing a new hire, it doesn't help the new person meet anybody, and that's really the tough part." Whereas bagels draw coworkers to the new hire's desk. "Everybody troops by," Keene says. "And they're guilted into introducing themselves."

MetaSolv Software (#35) employs a similar technique. "It's impossible to keep up with all the people who are coming in the door," says CEO Jim Janicki. "I've seen people from other fast-growth companies actually exchange business cards at meetings, only to realize they work together." To avert such embarrassment, Janicki's 350-person company rolls in a keg of beer (usually Shinerbock or Bud Light) to its Plano, Tex., offices for happy hour every Friday. New employees are asked to work the tap. "They don't get to meet everyone, but we generally have a fairly good turnout," the CEO says. "And it's part of our culture to go up to the new guy at the tap and say hello."

Other Inc. 500 companies, feeling that merely meeting everyone is not enough, choose more systematized methods of indoctrinating new employees. Akili Systems Group (#241), in Dallas, helps workers navigate its "work hard, play hard" culture by issuing mock passports. "It looks like a real passport and has the company logo on the front," says co-CEO Shiek Shah. New recruits need to get 20 different stamps, which they receive for things like attending a company event, drawing an organizational chart, or being able to accurately recount company folklore.

Perhaps the sauciest stamp is earned for management confrontation--basically telling one of the principals to "[insert expletive here] off," Shah says. (The put-down gets a stamp and a rating of from one to 10 for creativity.) "That's to show that founders are real people, too. We're not the mythical 'guys who started the company,' " Shah jokes. "It brings levity to the organization." The passport helps the company quantify and track the orientation process. "We want to get people steeped in our culture very fast," he says. "We don't want them diving into projects and then feeling isolated, like bodies for hire."

Sam Goodner of Catapult Systems Corp. (#77), in Austin, jokingly compares its "boot camp" program to joining the marines. "Boot camp is a really integral part of induction into our culture," says the CEO. The orientation program took shape last year during a particularly intense hiring spurt. Goodner wanted to make sure that new hires didn't start work without first absorbing his business sensibility. So he arranged for them to spend one full day with him and other top execs, during which "company values" could be stressed. The orientation isn't exactly Full Metal Jacket, but it isn't the usual softball HR session, either. "I conduct boot camp personally," Goodner says. "It is really designed to get everyone pulling in the same direction. To lighten the mood, I dress up in full military uniform, with beret and all."

The mood may be light, but the pace is as intense as Goodner's wardrobe. The CEO goes over a variety of topics, including the role of different departments in the company, Catapult's customer-service policies, the new employee's job responsibilities, and more. Throughout the day, Goodner even gives new hires pop quizzes, asking them to name all of the people they've met. "The feedback we get from boot camp is great," he concludes. "Employees get to know me on a personal level." And not only does he leave them with a lasting impression, but he gets a good read on them as well.

Admittedly, the militaristic approach isn't for everybody. Before you go shopping for fatigues, consider the technique used by Fresh Samantha Inc. (#127). The egalitarian Saco, Maine, juice company requires new employees in sales and distribution (more than 70% of Fresh Samantha's nearly 400 staffers) to work in the trenches early in their tenure, delivering juice from trucks to store coolers. "One of our core values is get out there, literally," says HR director Betsy Tuohey. That roll-up-your-sleeves approach is a way for the management to stay connected to the real needs of its route sales reps, as well as the wants and needs of the retail customer. "Otherwise, managers might make plans not based on reality, which obviously is not a good thing." --Mike Hofman

Read other Recruiting Strategies:
Recruiting Strategies: Screening
Recruiting Strategies: Orientation
Recruiting Strategies: Company Profile
Recruiting Strategies: Motivation
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