How to Hire Engaged Employees
No organization ever became great with employees only partly in the game. An organization’s success -- defined by its ability to execute on its mission -- depends on fully engaged employees willing to take initiative and deliver high levels of discretionary effort. Having a highly engaged workforce begins with hiring engaged applicants. Unfortunately, most organizations do not employ interview methods that allow for identification of such individuals.
Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If you want engaged employees, look for examples of engagement in other areas of their life. Here are a few tips for hiring engaged employees.
The most obvious example would be employees who have remained in jobs for some period of time -- at least five years. If an applicant has a history of job hopping they are like to treat your organization as just another lily pad.
Candidates with a demonstrated commitment to serve others, most prominently veterans, national guardsmen, and voluntary first responders, come with a package of personality characteristics and experiences that bode well for an engaged employee. When I meet a volunteer fireman I’m pretty sure I want him on my team. I also look favorably on candidates who have played a team sport, as they likely understand the importance of working with others and being responsible and reliable in meeting their own obligations.
If the candidate is younger, the opportunity for long job tenure or volunteer service may not be reasonable. However, even when interviewing recent high school or college graduates, I look for and give points to those with a regular work history. I know one young man who worked in the same grocery store all four years of high school and took increasing levels of responsibility over time. That works for me.
Prior leadership experience, e.g., class or club president, demonstrates commitment and the ability to influence others. (It also suggests that they have good social skills and are well liked by their peers.) Bonus points go to individuals who took the initiative to begin an organization or head-up a large-scale project.
The most important characteristic of an engaged employee is that they take initiative. Not only will they proactively seek out ways to contribute, they will actually assume responsibility for training and developing themselves! Most employers provide far too little training and set new hires up to fail right from the beginning. Actively engaged employees take responsibility for their own success.
Engaged employees also demonstrate perseverance. Fifteen hundred years ago the monk St. Benedict wrote about this in his handbook on how to effectively manage and lead others. The principles contained within the book are timeless and universal. In writing about the importance of selection, St. Benedict discusses having the potential applicant demonstrate seriousness and persistence. Rule 58 states: If someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of four or five days he has shown himself patient in bearing his harsh treatment and difficulty of entry . . . then he should be allowed to enter.
Although it would be unreasonable to expect candidates to literally stand at our doors for days, there are certainly behaviors that show seriousness and persistence. For example, applicants should physically drop off the job application instead of mailing, emailing, or faxing it. While there, the candidate should respectfully request if it might be possible to meet the hiring manager if only to shake hands – regardless of how long he might have to wait.
Once they have dropped off their resume, the serious candidate will take the initiative to follow-up and request an interview as soon as possible. If an interview is granted, he will do whatever it takes to meet as soon as possible. If his current work schedule absolutely prohibits an immediate interview during regular working hours, he should make it known that he is readily available in the evening or on the weekend. If that is not possible, he should persist and ask if the interviewer would be available to Skype or talk by phone. Put simply, getting an interview should be the top priority for the candidate.
As soon as the interview begins, I look for the candidate to have done his homework. I expect every page of the website to be printed and highlighted with comments in the margins. For those interviewing with me, I would have expected them to read my book and articles, and viewed my video clips and presentations. If the candidate has not taken the time to get to know as much as possible about your company, I suggest that you don’t invest too much time in the interview. (I refer to interviews in which the candidate is not prepared as “the short cup of coffee.”)
Perhaps the best candidate I ever interviewed came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation and handouts about the company and how his skills and experiences would contribute to the organization. The first slide started with the Mission of the organization. Obviously, he got the job.
Don’t treat the interview process as you would an Internet date. When it comes to interviewing, people and organizations paint the very best picture possible. On Internet dating people literally put up the best picture ever taken of them – even if it was from 10 years and 20 pounds ago. Organizations focus on all the wonderful reasons that you should get into a relationship with them. Interviews should not be viewed as courting. Unreasonable expectations are set that leave one or both parties dissatisfied. Many times it takes only a few weeks for employees or employers to realize that they have been duped. The honeymoon doesn’t last long.
Instead of trying to convince an applicant to come work with me, I tell them all the reasons they don’t want to work for me. I have the applicant meet with potential team members and request that they also inform the applicant about the downside of working for our organization, e.g., limited resources, little room for advancement, and way too much work to do. Of course, I also want them to share the upside.
During the interview, I overwhelm the applicant with all that has to be done by the person who fills the position. I acknowledge the impossibility of getting it all done in the short term and say the following: “I would like you to go home, think about what we have discussed and get back to me with an outline of which tasks you would tackle in what order.” Critically, I also ask the candidate to indicate what resources he would need to be successful. This exercise allows me to see a ton of behaviors, including how quickly they get back to me, their ability to recognize the most important tasks and prioritize them, and their ability to communicate in writing effectively. The majority of candidates never get past this hurdle. Obviously, if the person didn’t bother taking notes during the interview this will be a difficult exercise. In fact, if the applicant doesn’t take notes, they automatically get eliminated from consideration.
Some may consider the above strategies too onerous or time consuming. Nonsense! Just consider all the costs associated with a “bad hire” or the benefits of hiring a truly engaged employee. If they aren’t engaged during the interview, they aren’t going to be engaged once hired. During the interview, you’re seeing the best you’re going to get. Especially in today’s market there are lots of good employees out there – you just need to be actively engaged, patient, and persistent yourself.
About the author: Dr. Paul Marciano is author of “Carrots and Stick Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.”