Oct 17, 2009

Get Them at Hello: How To Improve Your Hiring Process

On my French blog, I recently wrote about an experience I had when I joined a singing ensemble. (Please, no jokes about my voice!) In a nutshell, I joined the ensemble at the beginning of September and participated in the yearly 3-day camp, which is when we get a good overview of the songs we will be performing at the end of March.

The selection process was typical: I went through an audition where they asked a few questions about me and why I had chosen to join the group. Then they tested my singing abilities, and that was it. A few days later I received the news: out of 30 applicants, I was one of the 12 chosen.

The first time I showed up, many people made it their duty to come and say "Hi" and to welcome me aboard. But it was nothing compared to what happened at the camp. All new "hires" were front and centre of various activities over the course of the weekend. The pinnacle, for me, was when they sat us in the middle of a room, surrounded us and all 70+ veterans sang us a song. That event really made me feel special within the group. And it got me thinking: when was the last time I was welcomed in such a manner? In particular, when has it happened at work?

As a consultant, I don't expect people to make a big deal about my presence. In fact, in many cases, they may resent it. That's fine. But as an employee, expectations are different.  You expect to become part of something special, part of a team; you search for a way to belong. Too often, that part of the work experience is completely forgotten, or neglected.

What is the typical hiring process?
  • Apply for a position that looks and sounds like hundreds of other positions
  • Go through an interview process, which is more or less involved.
  • When you first join the company, you go through the HR process to understand your working conditions.
  • Do your job.
  • Retire.
Can this be improved? Yes it can. And in fact, it should. Studies have shown that when people feel unwelcome or ill-treated in a new job, they are more likely to keep searching for jobs elsewhere. Although I haven't found a study that says so, I believe that there must be some truth to the complementary view: an employee who feels welcome is less likely to bolt after a few short months.

So what can be done to improve the initial impression? Here are a few ideas:
  • Change your job announcements: in fact, write the job postings to match the type or personality you are searching for. You want someone outgoing and dynamic? Make your posting sizzle. You want someone who is detail-oriented and likes solving arduous puzzles? You can say so within your posting also. Having a clear idea of the person you are trying to attract, and writing the job description accordingly will cull many unqualified applicants.
  • Make a big deal out of it: make the new hire feel welcome by making a big deal out of his/her presence. There are many ways to do this, so I won't get into details. Of course, you want to do something that will not make the person feel uncomfortable, otherwise you will get the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish. Here is an example of what not to do: A friend of mine was a new hire in a team, and the company was planning a special event one afternoon. However, they needed someone to stay at the office to answer email, take calls, etc. Guess who was asked to stay behind while the others went out and had fun? That was a great opportunity to help a new employee bond and become part of the team, but it was wasted. Shortly thereafter, the new employee left.
  • Make it smooth: it is highly annoying for a new hire to not be able to be effective immediately. Little things like computer accounts that don't work, not having the proper equipment to work with, not having a key to enter and leave work premises, and so on, leave a grating feeling. These things happen, of course, and you may just be unlucky. But if it happens regularly, it's no longer an annoyance: it's a symptom.
  • Mentoring or shadowing: this is a great way to make existing employees feel special also. When someone is hired, assign a mentor to them, or let them choose one. In order for this to be effective, let existing employees know that you want to start a mentoring program. Let people sign up if they want to, don't force it upon them. Then, either assign mentors to new hires on a rotating basis, or, let the new employees become familiar with the people they will be working with and let them choose their mentors after a few weeks.
  • Give them the opportunity to have immediate impact: nothing is more boring than being given a stack of documents to read on your first day on the job, especially if going through that stack can take a week or two. Instead, give new employees the opportunity of feeling useful as soon as possible.
Dr. Guido Quelle, President of Mandat Managementberatung GmbH in Germany, implements many of these elements with new employees. He explains it as follows:
Rookies whom we recruit when they finished their exam at the university get a six-month internal training program. They learn the Mandat-approach, get to know how we use our intellectual property, learn how we approach and develop clients, learn the culture, how to bring value to clients, and they also lead an important internal project.

