With nearly every A/E firm in existence desperate to add technical staff, a strategic approach to recruitment and retention can be the difference between winning and losing in the battle for talent. In this issue of The Friedman File, we examine how the Foth Companies, a 675-person, multidiscipline science and engineering company, has been able to keep its turnover percentage low and its hiring success rate high across its 28 locations.

Can an Interview Be “Enjoyable”?

Jobseekers will tell you that the interview process can be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences that a human can endure. According to employment consulting firm JDP, 93% of job candidates have experienced anxiety related to their interview.

And why wouldn’t they? Strangers firing questions at you that you may or may not be able to intelligently answer. Doubts swirling in your head. Is this the right fit for me? What’s the salary? Are the benefits good? What are the people like? Would I have a future here? Am I making a mistake leaving my old job? Nervousness, insecurity and fear are common emotions.

How can a firm overcome a candidate’s apprehension enough to allow their true personality and professional capabilities to shine through? At Foth (sounds like “both”), the hiring process is extensive, with multiple members (Foth’s term for employees) across the organization participating and weighing in on the candidate’s suitability. Yet, the firm prides itself on ensuring that every interviewee walks out the door feeling that it was time well spent.

“We make sure (candidates) have a good experience when they’re interviewing here,” says Peter Bailen, Foth’s Senior Resource Center Manager and Recruiting Leader. “It’s amazing how often those who don’t get the job, or who turn it down, refer someone else to us. We had one candidate who turned down our offer, but referred her boss to us and we hired her boss.”

Bailen, who works out of the firm’s Green Bay location, recounts a recent meeting with a prospective hire at O’Hare Airport for which he brought some Foth apparel as a goodwill gesture. The clothes were a fit, but the candidate’s qualifications were not, and no job offer was extended. Despite losing out on the opportunity, and pointing out that the process was “lengthy,” the candidate had glowing comments about the firm and the people he met.

“For someone who didn’t get the job to make the effort to stop and say that to us, it means something,” says Bailen. “Whether we hire them or not, we’re taking care of people,” he says. “We make sure to compensate them for travel expenses. We’re giving them a good experience because we want them to get an idea of what it’s like to work here, and to leave with a good impression of us that they might pass along to others.”

What may be most impressive about Foth’s approach is the firm’s accessibility and responsiveness to candidates. The firm evaluates prospective hires deliberately and analytically, crafting and implementing an interview process that fits the situation. They move nimbly, capable of scheduling very senior people to participate with an agility unseen in most firms their size. The recruitment leadership and staff is also decisive in planning, scheduling and advancing the process, all critical attributes necessary in the current hiring climate.

“Three years ago, we ran an internal project to increase the efficiency of our recruiting process,” explains Bailen. “Our team sat down with one of our Lean facilitators and mapped the process. We looked to remove any fat, including making the application process as easy as possible for candidates.”

The firm also initiated an interview certification program to ensure that all Foth members understand the important role they play in the selection of future members. This includes confirming that they know how to communicate Foth’s culture to candidates.

A key factor in the program’s effectiveness, says Bailen, is that Foth’s senior leadership fully recognizes the importance of recruiting in the overall success of the business. For example, when candidate meetings arise on short notice, they’ll willingly adjust their schedule to accommodate the process.

Doing the Process Justice

One differentiator for Foth is that they have a five-person group dedicated exclusively to recruiting. “The recruiters we hire at Foth are very experienced at what they do,” says Bailen, whose role includes leading the recruiting team. “They all can talk the talk. A couple are engineers, and they can speak to technical matters. We train them thoroughly on our firm and our culture, and make sure that they can speak confidently about it all. Each is embedded with an operations team so they know what’s going on, day to day within the business group they support. They know the projects and they know the people.”

Bailen says that candidates for key positions will meet with five or six Foth representatives as part of a four-step process that can take three weeks or more. The final step before receiving an offer is to spend a day shadowing a colleague in a similar role, culminating in the delivery of a presentation to the group. “The presentation gives us a lot of insight into who they are, how they can manage a room and interact with others, how they answer questions, and how critically they think,” Bailen says.

