My Ideas for Hiring and Onboarding – Part 1

“Mistakes are the best lessons while experience is the best teacher” – Anon

One key piece of agile leadership is the deeper understanding that the people that are doing the work are a core component to your success.

As a leader who personally cares about the organization that I work for (as I do with any employer that has a mission that is aligned to being a more progressive and agile group) I spend a lot of time thinking about people. Not only the people who are here today as staff members, but the people who will join us from the trails we set today.

I often ask myself a continual set of questions:

  1. Is our hiring process (as much as what is under our direct influence or control) optimized and are we keeping it fluid to change to the changing landscape of hiring and the changes in the market?
  2. Are we using hiring practices using a balance of demonstrated skills but remaining open to closely listening to how people think through problems to discover potential undiscovered gems of employees with lesser demonstrable skill?
  3. What is the end user experience of our employee on-boarding after the hire? Is it consistent, cumbersome or does it provide them with something that begins positive employee engagement? Are we gaining feedback?
  4. How do we setup our hires for success in terms of tooling preparation for their job, understanding our technical, diverse social, political and cultural environment and celebration of them joining us?
  5. Are we learning from our experience and examining the ways others perform this process on a routine basis?

I ask these questions and I will be open and admit, the answer is not always a resounding “YES” in my mind. And this … always troubles me. My desire is to create an experience of joining my teams that makes you excited that you are here and ignites that initial spark to not only do the job that you were hired to do but to find a way to be a part of improving the culture as we move forward.

I freely admit, that as a leader I often suffer from the inner struggle of having ideas bouncing around like bumble bees but not always having all of the support I need to align my vision to the end real outcome. I have learned to understand this about myself as it creates a constant inner tension of “there is more I can do” which is both a positive drive but can be draining (which means I have to allow myself to level set and recharge when I since this).

But I began to really think about what this overall process looks like to me and how I might advocate to try an implementation focused on:

  • Hiring the “right candidates” that provide value-add to the current culture in helping it grow.
  • Providing an onboarding experience that is timely, engaging at both the micro and macro levels of the organization and provides a positive experience that engages and supports them from day 1 and that learns from doing.
  • Create an opportunity to “prepare them for success” in their new role through proper tooling and focused education and direct experience before introducing them into their daily routine of their role.
  • Possibly hire them with other team members so that through the process an underlying sense of bonding can occur to create a secondary support system when they transition to their daily work.

Many of you are reading this right this moment and thinking, “big deal; my company does that” … But my company is part of the public sector serving citizens and concepts like this are not the mainstream of thought and definitely not the concepts of the people in leadership. But I have always been one who asked “but why couldn’t we be this”?

It may be often more easy as it may be when the company is owned by a group of share holders or private investors but just as they have concerns over profit margin, the public sector always has to consider the responsibility of fiscal trust granted through being financed by the public (even though some betray that trust I know).

How hiring often is done today in the public sector

When I started in my current role, hiring was very suspect to me in the sense that it did not typically contain any form of demonstration of possessed skill for securing the position for which a person was applying.

It was usually 100% conversationally based or had a minimal “test” for skill that was often used to determine “right or wrong” as the answer subjectively (which code implementation can often be) without any real understanding of the person doing the work. I have often said many public sectors went like:

Employer: “So I see on your resume that you have N years of experience in technology X”?

Me: “That is correct. My most recent experience being (blah blah blah)” – This is where I regurgitate my resume and add some detail.

Employer: “How would you rate your skill from 1-10 with technology Y”?

Me: “I would say I am a 9 as no one is perfect. Fill in details” – This rating means nothing as no one actually knows what the scale is for each increment. Years? Lines of Code?

The review of my resume and asking questions derived on the spot from it would continue …

The conversation continues (for at least one hour) and often if there is a click and the resume seems fine, the conversation degenerates into basic technical chit-chat. Boom. You are hired.

But what is the glaring issue here? You have absolutely no idea, except from my exceptional resume, if I know what I am actually talking about other than perception. We did not discuss anything tangible to the skills you needed for the position. It was primarily based on what I told you I had done and provided on my resume.

This is of course a very simple viewpoint and not taking into account many people who interview, like myself, that may have worked with solid team members who knew my caliber of work and could vouch for such effort and skill to the hiring manager.

And worse, many public sector hiring managers operate under the assumption that if you do not work out during a “probationary period” that you will be dismissed. This rarely happens as they do not have the uncomfortable conversations with the employee during this period informing them that they are not doing the job as to be able to justify that release (a requirement of public and many private HR policies).

How did we change our approach to hiring?

