The care and feeding of IT hires

Monday Feb 1st 1999 by Mary Brandel
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If you retain hires for the first 12 months, you've survived the rockiest part of their tenure. But that means you've got to make the hiring process last a solid year.

In this article:
Questions new hires would love to be asked
Capturing loyalty through mentors
After an extensive recruiting process, a talented systems analyst accepts your job offer. Hands are shaken and papers signed. You breathe a sigh of relief that an essential opening has been filled.

But guess what? The hiring process isn't complete yet, and if you really want to hang on to this employee, it won't be finished for a year. That's right--hiring doesn't end when a new worker finally warms up that empty chair.

Steps toward the future

The hiring process doesn't end on your new employees' first day. Here are steps to take throughout the first year of your new hires' tenure:

Before they start, let them know in writing and by calling them that they've chosen the "best place to work."
Be prepared for them on their first day with business cards and an office setup.
Hold a meaningful orientation that provides them with specific information about their manager or team dynamics.
Assign them a coach or mentor.
Immediately immerse them in an interesting project.
Provide rewards for completed projects.
Hold meetings at which they can sound off about their first experiences with the company.
Keep in touch throughout the first year through informal conversations or surveys.
In fact, hiring experts say the first year of an IT employee's tenure is make-or-break time. Take a look at your turnover trends; they might surprise you. "When my clients show me charts of their exposure to turnover, their zero- to 12-month turnover was the highest they had," says David Foote, managing partner at Stamford, Conn.-based Cromwell Foote Partners LLC, a research consultancy and advisory firm that specializes in IT, compensation, and human capital management strategies.

"When companies start asking, 'Who are we losing?' very often it's the new hires," agrees Sue Keever, president of The Keever Group, a Dallas-based human resources consulting firm.

This can't be good news for companies spending an average of $6,000 to recruit an employee straight out of college, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, of Bethlehem, Pa. Furthermore, the Employment Managers Association (NACE) notes that costs range from $8,000 to $20,000 for a professional hire. And considering that annual training costs range from $5,000 to $10,000 for a new employee, and it can take half a year for a new hire to become a productive worker, says Foote, the loss of a new recruit is an extremely costly proposition. "Just to bring the person in you've already sunk a lot of money into him or her, whether you hired the person as a temporary employee, paid a sign-on bonus, and possibly paid a fee to an agency or a recruiter," he says.

The reason for this phenomenon lies in the specific nature of IT employees, Foote suggests. "Many years ago," he says, "IT employees tended to be loyal to their company. After a while, they grew loyal to their profession. Now, maybe they're just loyal to themselves."

This isn't true of all IT types, he explains. Business technologists tend to be more willing to make an investment in the company and are interested in long-term rewards. The potential employees you really need to watch are the technical specialists. "The younger technical skill specialists, single or without children, or without roots like a mortgage--these are people with very short attention spans," Foote says. And with a highly publicized IT labor shortage, they're people worth keeping. "In the old days, companies asked IT workers to help them be cost efficient or automate processes. Now, you're trying to attract people who are creative. They get bored out of their minds if you don't give them the atmosphere they need," he says. The reason for this phenomenon lies in the specific nature of IT employees, Foote suggests. "Many years ago," he says, "IT employees tended to be loyal to their company. After a while, they grew loyal to their profession. Now, maybe they're just loyal to themselves."

This isn't true of all IT types, he explains. Business technologists tend to be more willing to make an investment in the company and are interested in long-term rewards. The potential employees you really need to watch are the technical specialists. "The younger technical skill specialists, single or without children, or without roots like a mortgage--these are people with very short attention spans," Foote says. And with a highly publicized IT labor shortage, they're people worth keeping. "In the old days, companies asked IT workers to help them be cost efficient or automate processes. Now, you're trying to attract people who are creative. They get bored out of their minds if you don't give them the atmosphere they need," he says.


