The Dual Role of Recruiting and Engagement

By Fay Hansen

Aug. 12, 2008

M anagers do all the heavy lifting at AlliedBarton Security Services, the largest American-owned contract security company operating in the United States.

    With more than 3,000 clients, including 200 Fortune 500 companies, AlliedBarton must be prepared to put 400 to 500 security guards on a new site within two to three weeks if client needs suddenly shift or an incident triggers a demand for higher security. A break-in at a company’s offices or a shooting rampage on a college campus may generate a sudden unforeseen demand for massive security staffing.

    The managers at AlliedBarton’s 100 locations are responsible for meeting surges in demand and training the new hires.

    “At headquarters, we look at both macro- and micro- level demand, but our local leaders manage trends in each market,” says Jim Gillece, chief people officer and senior vice president of human capital management. “We’ve found that even with spikes in demand, we can fulfill needs. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

    At thousands of companies like AlliedBarton, local managers shoulder the responsibility for recruiting, onboarding, training and engaging new hires. Their success, according to the latest research, hinges on their ability to not only meet rapid changes in staffing needs but also to create high levels of employee engagement.

Managing swings
   Based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, AlliedBarton has grown from 8,000 employees to 53,000 employees in nine years through acquisitions and organic growth. Strong demand for workplace and campus security services generated $1.5 billion in revenues for the company in 2007.

    Gillece does not focus on long-range forecasts for overall workforce needs for all positions.

    “We plan future needs for different levels in the organization,” he says. “The skills needed at various levels have changed over the past few years. We are readying leaders for the next step and focusing on transitions from one level to another.”

    Security companies operate in a low-margin industry, so cost is always a factor. AlliedBarton is in a period of high growth and strong customer retention levels, but sharp shifts in demand and constant consolidation in the industry set off unpredictable staffing changes.

    “It’s difficult to project the need for employees because we have to be prepared to integrate after acquisitions,” Gillece notes.

    AlliedBarton’s managers typically maintain strong relationships with feeder pools, which include community-based organizations, the CIA, the FBI and local police.

    “We nurture these relationships,” Gillece says.

    For seasonal spikes at the national level, which include high demand from retailers during the holiday season, AlliedBarton taps flexible talent pools.

    “The key is maintaining the flexibility to redeploy where the needs are greatest,” Gillece says.

    The local managers and their direct reports onboard and train the large groups of new hires brought in to meet a surge in demand. Many of the company’s managers moved into their positions after years in the ranks. In Philadelphia, where the company was founded, 50 percent of the managers come in through entry-level positions.

    “Fifty percent is an aspirational goal for our other locations,” Gillece notes. “But there is also great value in watching the external reservoir because of the mix of new ideas that outside hires bring with them.”

    AlliedBarton has concluded that formal training programs are not the best vehicles for preparing new hires for security assignments. Instead, managers mentor new employees and assign them to shadow more experienced workers. Simultaneously, managers must ensure that both new hires and longer-term employees remain engaged in their assignments and committed to the company.

Managing engagement
   When managers at companies such as AlliedBarton bear so much responsibility for both hiring and training new employees, the science of selecting the right candidates for managerial positions becomes all the more critical.

    Candidates for managerial jobs must have the skills to handle recruiting and the ability to engage employees.

    “We know that managers are the key to engaging individuals,” says Tom Rath, global leader for the workplace research and leadership consulting practice at Gallup, Inc., which conducts massive worldwide studies on employee engagement. Gallup has studied 10 million employees in the past decade to establish global benchmarks for engagement.

    Engagement metrics have emerged as a leading indicator of future financial performance.

    “Executives at the Fortune 50 are talking about employee engagement in their analysts calls,” Rath reports.

    Extensive research by Gallup and other consultancies shows that engaged employees are more productive and profitable, more custom-focused, more likely to refer their company as a good place to work, more likely to recommend the company’s products and services and less likely to leave the organization.