When I assumed my current role one of the first things I sought to do was 2 things in reference to the hiring process:

  1. I wanted it to be more in line with general private industry hiring practices that invested more deeply into hiring practices so that it required not only an employee to invest deeper into the process but also combine it with some base skill exercises guided with the hiring team to see skill level and how they thought through problems.
  2. If the right candidate did not show up for the interview (meaning that they were someone who “might fit” but we did not feel confident in them) that we would not hire out of desperation of losing the position, frustration of starting over or to fill a quota. I had experienced too many times that hiring managers would hire “the best person who showed up” and compromise the position as to not have to jump through bureaucratic hoops again.
  3. I wanted to utilize grass roots recruiting and look for ways to personally connect with potential candidates when possible to demonstrate to them that work in the public sector for a technical person can be fulfilling and have many opportunities for serving others as well as provide an opportunity for some benefits not seen when joining a startup or boutique development company.
  4. I wanted every single candidate that left our interviews to have felt challenged to earn the job and the experience we created through the process to make them want to join us, even if they were not our selected candidate.
  5. I wanted the hiring process to be focused on “what we needed” in a broad sense and just not distill to a checklist of technologies or experience.

The first thing I focused on was making the hiring process more meaningful to hire the right people through a deeper and richer hiring experience that focused on learning more about the candidate from a behavioral and technical viewpoint.

Together with my leadership team, we implemented a two fold approach in which a hiring panel would first have conversations around concepts of behavioral based questions (for about an hour) to begin to gauge their thinking process around typical issues or team situations common to the role followed by 2 hours of more in-depth technical exploration and hands on work ending with a pair programming exercise in which they were the driver in the scenario for developers and other scenarios based on the role. This worked out really well for a couple of reasons:

  1. It allowed us to give them the opportunity to relate previous experiences of situations and shape the questions around what they learned from the experience or why they took a specific course of action. This allowed us more insight into how they reasoned through a situation from the most routine to the most challenging within their role.
  2. It allowed us to examine the candidate from a technical point of view apart from trying to get to know them in terms of personality and really focus on what they already knew from a technical perspective but also how they reasoned through areas they did not know or how they approached something to which they had little or no familiarity. Did they try to BS their way through? Did they openly admit they did not know and not try or did they tell us about their lack of knowledge in the area and reason how one might approach something or use a certain technology even without that knowledge. The first 2 gave us insight into the ability to be humble in the face of the unknown and how they handled this but the latter opened us up to see the potential of a person’s growth with us and often led us to finding people who we could see wanted to know and had that drive to learn. Learning how people think through a situation can be as invaluable as just the right answer.

We always de-briefed after a hiring process not only to decide on a potential hire but also to talk about how the process went overall. We used the concept of a retrospective within our hiring process so that we could seek improvement the next time or adjust things that were not working. This was tremendously helpful and a far cry from the ending of standard hiring cycles I had experienced before. It incorporated the potential of improvement through reflection.

It allowed us to not only to apply agility into our people operations through inspection of the process but to allow us to gain better insight into the candidates coming in a bi-modal manner within a more reasonable timeframe for a technical interview.

What were our initial constraints that we had to work around?

  1. Public sector hiring is a highly regulated, rules driven system that has fixed timeframes and candidate constraints and posting for positions is often outside the hands of the hiring organization but rather handled in a centralized manner using template position descriptions.
  2. There are minimum educational qualifications that preclude candidates without a formal college education (and matriculation) or significant enough experience within the given field from qualification that can exclude many candidates. This meant that often people without formal education or experience fell beyond our reach. We could not just hire a technical savant that had never done anything or had any IT degree based on the hiring system.
  3. Protected class groups are given some preference in consideration (not preference in hiring) and justification must be made when not hiring a candidate from a HR protected class. So we had to ensure that if we rejected a candidate it was for sound rationale, not a gut feeling.
  4. Large scale private sector hiring processes are not unlike large public sector hiring processes. They are often slow and there is delay from groups external to the hiring group to confirm the hire, mandatory processes for which the information must pass, established formats for hiring submission for consideration by hiring managers, etc.
  5. Salaries, especially public sector technical salaries, are often non-competitive with private sector positions and often specific job classes simply do not exist meaning you have to employ grass roots marketing to use a position in a different manner and have people apply through personal recruitment. We had to consider a “hire and grow” strategy to remain competitive with the market and for more seasoned people we needed to find those that wanted a better balance in terms of their career and life needs.

Some, or all of these challenges are not uncommon to any person who hires within the public sector. So how did we address them?

We actually were fortunate to have a local human resources leader and team that wanted to ensure that we understood the process but remained open to conversations about what these obstacles were and work to address them with the centralized hiring authority. Forming a relationship with the HR team and understanding their world and the constraints under which they are responsible helped us work together to find the best way to work. There were some things we could not eliminate but what was possible was examined. Creating and maintaining this partnership helped us understand and better traverse the system of hiring in the private sector.