While the process plays out, candidates receive texts, calls and emails every few days from people they’ve met along the path at Foth to keep them engaged. Not every candidate is happy with the time it takes to get a decision, but Bailen and the Foth leadership team are fine with that.

“There have been times when it has taken too long and we’ve lost people,” says Bailen. “But this also factors into our retention rate, which is well above industry average. If we lose them, we look at it like it wasn’t meant to be. If we hire them, though, they’re more likely to stay because of the up-front work we did.”

Bailen adds that Foth can be flexible with the time frame, compressing it if the candidate is vying for a role that’s particularly difficult to fill, or if it’s clear that they have other irons in the fire.

Other Recruitment & Retention Strategies

Foth sets a goal of a minimum retention rate of 92% and routinely beats it, says Bailen. The firm focuses on projecting the right mix of stability, flexibility and growth. “We make sure our members have challenging, fulfilling work to do,” he says. “That’s why we look for larger, longer-term clients, not transactional ones.”

CEO Randy Homel cites the firm’s policies on professional development, ownership and work-life balance as keys to the retention success. “Foth’s commitment to our members is demonstrated by annually reinvesting 5% of professional fee revenues in professional development activities. Our work environment is professional, collaborative and fun. Our members enjoy flexible schedules and work locations, the opportunity to invest in ownership, personal responsibility and accountability, and a collaborative, inclusive team atmosphere. We take on our clients’ toughest challenges, which provides meaningful project assignments working alongside creative and dedicated team members.”

Other recruitment and retention strategies at Foth include:

Promoting Ownership. About 30% of the firm’s employees are also owners. While ownership is extended by invitation only, Foth’s recruiters stress not only the potential for ownership opportunities, but also the value that ownership in the firm delivers to its employee-owners.

Internal Referrals. Statistics across industries and geographies bear out the fact that employee referrals generally require the least amount of time and produce better, more enduring employees. Foth focuses heavily on internal referrals, including creating and distributing branded collateral to promote the program, sponsoring contests and increasing employee referral bonus amounts. Orientation for new employees includes a briefing on the referral program, and new employees are asked continually through their first six months on the job if they have anyone to recommend. Roughly 30% of Foth’s hires are a result of internal referrals.

“We do a quarterly drawing as part of the referral program, ​usually for some sort of electronic item, like an iPad or a Sonos speaker,” says Bailen. “We also run various events to encourage our people to share information about jobs to their networks and to promote our postings. We recently did an event tied to the NCAA basketball tournament, in which people who shared a job on LinkedIn received a team entry in the tournament pool, winning prizes every time their team advanced.”

Talent Marketing Plan. Foth, unlike some A/E firms, fully understands that marketing and recruiting are closely related. For this reason, the firm launched a “Talent Marketing Plan,” which includes employee testimonials and videos on the website, career fair attendance from the upper Midwest to the East Coast, and peer-focused thought leadership content. “On some levels we’ve felt like the best-kept secret around, so we launched this talent marketing program,” says Bailen. “We’re a humble bunch, so we’re not very good at talking about ourselves, or tooting our horn. We still have a long way to go, but we’re putting ourselves out there more and starting to see the benefits of it. People are noticing us.”

Success Profiles. One of the keys to the strong retention rate, says Bailen, is the firm’s “Success Profile” program. On a new hire’s first day, their expected deliverables are documented over the course of their first, third and sixth month on the job. Each also has a 30-minute sit-down with a revolving cast of people representing a wide variety of roles and departments in the firm. The goal is to understand the new hire, for them to get a handle on their role within the organization, and to quickly and efficiently communicate and expose them to the firm’s culture.

“We also engaged a group of emerging leaders, as part of our leadership development program, to document and institutionalize the attributes of our culture. We explain it to our new members and show them what it is,” says Bailen. “It’s a very intentional culture, and we empower everyone to check if we’re straying from it, and to take action if necessary to make sure we retain what we want our culture to be.”

Is your firm doing anything unique or different to drive your recruitment and retention success? Write me at rich@friedmanpartners.com if you’d like to share.