By Lisa Woods, Woods & Williams Consulting, special to The Content Wrangler

I interviewed recently for an IT position with a Prestigious Downtown Indianapolis Company (which I’ll call “PDIC”). While I waited for the “HR Generalist” to retrieve me from the lobby, I studied the sparkling showcase of service awards given to employees who achieve ten, twenty-five, and —!!!—fifty years of employment. These ranged from the usual destined-to-be-lost-immediately “executive” pens, to diamond rings and chunky gold bracelets (a guy has to be a mafia don to carry them off). Rather quaint, I thought at the time. But as it turned out, that glass case should have been my cue to hand in my Visitor badge and beat a hasty retreat.

Lisa Woods, SharepointGrrl

In her office, the nice HR lady gave me the worklifebalance/greatbenefits/funplacetowork song and dance before launching into her questions: “Most of your background is in consulting. Are you looking for more consulting work, or are you looking for permanent employment?” I don’t rehearse for interviews, and I don’t lie (if they don’t want the real me, they don’t want me, right?). I told her the truth: that the right position, with challenging work is more important to me than the contract/permanent thing. She didn’t blink and gave no sign of the alarms that must have been going off in her head. After a few more questions, she handed me off to IT for my technical interview.

My recruiter called me back the next day to share feedback: the company is taking a pass– not due to lack of credentials (I was the top candidate) but because the HR person was afraid I wouldn’t stay “more than a year or two” before leaving for another company. This is a good example of HR run amok, and it speaks to a persistent problem in the IT market (and one which dooms the city to second-string status as long as it pervades): there are still HR departments that recruit for employees who want to stay in the same place forever…and there are still IT managers who let them do it.

Effective IT hiring isn’t about finding The Right One who promises to Love You Forever. And the key to being a Great Place to Work is as much about the “Work” as it is about the “Place”. Companies don’t attract, much less keep, great IT talent with the lure of (“Congratulations on your high pain threshold!”) tenure awards. Web 2.0 demands HR 2.0.:

  • Stop trying to hire “forever”. In the 49 At-will Employment States, it’s delusional to expect candidates or employers to make long-term commitments. Strive to find smart, motivated people and to develop them for as long as that makes sense for you and for them. Employees who promise to stick around may just sit around…you should be looking to hire the ones who move fast, push themselves and your organization, and won’t just sit quietly accruing silver pen and pencil sets.
  • Figure out where you’re going. If your IT management can’t deliver a succinct strategy elevator speech, you’re in trouble. You should be staffing toward a technology vision that’s articulated and which spans more than the next few months. Sharp IT folks want to contribute to projects that are going somewhere, and want to feel like they’re making a difference. If you can demonstrate a clearheaded commitment to a direction, we can help you go there. And we want to help you go.
  • Grow your own: Make your IT department an appealing one by giving your staff development opportunities. Good IT staff are constantly upgrading their skills to keep pace with the technology…your systems, and consequently your business benefit from staff who participate in learning and certification programs. Define a career development program (and replace those ugly anniversary wall plaques with certification funds).
  • Don’t ask IT to put it in park. Many of the best technical professionals with whom I’ve worked had the attention span of a hummingbird until presented with a juicy challenge…and then they pursued a solution with the temerity and persistence of a raccoon with a jar of peanut butter. A good way to attract IT staff with their brains switched on is to give them interesting stuff to do (oh, and the right technology to do it with). Challenge your IT staff to innovate, reward them when they do, and make sure the world knows. Candidates will be pounding on the door to work for you.
  • Capture the knowledge. Companies cite the cost of turnover as a reason they want to hang on to people; replacing employees is expensive, and onboarding is difficult. Organizations with high turnover or who historically have relied on contractors to staff their IT projects need to recognize that organizational knowledge has to be systematically collected, harvested and organized; this doesn’t happen by chance. And even organizations with low turnover need to acknowledge that the most loyal Employee of the Month can fall in front of a commuter train rushing to get to work. Make capturing and recording their knowledge a component of IT staff performance plans, and reward an “each one/teach one” approach to knowledge-sharing to avoid producing “irreplaceable” employees. And support all that with a knowledge management strategy (yes, KM is still important.).
  • Recognize the cost of retaining mediocrity. The “high cost of turnover” is dubious received wisdom; sometimes what’s costing you isn’t the fact that people leave…it’s all the factors that contribute to their leaving (lack of challenge and satisfaction, unclear direction, entrenched management), and all the resources you’re wasting on long timers who eschew innovation in favor of quietly racking up the logo jewelry, and all the knowledge that you don’t harvest for reuse (and which consequently has to be reinvented, again, and again).

I won’t be getting a distinguished service award from PDIC, and the experience left me feeling like I’d just closed the door on a stranger who wanted to get married after the first date. But PDIC has led to some insightful exchanges with other tech folks, and has helped me to clarify what I and many of them are looking for in a job. We’ll keep buying our own pens.

About the Author
Lisa Woods is a web content architecture consultant and strategic entropy analyst in Indianapolis.