As soon as possible, we take them with us to clients. There, they learn how we work directly with clients. When they start, they don't have a task, just to observe. We tell our clients, that the colleague is new with us and since we don't have daily rates, they don't pay for him or her sitting there. We always ask the colleague after a meeting what he observed. After a few meetings, the new colleague starts to facilitate meetings, steers sub projects, calls members of the project team in order to make sure that they do what they promised, etc.

The new colleague has a mentor, it's [my managing director] or me. The whole first year is more or less an "assistance" year. During the second year, the colleague gets more and more important tasks. Together with his internal mentor, he prepares himself for leading whole projects. There's always a feedback conversation between the mentor and the consultant after a meeting.
As you can see, the hiring process is not complete until new employees feel that they are part of team. The operative word, here, is feel. Emotions are what make people enjoy their work and makes them stay. As has often been said, you come into a company for the job, but you leave because of the people.  You can increase loyalty and retention of employees, simply by analyzing and adjusting your "welcome" approach.

© 2009 Laurent Duperval, All rights reserved

Oct 9, 2009

Improving GNOME Evolution

I haven't written a tech-only blog entry in a long, long, long time. Well, here goes!

I've been a fairly happy Mozilla Thunderbird user for years. But lately, I've been getting more and more frustrated with it, and I began looking for a new mail client. So far, of all the others I tested, GNOME Evolution is the one that comes closest to what I want. Closest, but not there yet. It's not missing much, and that's what I plan on covering here.

So why would I want to change in the first place? Because I've been having nagging performance issues with Thunderbird. I have a local IMAP setup for my email and periodically, Thunderbird will spike the CPU for no apparent reason. When it does, my system slows down to a crawl. Sometimes the only way I can fix it is by killing the Thunderbird process. I tried the latest Thunderbird 3 beta 4, and although I like a lot of the improvements, performance is worse than the previous version. Hence, Evolution.

I generally like it, and I find performance is better, without the spikes I see in Thunderbird. Here are some of the things I'd like to see improved, many of which are paper cuts:
  • Keyboard shortcuts: I don't like the shortcuts that have been assigned by the Evolution team. Maybe it's because I have been using Thunderbird for so long, but I get frustrated when I try a keyboard shortcut I am used to, but don't get the result I expect. I'd like to be able to configure my own shortcuts, like I can in OpenOffice.org.
  • Automatic filtering: One of the things I like about Thunderbird is the way it starts filtering your email as you type in the search box. You don't have to press Enter to launch the search. Same goes for the address book.
  • Mailbox ordering: Mail accounts are ordered alphabetically. I would rather be able to specify the ordering. Of course, I can specify "dumb" names like 00-FIrst, 01-Second, etc. But that isn't quite what I'm looking for. However, since this is predicatable, it makes it easier to order accounts than it is in Thunderbird. In the latter, you have no control: they appear in the order they were created.
  • Slow reply: Whenever I reply, there is an annoying delay before the reply window appears.
  • Webkit: I know work is being done on this. Webkit is the toolkit used by Google Chrome to display Web pages. HTML display is awful in Evolution, nothing like Thunderbird's ability to do the same.
  • Importing: This one is almost a deal breaker for me. Evolution doesn't import Thunderbird data correctly. I tried importing LDIF, CSV, and ICS but in each case, some of the cards were not imported correctly. I wish Evolution would allow me to specify where to put the content of each imported column, like OpenOffice.org does when importing into Calc.
  • New vs. Recent: I like the fact that Thunderbird makes a difference between "New" and "Brand New" email. For the latter, it displays a star, while the former has no star. In Evolution, it's difficult to see a difference between new email, and mail that has just come in.
  • Favourite folders: Another TB feature I like. I can specify some folders as favourite folders and only see them in my control panel. There isn't something like this in Evolution.
Well, that's it. I am still hoping that the final (64-bit Linux) build of Thunderbird will fix the performance issues I am experiencing. If not, maybe I'll have to do something I haven't done in years: break out my C coding skills... Yeah, right!