IT staffing expert Peter Woolford is eager to answer any questions TechRepublic
members have about hiring and managing. In this column, Peter offers insight on
how valuable communications skills are with new hires. If you have a question
relating to this issue or another one, just e-mail
or post a comment for this discussion, and he’ll be happy to provide
quick feedback. Peter will be reading the threads and is eager to continue a
dialogue on a variety of topics.

I’m looking to hire a new support person who has the best tech skills, but the
candidate I like most has some problems with communication. I knew in making
the hire that I’d have to address this, and now want
to know how best to handle this type of issue the moment he starts work.

Have you heard the old adage “Hire in haste, repent at leisure”?

Your new hire hasn’t started yet, and you’re already looking
for advice on how to deal with a mismatch between the person’s capabilities and
the job functions. Do you hear the warning bells?

There are two keys to a technical support role: technical
skills and interpersonal skills. The purpose of the role is to listen to
problems from nontechnical users and determine the
appropriate technical fix. Not to give you a hard time here, but your new hire
can’t do that, can he? He will be great at fixing the technical problems, but
you can’t be confident that he will understand the business issues or be able
to communicate the solution.

I think I know why you overlooked one of the key skill
requirements. You were so blinded by the new hire’s superb technical skills
that you decided to waive the other requirement. If the position was a purely
technical role, where you could hide him in the back room most of the time, I
could understand your hiring decision.

What if we look at this from the other direction? Would you
hire a tech support person who had the opposite problem: someone with
tremendous charm but lacking in technical talent? That would have to be a
remarkably charming individual, right?

Determining the communication factor

You mention “problems with communications.” That could mean
your new hire learned English as a second language or is a native English
speaker who doesn’t communicate well. Let’s look at both problems.

If the issue is English as a second language, take the
direct approach and tackle the language skills head on. Send him to English-language
lessons. Sign him up for a series of classes. Even better, you could hire a
private diction coach. The issue is most likely a pronunciation/accent problem
rather than a lack of ability with the language. Get him to speak English
outside of work and listen to English-language TV. Make a bonus contingent on
his success in improving his English-language skills.

If the communication problem is not based on English being a
second language, then the problem is that you hired someone with lousy
interpersonal skills. Basically, you hired a geek. The solution is charm
school, and the best suggestion I can make is Dale Carnegie. They explain how
to communicate with others, and they do an excellent job of telling why this is
necessary. Now, you must ask yourself this: Is he motivated enough to make this
effort? And are you going to monitor his performance to see if he’s improving?

Another approach is to accept that you’re saddled with a
lousy communicator, and try to develop business processes to work around the
problem. This approach is going to be a series of band-aids at best. You’ll be
making the entire team support the weaknesses of this new hire. This alone
should be enough to make you rethink the wisdom of hiring him.

Potential solutions

● Hide your
new support person as best as possible. Set up business processes so that he is
doing tier 2 or tier 3 support. That way, the new hire
will more likely interact with support team members rather than with end users
or customers. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the concept of
the internal customer and burdens other staff with compensating for his

● Set up
your new support person with a communication partner—someone he can quickly add
to a call to diffuse any difficult communication situations. The problem with
this approach is that it kills productivity.

● Set
yourself up as that communication partner. The problem, of course, is that the
new hire will likely view the act of incorporating you into a call as a sign of
weakness. I doubt this would be effective.

Why is it so important to your team to add a person with
exceptional technical skills? Since you hired someone with a clear
communication problem, you appear to have other business problems with your
group. Let’s review two potential issues.

Look at the technical skills your team possesses. Your team
appears to be lacking in technical expertise. You should initiate a program to
address this problem immediately. Send your team for technical training, and enroll
your people in the appropriate certification programs.

Get a better talent pool to draw from. You should have been
able to find a person with the technical skills and the necessary communication
skills. While there are far fewer talented unemployed
technical people available now than a year ago, there’s an emerging large pool
of employed people who are about to become mobile. Basically, everyone
who stayed employed during the recession is looking for a new job.

Look beyond the job boards for candidates. Reinstate your
employee referral program, and reestablish contact with your favorite search
agencies. Start a long-term recruiting initiative to attract and retain the top
technical people who also have good communication skills. If you can’t add to
head count, swap out the weakest players. Transfer them to less technically
demanding roles, or lay them off if you have to.

In the future, you need to listen to your instincts before
making a commitment to hire someone you know isn’t qualified. You may be in a
hurry to fill the position, but that’s nothing compared to the time and energy
you’re going to spend trying to make it right, not to mention the potential
hard feelings on the part of other team members.

And one final thought: I know a lot of readers out there
have encountered similar situations. Please post your comments, and let’s talk
about what has worked for you in the past.