July 30, 2010

Hires, fires shape company culture

In an economy where dozens – if not hundreds – of people apply for every job available, it’s easy for employers to become cavalier with hiring and firing decisions.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see companies make is to hire the most technically qualified person in a tough economy,´ said Chris Hutchinson, president and CEO of Trebuchet Group, an organizational improvement firm in Fort Collins. “But it’s not more years of experience that matters.”

Today’s economy makes it even more important for employers to hire – and fire – to shape their company culture. To do that, employers have to be intentional about creating a positive culture and choosing people who fit into it.

Culture and values

A company culture exists whether management is purposeful about creating one or not. Shaping a positive culture is up to the leaders, Hutchinson said.

“The most important question is, ‘What are we trying to do?'” he said. “Too often people get stuck on the how and forget the what.”

In January, Abound Solar, a two-year-old company that manufactures solar panels in Longmont, started to look at molding its company culture through its values. Those values include things like customer success, quality, teamwork and passion.

“Our goal is to integrate these values into everything and make them a part of our daily work,´ said Stephanie Cook, recruiter for Abound Solar.

OtterBox, a Fort Collins company that makes protective covers for handheld technology like cell phones and iPads, also emphasizes its values to shape the company culture. Otterbox’s values include integrity, passion and adaptability.

Both Abound Solar and OtterBox use their values as a springboard for the interviewing process.

With just shy of 200 employees, more than 60 of them hired this year alone, OtterBox puts its applicants through a cultural screening process before they ever interview for a job. The screening is meant to uncover whether an applicant fits into the company culture.

“For example, one of our values is adaptability and the ability to deal with ambiguity,´ said Diane Zile, Otter’s chief people officer. “So we’ll ask, ‘In the last month, how did you deal with a situation that required adaptability?'”

Hutchinson recommends indirect questions that get at how an applicant ticks. “It’s really up to the interviewer and how they ask the questions,” he said. “You should ask things like, ‘Tell me about . . .’ or ‘When was the last time you . . .'”

Hutchinson also said it’s important to have job candidates take part in a real project or assignment.

“From these demos, the candidates are actually doing some of the work you’d ask them to accomplish. They are stepping into your company and showing what they’ll really do and how they’ll behave under stress,” he said.

Put employees first

In June, Kris Boesch of Fort Collins launched Choose People, a nationwide certification program that recognizes companies where employees feel good about coming to work. The certification can be a recruitment tool as well as a way to attract customers, who are increasingly doing business with companies that have good reputations for treating employees well.

“A lot of companies end up focusing on their bottom line first,” Boesch said. “I wanted to focus first on my employees because I knew everything else would follow from that.”

Boesch is the co-owner with her husband of Fort Collins-based Exodus Moving and Storage. She stepped down as CEO to start Choose People.

One way to value existing employees is to consider how job applicants would get along with their work team, Boesch said. It’s important to look at skill sets. Does the team or department require a self-starter? Taking direction from others? Problem solving? Loyalty?

It’s also important to consider likeability.

“Ask yourself, ‘Would the people who already work here like this person?'” Boesch said.

Letting people go with dignity

Employers also have to consider how the firing process contributes to the company culture. Laying people off is the most painful thing an employer has to do, but employers themselves often make the process worse, Boesch said.

“Firing has become disrespectful and nasty,” she said. “The employee tries to defend themselves, and the employer comes back with, ‘Here are all the ways you’ve let us down.'”

After the person is fired, some employers feel like they have to defend their decision by talking down the person to others in the company. This results in a negative, distrustful environment. The key is respect for both the person you let go and other employees.

“Don’t bad-mouth people after they’ve left,” Boesch said. “Another thing I learned is when I’m letting an employee go, they need a chance to respond and defend themselves. But I say, ‘You need to know that nothing will change the outcome of this meeting.'”

Both hiring and firing are among an employer’s most difficult decisions, and both can set the tone for creating a company culture, Hutchinson said. The problem is a lot of companies don’t think culture really matters.

“In large companies, leaders think the culture is already there and they have no power to change it,” he said. “In small companies, leaders think they don’t have time to pay attention to it.”

At Exodus Moving and Storage, Boesch said the recent lean times taught her that employees would rather be challenged than comfortable. She was concerned about overworking people, which became an even bigger concern when the recession hit and she had to lay people off.

“I thought comfort would make people happy,” she said. “But I had to learn to run a tighter ship. I discovered that people feel good when they get a lot done.”

Employers should be taking lessons like that and incorporating them into who they want to be, Hutchinson said.

“Companies should be asking, ‘How do we maintain our culture even in this economic environment?'” Hutchinson said. “The ones who do that will come out of this recession strong.”

In an economy where dozens – if not hundreds – of people apply for every job available, it’s easy for employers to become cavalier with hiring and firing decisions.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see companies make is to hire the most technically qualified person in a tough economy,´ said Chris Hutchinson, president and CEO of Trebuchet Group, an organizational improvement firm in Fort Collins. “But it’s not more years of experience that matters.”

Today’s economy makes it even more important for employers to hire – and fire – to shape their company culture. To do that,…

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