Tech & Work

Communication is key element in tech hires

IT staffing expert Peter Woolford explains why communication skills are so critical to making the right hire, and he's eager to answer member questions on staffing and hiring issues.

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 Peter 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.

Question: 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.

Answer: 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 shortcomings.

● 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.

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