Keeping the magic alive

So, you've got to make the honeymoon last a full year. But how? Maybe, HR specialist Keever says, companies should start hiring directors of retention, in addition to directors of recruitment. If the former were a position, she says, it should focus on two areas: new-hire procedures and nurturing new hires throughout the first year.

Questions new hires would love to be asked

Are you comfortable with your team and your manager?
Have you run into any surprises or disappointments with the company?
Are there any small things about your surroundings that you'd like to change--such as the dress code, better recreational areas, more comfortable meeting rooms?
Are you stimulated by your work?
Do you feel vital to the outcome of the project?
Are you able to tap into your creativity?
"From the time an employee signs that acceptance letter, buyer's remorse sets in," Keever says. Perhaps the new hire had other offers and is wondering whether he or she made the right choice. It's natural, too, to agonize over what "might have been," had you waited. So, Keever advises, until their first day on the job, keep in touch with new hires by calling them or dropping them a note. And once they're on board, the HR department should also remind managers to make sure new employees get business cards, a desk assignment, a telephone extension, a computer, and a network connection.

Orientation is also crucial, but it should be more than a paperwork festival. One company, Keever says, holds an orientation session specifically for the new employees in each manager's group. "They review things like the likes and dislikes of the particular manager," she says.

But "it's not always what you do--it's how you make them feel," Keever says. That's where nurturing comes in. So when recent recruits finish a particularly difficult job, give them movie tickets or a night on the town. Or interview them periodically, asking probing questions as to whether they feel like part of the organization. (See box, "Questions new hires would love to be asked")

For instance, you might ask if they're comfortable with their team and their manager, or if they've run into any surprises or disappointments with the company. Surveys find atmosphere is very important to technical workers, so you might ask them if there are small things they'd like to change, such as dress code, better recreational areas and more comfortable meeting rooms. Perhaps you can't paint their cubicle walls bright orange, but airing employee's preferences and showing a willingness to address them can go a long way.

Another important area for technical specialists concerns how stimulating they find their work. So ask about current projects--do the employees feel vital to the outcome of the project, and are they able to tap into their creativity?

Talking it out

Capturing loyalty through mentors

Mentoring programs are all the rage in these days of high turnover. Companies are catching on to the fact that teaming an experienced employee with a new hire is a good way to capture loyalty. Whether it's through a formal program or a more casual buddy system, new hires need someone to show them the ropes, from where the fax machine is to who has political clout.

What's not so popular is rewarding or at least recognizing the time commitment required to be a mentor. "The biggest complaint we hear is managers who devote their time to mentoring but get no recognition for it," says Sue Keever, president of The Keever Group, a Dallas-based human resources consulting firm.

The time commitment might be two hours a month, she says, but considering the high cost of replacing a worker ($8,000 to $20,000), that 24 hours per year deserves to be acknowledged.

At Fleet Technology Solutions, part of the Fleet Financial Group of Boston, new IT employees attend meetings where they can talk about the positives and negatives of their first few weeks on the job, according to Dennis Rygwalski, the group's executive vice president.

One way or another, says advisor Foote, you have to make the first few weeks and months distinctive for new hires. "In the beginning, either assign them a mentor or someone to watch over them," he says. (See sidebar, "Capturing loyalty.") "Or put them on a project immediately and immerse them in the business."

Some companies even start up boot camps, which are weeks-long, intensive training sessions intended to immerse new hires in corporate culture and processes (see the January 1999 column: "IT staff goes back to bootcamp").

Another suggestion is to view the company through the eyes of recruits. Keep your ear to the ground, Foote advises, through surveys and informal conversations with people in their first year. Be sure to ask "What kinds of things could have been done or what experiences have their friends had for a sense of belonging?" he says.

All of this may seem like an awful lot of work after the up-front costs of hiring. However, the payback can be great, even if you only extend tenures for another 12 months. "If you keep them happy and paid fairly, they can really blossom," Foote says. "You don't want the blossom to fall off the rose." //

Mary Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass., specializing in business applications of technology. She can be reached at brandel@cwix.com.


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