In my opinion, these partnerships are critical. The overall process is fraught with its own rules, domain language and understanding. Having people that can assist and become a partner that understood this world better than I became tantamount to driving towards a new approach. I would highly recommend that people desiring change in this space of the process build these partnerships. Without them, you are trying to traverse a system for which you may be woefully unprepared to understand all the nuances and aspects to this approach. These partnerships have been invaluable to me in understanding the roles and responsibilities of the HR system in the public sector and the things that I do to assist them in helping me get things accomplished when it comes to hiring staff.

Grass Roots Marketing

One of the things that was very important to us, and still remains a primary focus, is to share the story of our environment and culture with others that may seek to join us. We have spent time connecting with the local community and seeding the work we do to others as well as creating a significant “word of mouth” through our past hires and ongoing meeting with local groups such as software schools and developer meetups.

Often times, many large scale private enterprises have much more capital that they can put behind their hiring and recruitment processes. So, as a public entity; you often must become creative and put forth more personal effort without that budget to assist you.

We are very fortunate that our HR team understand the benefit of recruitment and is very progressive in the way they think about attracting candidates often hiring domain specific staff to help them understand and connect to the areas in which they are recruiting. This deeper understanding of “why” people want to come to work somewhere and the personal investment in the candidate is in alignment with our thoughts as well.

Staying connected as often as possible to groups to share the view of your environment and culture helps potential candidates get a better idea of who you are and why they would want to be a part. We are always thinking about this message and how it can help us attract the right people into our culture that can continue to be a value add and help us grow today and shape what we become in the future.

The Follow-up

The public sector, hiring often fails as the transition to potential candidate to “new hire” breaks down in the lull of the process. This is not unlike larger scale private enterprises but what they seem to manage much better than public sector is the process of pre-onboarding engagement.

We found a lot of our potential hires did not have the understanding of the lumbering beast that can be large enterprise hiring processes. It often involves multiple groups, departments, sign-offs and approvals. In a larger environment, the processes are often streamlined more for oversight than for speed to on-board. So it becomes critical that you become good at retaining that engagement during this process. Most people, even though excited, have some nervousness about starting a new position. I think a great deal of that stems from the unknown of the new job and role as they only get a small glimpse into the organization during the hiring process. We made visits to local bootcamps to educate potential candidates about the difference that applying to a larger scale enterprise company can be in terms of times so they understood this better.

This is a great opportunity for you to use that tie to help them gain a better picture of what their first day, their first week, etc will be like when they join a company. I have seen many companies that are master at this seeding periodic information to a candidate during this process so that they feel a part of something larger. This is something, as a public sector organization, we can become better at and do effectively without a large scale investment. Here are some examples:

  1. When hiring someone in the public sector, know what the average process length might be and set the expectations up front when hiring someone. The worst thing you can do is have a candidate wait in a black hole and wonder if something is wrong. Connect with them regularly to let them know about stages in the process and pass along helpful information to allow them to prepare for their new job.
  2. Send a personal email welcoming them with information about benefits (or pointers to benefits) that lets them know more about their group. Consider creating a marketing document or website that lets them get to know people before they arrive in some manner and gives them a glimpse into reinforcing why they chose to come work for you. If you have materials that introduce your culture and how you work, get it to them during the interim.
  3. Encourage questions and connection. Be accessible to them if they think of a question, find the answer for them or connect them to the right people.
  4. Organize something after work so they can interact with their new coworkers. Invite them to connect over coffee or drinks so that they makes those pre-connections before they start.
  5. Send them a final confirmation of employment when all is approved restating the salary, start date and pointing to benefits. Send an employee handbook and other materials that might be useful as well as anything else they need to experience the least amount of friction on day 1.
  6. Prepare for their arrival and have a consistent on-boarding process to help them be setup for success. Confusion and red tape starting day one is a great way to leave a sour taste in someone’s mouth when starting with a company. Having there location, tools and access in place demonstrates that you were focused on their start, not that it was an afterthought.
  7. Give them a voice in providing you feedback about their experience. This not only demonstrates that they do have an active role in the organization and use their insights to critically evaluate what you do. Keep the process as lean as possible so that you can change as needed.
  8. Realize that starting a new position is change and with change is often fear of the unknown. Meet with the team that they will work with prior and express your expectations of growth so that neither the team nor the new team member are confused about the organization’s expectation of their progress.

In this blog post, I have discussed the prior hiring process, how we approached it in a different manner to hire today and why these things are important and how we can set them up for the best outcome in the public sector.

In part two, I plan to diverge more into how we might consider on-boarding new candidates and explore some of my personal thoughts on ways outside of what we do at my organization that might further enhance the approach or different ideas that someone might try.

I end this post with a quote that I think embodies the importance of this activity:

“The most important thing you do as a leader is to hire the right people” – David Cottrell

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