The Doorway to Your Culture

Your hiring process may be what's keeping your agency from achieving change.
by | October 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM

Last month, I wrote about Buckminster Fuller's trimtab analogy for organizational change. Essentially, you must identify trimtabs, those few vital changes that would break up the status quo, in order to change the direction of the culture of your organization. These trimtabs are not low-hanging fruit, but rather they are the key systems of your organization. Once you find them, form projects and fix them. At the end of the column, I promised I would share the one trimtab every organization should work on right away: the hiring process. There is no organizational process that I have seen that has a bigger impact on a culture than the hiring process.

I've had many frank discussions with agency heads in which they confess their absolute frustration with the slow, unresponsive, bureaucratic culture they are leading. Despite their best efforts, the culture only seems to endure and perpetuate itself. I usually give the same reply: How is your hiring process? Think about it. What is the first experience a new employee will have with your agency?

One of my workshop participants, a recent hire to government, put it to me this way:

"I had to fill out ridiculously long forms; I couldn't get hold of anybody to help me; I got notified of my interview a day before; was told the wrong place to go; had to take a test that reminded me of my drivers exam; and then I waited and waited and waited and called and waited some more. Finally I got the offer, showed up for work and goofed around for a month before I could get a phone, a desk and access to the computer system."

What have we just told our new employees about how we do things around here? You never get a second chance to make a first impression. (Compounding this problem is the generation gap. Many of us grew up being told that if you wanted something, you had to wait for it. The TiVo Generation has a different perspective. When they start a new job, they want to hit the ground running.)

But that's just the half of it. The unresponsive, cumbersome hiring process may create the wrong impression for new employees, but that pales in comparison to the cancerous effect it has on existing employees.

Perhaps an anecdote can best illustrate why I say this. I spend a great deal of my time working inside government agencies at every level. I have seen some amazing accomplishments -- and equally astonishing dysfunction. For example, I worked with an agency in a large city. I was asked to look at their processes and figure out why they were consistently so far behind. As a diehard preacher that "it's the system, not the people," I'm used to looking for the usual institutional suspects -- a bottleneck, an underperforming computer system, excessive CYA consuming everyone's time.

But this time I was blown away. There wasn't anybody working. Or more precisely, most of the people weren't there, and those who were weren't really working. As I talked to the director, she nearly broke down in tears.

Where is everyone?

They show up when they want to.

And when do they want to?

A couple of days a week. Sometimes they disappear for weeks at a time.

So why don't you free up their future for them?

Do you have any idea how long it would take to replace them? It will take a year to get them removed and then almost another year to get them replaced. I can't go two years with no work getting done. I'd rather have two days a week than no days a week.

I couldn't believe my ears. The HR processes of the organization had so let her down that she was willing to tolerate any behavior so long as she could get some work done. And what a cancer it created. Further interviews revealed that it started with one employee and than another, and then everyone saw what they were getting away with and realized that productivity was entirely optional.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But I have seen it repeated over and over again in my consulting assignments, and I hear the horror stories from my workshop participants. They all say the same thing: It takes so long to fill a vacancy that we simply can't afford to have someone leave.

Why is this happening? Let me stress, this is not an indictment of the people who work in HR. They are great people, and I have loved working with every one of the ones I've encountered. No, it's not the people. There are greater forces at work.

1. Rapid change

The last decade has brought enormous change to the HR field. When I think about all of the change HR professionals have had to champion, implement or acquiesce to, it's amazing they are still standing. From massive ERP software implementations to broadbanding and classification changes, pay-for-performance plans, workforce planning, 360-degree appraisals, leadership development programs, value-added HR -- it's been a dizzying array of initiatives.

While all of these initiatives are important, the rapid change has caused many to lose sight of the two things managers truly want from HR: Help us get good people in the door as fast as possible, and help us get trouble out the door as fast as possible.

2. Competing customer interests

In focus groups I have conducted, the sentiment across the board among managers is that HR is not there to serve them. Whether it's the hiring process or the disciplinary process, hiring managers don't feel like they are the customers. And again, I don't blame the people in HR. The systems have become so complex because there are so many parties with so many agendas. HR managers have to balance the needs of advisory boards, unions, attorneys, good managers, suspect managers, productive employees, unproductive employees and elected officials. It's a mess. And this mess is leaving hiring managers feeling neglected. Rather than having a partner to find great people, managers get a list of approved people. Rather than a coach to guide them through employee performance problems, managers get manuals, forms and training.

3. Measuring the wrong things

Measures often reveal our values. This is especially true with the hiring process. I have worked with HR departments across the country, and nine out of 10 measure the time to hire. That's good. It's the data they're using to get that measurement, however, that reveal so much.

Ask HR when the clock starts on their time-to-hire measure, and they will tell you, "When we get form X142 completed properly from the department." Ask the hiring managers when the clock starts, and they will tell you, "The moment Bob tells me he's quitting." Ask HR when the clock stops and they will usually tell you it's when a decision has been made. Ask the hiring managers and they will tell you it's when the new hire is sitting at his desk being productive. The difference between these two perspectives can add up to months.

Given these forces, what can be done? It's important to note that HR people did not create these problems themselves, nor can they fix them themselves. They didn't create the impediments, nor can they take them away. It will take a concerted effort from top management on down to fix these systems. The following are a couple examples:

I recently heard from a team in a state agency that attacked the hiring process head-on. A group of HR managers and hiring managers got together and radically redesigned the process inside their agency. Using the customers' definition of speed -- from when Bob says he's leaving until someone new and productive is in Bob's chair -- the team looked at all of the roadblocks that got in the way.

They found required tests being conducted only once a month. They began offering them daily. They eliminated layers of approvals for filling a vacancy when that permission had already been granted through budget and staffing plans. They found the jobs with the highest turnover rates and implemented a constant recruiting process so the managers always had a pool of great applicants to turn to.

All in all, the team was able to cut nearly 80 percent of the time out of the process. Their efforts were so successful that the state HR department asked the agency team to come help fix its part of the process. Most importantly, hiring managers knew that help was on the way.

Another team I worked with took the same approach with the disciplinary process. Focus groups with managers revealed that they feel helpless dealing with employee behavior or performance issues. The managers had been through the training and had been lectured on documentation. They had the manuals and the forms. What they needed was help -- real service.

So the team instituted a hotline. When a manager had issues with an employee, she now had a direct line to an HR consultant. The HR consultant immediately stepped in and helped diagnose whether this was an employee who could be helped or whether this issue was heading down toward discipline and removal. The HR consultant guided the manager through each step of the process, ensuring that she knew how to help the employee improve or move toward removal. The managers finally felt as if they had someone on their side. And they knew they didn't have to let behavior and performance issues fester, bringing down the morale of everyone else.

In both of these cases, it was the good people in HR, working with their customers and with full support of senior management, who made these systems better. You can too.

The hiring process is the front door to your culture for new employees and can be the leverage point (the trimtab) for creating a new culture -- one that is responsive and productive, one that values service. How is your culture? How is your hiring process?