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Great Expectations, Not So Great Job

You may never see an exit survey with a checklist of reasons for leaving that includes the choice "unmet expectations," but it may well be the number one reason most employees leave. It is the main reason 4% of employees walk off the job on the first day. It is most certainly the main reason that more than 50% of American workers quit in the first six months. And it is probably a key factor in the failure of 40% of new executives to last more than 18 months in their new positions.

The following practices for fostering realistic mutual expectations are frequently utilized by employer-of-choice organizations and have been found to significantly raise the probability of new hire success, satisfaction and longer-term retention.

Engagement Practice #1: Conduct Realistic Job Previews with Every Job Candidate
This practice is the most common way of addressing potentially unrealistic expectations. It involves initiating a frank and open discussion of job activities, performance expectations, immediate work team, working conditions, rules and policies, work culture, manager's style, and the organization's financial stability, or other topics where surprises need to be minimized. Because of the need to sell applicants on the position and the company, realistic job previews (RJPs) should obviously accentuate the positives but not gloss over potential negatives that, when later experienced after hiring, could cause the new hire to abruptly quit or disengage.

This is a controversial practice among many managers who fear the risk of scaring off and losing talented candidates. The experience of companies who have implemented this practice has shown that some candidates will indeed withdraw when an organization's "warts" are openly discussed. On the other hand, candidates who turn out to be good fits for the organization and culture tend not to be turned off by RJPs. Rather, in many cases, they are often actually more motivated to meet the challenge head on.

If you do lose candidates by divulging the truth about the job or workplace, then you probably would have lost them anyway within the first few months on the job. By discussing the truth up front, and allowing candidates to opt out, you have actually saved the cost of having to replace and retrain.

Engagement Practice #2: Hire from Pool of Temp-to-Hire, Adjunct Staff, Interns, and Part-Time Workers
As the saying goes, before dyeing the whole cloth, it is best to first test a small piece of the cloth. When workers come aboard on a contingency basis, they have a chance to experience the ups and downs of the job first hand before they and the organization have made the commitment to a full-time relationship. Many of those who wouldn't fit the culture or would find it not to their liking can then decide to self-select out. Those who decide to stay and perhaps take on a full-time role will have gone through the most realistic job preview of all.

Engagement Practice # 3: Hire from Current Employee Referrals
The research shows that the first-year turnover rate for employees hired through employee referrals is significantly lower than for those hired through more formal recruiting methods, such as want ads. Why? The main reason is that current employees tend to realistically describe the job and workplace to those they are referring. They have a vested interest in maintaining the friendship, and they are generally motivated to minimize surprises and "inoculate" the referred individual against possible disappointments. Many companies have begun the practice of offering attractive monetary incentives or other types of rewards for successful referrals.

Engagement Practice # 4: Create a Realistic Job Description with a Short List of Critical Competencies
When search teams create too long a list of job requirements and competencies that the "ideal candidate" must have, they are unwittingly narrowing their pool of candidates, since fewer candidates could possibly pass the screening. They are also laying the groundwork for another problem later on—that the new hire will not be able to meet the performance expectations.

To prevent either of these problems, take care to create a realistic list of only the five or six most critical competencies needed for success, preferably stated as natural, motivated talents, not as technical or knowledge requirements. For example, a successful customer service representative needs not just the knowledge of the company's products but also the natural ability not to take customers' anger personally. The more your organization has done to determine which competencies distinguish top performers from average performers in various job categories, the easier it will be to list them.

Engagement Practice # 5: Allow Team Members to Interview Candidates
When those who would work with the new hire as teammates are allowed to take part in the interviewing process without the manager being present in the room, they are free to answer the candidate's questions forthrightly. Likewise, the candidate is likely to feel less inhibited about asking questions of peers that might be uncomfortable to ask if the boss were present.

This practice has two added advantages: The "two-heads-are-better-than-one" factor typically leads to better candidate selection, and it also creates greater participation and "buy-in" from team members while sending them the message that their opinions count.

All interviewers need to be told up front that they are expected to provide solid reasons for voting "yea" or "nay" on a candidate. Some companies assign each interviewer a specific focus area for their questioning, such as fitting in, technical skills, business acumen, and so on.

Engagement Practice # 6: Hire from Pool of Current Employees
This one is easy to understand. When you hire or promote from within, you are taking less of a risk of turnover because the inside candidate is already wise to the ways of the organization. It's also a great way to increase morale by encouraging all workers about their career prospects within the company. However, be advised that, to be on the safe side, you still need to give current employees the same realistic job preview you would give to outside candidates.

Engagement Practice # 7: Create a Way for Candidates to "Sample" on-the-Job Experience
The traditional way of doing this is by asking the candidate a hypothetical question, such as "What would you do if an unhappy customer threatened to go to your manager and complain about your service?" An even better method is to ask a behavioral question, such as, "This job will frequently challenge you to deal effectively with unhappy customers. Can you tell me about a time when you dealt with a particularly unhappy customer and how you dealt with the situation?"

Better yet, many companies have begun using CD-ROMs that simultaneously test the applicant's aptitude for the position while also providing a glimpse of on-the-job realities. Wells-Fargo Bank, for example, requires bank teller candidates to watch a CD-ROM of an angry customer approaching to complain about an incorrect account balance, then freeze-frames the video and asks the candidate to select from among three possible responses to indicate how he or she would respond.

After Federal Express realized that 10% of first-time managers were leaving the company, it began conducting an eight-hour class called, "Is Management for Me?" that aspiring managers must attend before they can officially become candidates for management positions. During the class, current FedEx managers speak to the class, realistically describing the daily challenges of being a manager—the longer hours, increased workload, and the headaches relating to people management and discipline, plus the fact that they are never "off-the-clock." FedEx considers this program a success, partly because of the 20% dropout rate. They believe the program helps weed out management candidates who would not adapt well, and who might be motivated to get into management for the wrong reasons, such as their belief that it is the only way to advance.

Engagement Practice # 8: Survey or Interview New Hires to Find Out How to Minimize New Hire Surprises in the Future
In recent years many employers have started the practice of having recent hires complete evaluations of their experiences during the company's recruiting and new-hire orientation processes. Based on feedback received from written questionnaires, personal interviews, or both, the organization learns what the new hires were surprised to learn during their first 30 to 90 days on the job, what they expected and had not received, and things that were not discussed in interviews that should have been. Why wait until after new hires have left to find out what they were disillusioned about? Better to find it out while there is still an opportunity to do something about it.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave by Leigh Branham. Copyright 2005, Leigh Branham. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.  For information about other AMACOM books, visit http://www.amanet.org/books/