At the recent International Security Conference and Exposition (ISC East) in New York City, I attended a workshop by recruiter John Rose, president of Russell, Rose & Assoc., on "How to Identify, Attract, and Hire the Right People, and How to Keep Them."

The session was well attended, with around 30 people in the audience. Several managed central offices (COs) at security companies - i.e., the call centers that handle calls (emergency, support, and otherwise) from customers. Filling those jobs, which are high stress and relatively low paying, is tough.

Rose offered the following very practical suggestions for locating, hiring, and retaining quality workers:

Identify precisely what you're looking for in an employee. Rose first went around the room asking audience members why they had fired the last person they did. The responses included, "dishonesty," "bad attitude," "unreliability," and "couldn't work with customers."

Afterwards, he pointed out that no one had said they fired someone for lack of technical skill. He also pointed out that, paradoxically, technical skill was almost always the first thing listed in job advertisements and descriptions. That contradiction frequently leads to problems, he said, because while technical skills can be taught, a good attitude almost never can.

The first trick in hiring the right employees, therefore, is to understand what makes an employee "right." Even though everyone in our industry bemoans the lack of skilled technical workers, it's often not the technical skills themselves that are in short supply, but the nontechnical skills we need alongside them.

If customer relations skills are important to you, then put them high up in your advertisement and job description. If dependability and punctuality are essential, say so. And when you interview candidates, make sure you question them on exactly these points.

Compensate for the job's shortcomings. Rose provided a list of why people leave jobs, including: stress, boredom, location (need for a long commute), lack of advancement opportunity, poor employee benefits.

Notably, he didn't mention low salaries -- and although that's obviously a concern, especially to small businesses who can't compete with big corporate salaries, it may not be as big a one as you might guess. According to Christina Maslach, psychology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, and coauthor of The Truth About Burnout (Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 1997), even when people complain about being overworked and underpaid, the true problem is often more fundamental. People will tolerate long hours and less-than-stellar pay if they perceive they are being treated fairly and with respect.

During Rose's talk, one of the CO managers said that the large corporation she worked for forbade her from offering flextime and other privileges her employees craved. Rose challenged her to show her concern for them in smaller ways, such as decorating the employee lounge (which she admitted was rather sterile), and adding a small television set to it.

If you know that the job you're filling falls short in some key areas, you'll have to identify and weed out candidates for whom those areas are crucial. Then, bolster the other aspects of the position so that it's doubly attractive to the right candidate.

Want someone good? Then hire someone who is currently doing more than what your job calls for."No one knowingly moves to a harder job," says Rose. Even if they say they're looking for a challenge, they probably would balk at doing much more work than they're used to. So if you want someone who can build four systems a day, hire someone who is now building six - or even eight. If you want someone who can handle 10 customer support calls in an hour, hire someone who is now handling 20.

The Better the Job, the More Frustration Your Employees Will Put Up With - and Vice Versa

If your job is difficult or stressful, there must be compensations, or your turnover rate will always be high. Executives on the fast track willingly work 60- and 70-hour workweeks, sometimes for low pay, because they expect to be rewarded for it in the future, if not immediately. Again, however, money isn't everything. If you can't offer a top salary, look for other creative ways to acknowledge your employees' contributions. Sometimes, a relaxed dress code, a limited amount of flextime per month, or even a weekly pizza lunch is all it takes -- and your reduced turnover will more than make up for the cost.

Exploit Geography

Says Rose: "Somewhere in your zip code, or the adjoining two, is someone who's perfect for your job opening, and unhappy with his or her current hour-long commute. Find that person and you'll have a good chance of hiring them."

Also, keep track of the activities of the major corporations in your region. People who leave those corporations are often very well trained in technical, managerial, and/or customer service skills.

Recruit Constantly

Rose says this is the only way to maintain a strong applicant pool. As he puts it: "We always make sure we have enough pencils and office supplies, and that we have enough stock on our shelves. Recruiting is the only area where we don't maintain a proper 'inventory."

Involve the Spouse

If you're asking someone to relocate, do as much as you can to involve the spouse in the interview process. Flying a spouse out to accompany the interviewee may be expensive, but it's less expensive than relocating and training someone, only to have him or her quit because the family was homesick.

  1. "What do you like about your current job?"

    Almost as important as what candidates include in their answer to this question is what they leave out. If someone answers that "working with the technology" is what they primarily enjoy, that might make them ideal for building systems in your shop, but less so for configuring systems out at a customer site.

    If they say, "I like that I can work independently and do my own thing," you need to carefully ponder how good a fit they would be for a job requiring a lot of teamwork.

    If they tell you that they like their short commute, that tells you that: (a) if your job involves a long commute, they might not stick with it; or (b) if your job doesn't involve a long commute, you might get away with offering them a lower salary because you're offering them something else they clearly value.
  2. "What else do you like about your current job?"
    (Repeat until they run out of answers.)

    This follow-up question is almost more important than #1 because, although people often have a rehearsed answer to the first question, you'll often uncover the real truth through successive inquiries.
  3. "What do you want to do?"

    You'll receive the whole spectrum of answers to this query, but if you keep probing for specifics, you'll find that people do tell you how they want -- and don't want -- to spend their time.

    Some possibilities:

    "I want more time with my family."
    "I want something more challenging/with more advancement potential, etc."
    "I want flextime."
    "I want a shorter commute."
    "I want a less-pressured work environment."

    In all cases, it's important to delve into the candidate's response, asking what they mean by "more time with family," "more challenging," "flextime," "less pressure," etc. Don't make assumptions - what a candidate considers "low pressure" might be what in your business is considered "high pressure" - and vice versa.
  4. "What else do you want to do?"

    Again, through repetition, the truth often comes out. Sometimes the later answers will actually contradict the earlier ones!

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Published on: Oct 10, 2000