Talking Shop: Boot camp initiation for new IT staffers boosts retention rates

Break in IT Staffers with these tips

It’s no secret that high staff turnover can be costly, unproductive, and wasteful, and that a long employee learning curve can work against IT efforts. The secret, instead, is in one simple fix for retention and productivity woes.

One company’s employee initiation effort is not only boosting IT staff retention rates but also helping new tech staffers assimilate quickly into the company and their roles. See what benefits a similar boot camp effort might have for your organization.

High retention a key to productivity
The brainchild of Inquisite CEO Sam Goodner, the boot camp effort has led to some incredible stats, especially given that most enterprises don’t usually hit 5 percent retention rates, even in a weak economy. Inquisite boasts a 43 percent retention rate for employees who’ve worked at the company for three years or more and a 26 percent retention rate for those employed up to three years. And the retention rates are still impressive as employee tenure grows. There’s a 19 percent retention rate for those employed for five years or more and a 12 percent rate for those employed seven years or more. As of last year, 74 percent of the employees have been with the Web survey technology and services provider for more than three years.

For the IT professional, the boot camp program provides a strong return-on-investment thanks to a shorter learning curve, a faster and deeper understanding of the corporate business goals, and the opportunity to fashion friendships and personal support relationships starting the first day on the job.

How the boot camp was born
The boot camp idea originated in 1998 during a large employee growth spurt at the company, explained Goodner.

The CEO initially honed his leadership skills and style as a mountain infantry officer in the Swiss Army—the impetus for the boot camp style program he put in place at Inquisite.

Goodner said the goal was to find a way to communicate his vision and goals to the new recruits that would extend beyond a cursory ”welcome to the company speech from the CEO.“

Dressed in full military uniform, and accompanied by his senior management team, Goodner indoctrinates the employees with company values, organizational structure and departmental roles, their job responsibilities, and customer service policies. He includes pop quizzes—as well as sample questions from a Talicor Inc. game called “The Ungame.” The card game provides questions or topics designed to help participants open up and talk about themselves. Examples have included the following:
  • Make a statement about honesty.
  • Describe the most unpleasant job you have ever had to do.
  • Describe your childhood in three words.
  • What have you done in the past three months that made you feel proud?

The quizzes and the Ungame exercise open up dialogues between the new employees and management, as well as provide a friendship foundation for the new indoctrinates as they learn a great deal about each other early on in their tenures with the company.

The boot camp is a full day of orientation that Goodner said allows him to both immerse the new hires into the Inquisite culture and recharge his own batteries through the synergy and enthusiasm of the team.

The objectives of the boot camp, he explained, are fourfold:
  1. To make sure everyone that starts at Inquisite is on the "same page”—that they understand the big picture (vision, mission, core values), and that they know where the company is headed
  2. To make sure they understand what is expected of them and the minimum standards of professional conduct and customer service
  3. To create a sense of camaraderie and teamwork
  4. To allow new employees to get to know their CEO on a personal level and vice-versa

How IT staff can benefit
For IT project manager Matthew McDermott, the boot camp was rewarding on many levels.

McDermott expected it to be a typical HR indoctrination seminar about what the company’s goals were. Instead, the full-day effort proved valuable in helping him assimilate into the work environment and corporate culture.

“You knew that everyone else in the company shared this common bond of boot camp and with that, everyone was coming from the same place with the same expectations. It’s your induction into the corporate culture, setting the tone of the company and forming its cultural foundation,” said McDermott.

“The company was interested in the person that they had hired as a person, not just an employee. Sam [Goodner], wearing army fatigues, seemed to be a metaphor for the whole day. He is an intense person; the business that we are in day-to-day can be an intense experience—and just like in the company, there is a sense of humor about it,” said McDermott, who has been with the company five years.

Most employees spend the first few days in a new company in a fog, McDermott explained, and, given their work, those in IT are typically even more isolated from the rest of staffers. The one-day boot camp allowed him to meet people in different departments and avoid the feeling of buyer’s remorse that new employees often experience, he said

“Through camp, you definitely come away with the sense that you will either fit in with the culture or you won’t. You learn things about people that you wouldn’t just working with them,” said McDermott.

“You learn something about your colleagues that no one would think to ask in a work environment and you learn factoids about people through the icebreaker game [Ungame]. The whole exercise fosters understanding and acceptance of others. It helps to discourage criticism and sarcasm, which often hinders good communication,” said McDermott.

But more importantly, the project manager said the camp helped new employees bond.

“Those bonds are there already when you are asked to help out on a project or need help on something. It makes asking folks to go the extra mile easier,” he explained. Without the boot camp day, McDermott said he wouldn’t have had a cultural foundation for quite a long time into his employment.

Advancing the goals
Goodner is contemplating expanding his employee boot camp past a one-day program because he believes it could provide more opportunities for new employees to meet more staffers and get greater insight on internal corporate culture. McDermott said he would recommend that employees attend boot camp a few weeks into employment, to let new employees get familiar with the people and company leaders, and that any expansion plans should include more exploration of what the company represents.

“Companies may switch directions from selling product X to service Y, but does the company stand for the same set of values? The curriculum and bonds of boot camp become the thread that binds your last 100 employees to the first 10 employees,” McDermott said, noting that while Inquisite chose a military type boot camp theme, companies can easily use a theme that fits their corporate culture

The one thing McDermott didn’t really appreciate about the boot camp experience was that those arriving late were expected to do push-ups as penance. But that is a very minor criticism when compared to the overall value, he said.

“I enjoyed the whole day; it was a new work experience for me and an impressive one. In our environment, the more technical, cubicle-oriented people sometimes have difficulty sharing, so the closeness and revealing nature of boot camp is designed to embrace everyone’s personality,” said McDermott, adding that the most important factor was the corporate insight provided to participants.

“It reveals the side of the company that is not featured in a brochure or on the Web site. It’s the people and core values that uniquely define a company. If your company is going to survive change, this is about what stays.”

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