    Gallup measures employee engagement with a set of 12 questions that gauge employee attitudes linked to business outcomes. Gallup refers to this set as Q12. Corporate leaders, local managers and other employees can have a direct impact on the attitudes identified through the Q12 process.

    Gallup has also documented the cost of disengagement. It calculates that of all U.S. workers age 18 or older, 18 percent are actively disengaged at a cost of $382 billion a year to the U.S. economy as a whole. Gallup’s semiannual engagement surveys show a steady rise in disengagement levels since the second half of 2006.

    Other studies have reported the effect of disengagement on employee performance across all geographies and age groups. A Watson Wyatt Worldwide study found that Canadian companies with high employee engagement levels demonstrate greater annual total returns to shareholders—known as TRS—higher market premiums and higher productivity levels than those with low engagement.

    In 2007, the high-engagement companies reported TRS of 24.1 percent and $484,000 in revenues per employee compared with TRS of 14.6 percent and $328,000 in revenues per employee for companies with low engagement levels. These financial measures of the importance of engagement indicate that companies must modify their recruiting and selection processes to include engagement factors.

    Employers commonly focus on whether a candidate has the skills to fit the job and the role, Rath notes.

    “But this misses the larger question of whether the candidate can boost the engagement of other employees. It’s crucial to know whether the candidate will be not only a great individual worker, but also an employee who can build the engagement of the team.”

    These employees have the greatest potential for managerial work.

    Rath draws a distinction between core personality traits and the acquired attitudes measured by Q12, which can be affected by the employee’s experience on the job.

    “The goal now is to perfect a set of pre-employment questions that measure the core traits which create the potential for creating engagement,” Rath says.

    Gallup has been using core trait engagement testing for some time in hiring managers internally and now has the tools to score candidates based on their ability to boost engagement at the team level. It is now refining the testing to identify specific components within the trait.

    The science behind it
Pre-employment testing for the ability to build engagement is now a science, Rath says.

    “We can identify people who have the ability to drive engagement. If you have three or four candidates whose skills are comparably matched, this can be the tie-breaker.”

    Because the characteristics Gallup has identified as the essential predictors of the ability to engage others are personality traits rather than learned skills, the candidate selection process is the only opportunity to ensure the organization benefits from the best managerial talent.

    “The skills necessary to perform a specific job are still the key to evaluating a candidate, but the second factor is the ability to engage,” Rath explains. “It is the natural ability to create esprit de corps, not just for the sake of the candidate’s own self-interest but for the sake of the team as a whole.”

    Gallup’s research indicates that it is possible to identify and measure this trait through behavioral questions. To pinpoint the right questions, Gallup reviewed nearly 10,000 validated pre-employment questions to uncover a subset that enables organizations to assess whether a candidate has the ability to boost engagement levels.

    This approach allows companies to hire managers with strong potential and to select candidates for other positions who have the ability to raise engagement levels among their co-workers.

    “Some of the questions elicit answers that are easily identified as socially desirable, so we also use different questions that do not call for socially desirable answers to avoid people outsmarting the test,” Rath notes. “If someone is trying to game the system, we can discover that at some point in the process.”

    Although Gallup does not publicize the full results of its research findings on the exact traits that mark the potential for outstanding managers, Rath readily describes the general characteristics documented by the studies.

    “The best managers create strong relationships and see each person as a whole rather than as a means to an end,” he says. “This gives them the basic ability to get people to move toward a goal.”

    Gallup’s research indicates that once a manager is on the job, the key question is whether the manager focuses on the employee’s strengths, directs attention to the employee’s weaknesses or ignores the employee. If the manager focuses on the employee’s strengths, the probability that the employee will be disengaged is 1 in 100.

    If the manager focuses on the employee’s weaknesses, the probability rises to 20 in 100. But if the manager ignores the employee, the rate for active disengagement is 40 out of 100.

    The point is that most employees can be moved out of active disengagement by the right managerial practices. Selecting the right candidates for crucial managerial positions ensures not only the skills necessary to adjust staffing levels but also the ability to engage the workforce as a whole.

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