Top tips for hiring recent grads - Advise Accountants
26 May 2015
Top tips for hiring recent grads

A popular topic these days is how to hire the perfect candidate for your business. Many industries seem to be suffering from a candidate shortage. When you can’t hire a quality candidate with a lot of experience, the focus quickly turns to hiring people straight out of school. So, how do you identify the diamonds in the rough? How can you give them what they need to grow and turn them into the best they can be?

A popular topic these days is how to hire the perfect candidate for your business. Many industries seem to be suffering from a candidate shortage. When you can’t hire a quality candidate with a lot of experience, the focus quickly turns to hiring people straight out of school. So, how do you identify the diamonds in the rough? How can you give them what they need to grow and turn them into the best they can be?

Many companies approach graduate recruitment in the same way as they would with regular hiring. Find the best, brightest and smartest, with a solid knowledge base.

We sometimes forget what it was like when we were just leaving school. The view of the real world from college, university or high school is skewed at best, invisible at worst. This means employer’s expectations and a graduate’s expectations can be misaligned. How do you get past this?

I’ve been obsessed with mentoring graduates, talking about graduates, and working with people on graduate training for nearly 10 years now. What’s fascinating is the attitudes and preconceptions I continue to see from year to year – both from graduates and the industry.

Hire graduates on promise, not just metrics or gut feel

Many employers (especially in IT) pre-vet candidates using technical or personality tests. A bad score tends to mean an instant “no”. It’s fair that companies only want the best and brightest. However, if a potential grad is having a bad day, or it’s their first ever technical test (which are completely differently from school exams), then their chance is blown. Which doesn’t seem right.

Think about it – this process doesn’t acknowledge that graduates are new to the world of hiring and interviews. All too often, employers expect them to perform to the same standards as experienced professionals.

So here’s an idea: give graduates multiple chances to shine. No single test should result in an instant failure.

A team works best if they have a complementary combination of strengths and weaknesses. All industries require a wide range of abilities and skills. If you only ever hire the very strongest technical specialists, you omit other critical factors. A good team needs people good with communication, teamwork and the ability to look at the big picture.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you tell graduates at career fairs (or similar events) that you value traits other than just their technical skills… then eliminate them in a single-strength test?
  • Could you adjust your graduate recruitment process to take human fallibility into account?
  • Does your testing reflect what you consider to be equally important strengths in a candidate?

This doesn’t mean that you give everyone an interview or take candidates you normally wouldn’t accept. If you have high standards, stick to them. But challenge any assumptions you may have around existing testing processes. Think of alternative ways to test for the things you value in a graduate. Look for candidates skilled in communication, teamwork, ownership, critical thinking, leadership as well as specific knowledge and abilities.

Remember what it was like when you started in the workforce

Soon after hiring a graduate, companies focus on pushing them forward and ensuring they have a career path. But the best way to give graduates the boost they need is to focus on those first few weeks after they join your company. Think of it as the formative years, where the “now” is more important than “the future”.

Take a few moments and think back to when you started in the workforce. If you can remember, you probably wished someone told you back then what you needed to know.

Put yourselves in their shoes and try and pre-empt any questions (especially those they may be afraid of asking). If you can’t remember what that’s like, ask them. Ask them what they studied, what they struggle with and what’s easy. Don’t assume that they know things, and question your own assumptions about what a graduate looks and acts like and what they should be expected to “just know”. You will be surprised how much you learn those first few months at work.

  • Do you tell your graduates what time to turn up on the first day? Because you’d be astonished how often the contract says one thing but the general practice is subtly different.
  • Do they know the bathrooms, kitchen, meeting rooms, stationary cupboard and other key facilities are?
  • What practices are acceptable? Think breaks, getting in late in the morning from an appointment, working late and time in lieu?
  • Do you make sure they leave when the office empties out, and tell them it’s okay if they haven’t finished their work at the end of the day?
  • At any point, are they expressly told that it’s okay that they take their time on a piece of work?

Most importantly, tell them it’s okay to ask for help and have a voice or opinion. School can sometimes be a one-way flow of information, and after three or more years of tertiary study, students have specific ways of doing things. They’ve learned to solve the problem themselves, aren’t used to being able to ask for help, and wouldn’t think of contradicting a lecturer. Look at your environment, and check that you’re not assuming they implicitly understand the workforce is different. This is the number one thing I focus on teaching graduates.

We have a tendency to think every graduate is like us. That if we are relaxed about things, they will be too. Or if we are a stickler for rules, they will be. Or even if we learned this subject fast, they probably did too. A small moment to reassure them can sometimes help out those who are more than likely feeling very much out of their depth. In the end it’s an opportunity to make their experience better than yours was, even if yours was great!

Get the basics right

There are some staples to supporting a graduate – and depending on the size of the business they may all be the same in implementation. These are things that sound easy but are hard to do well.

Provide a good mentor

Don’t pick the senior person, the manager, the specialist in the corner, or even the person who volunteers. Take the time to pick a mentor, and be clear that they have this responsibility. Be picky, treat it like a mini-dating process. Pairing up the right graduate and mentor based on attitude and personality is important. A lot of people think anyone can mentor, and that’s simply not the case. Apart from teaching, mentoring is relationship-based, and akin to personal development coaching. Having mentors who value teaching the skills needed is key. But they should also keep an eye on their health, well being and levels of enjoyment. Your mentor also needs to be flexible, and adjust their style accordingly. Most importantly the mentor needs to listen.

Put them in a situation where they feel they are achieving

Do you put graduates on a made-up internal project? It’s an all-too-common story. If you’re treating graduates like children who might break the precious things in your house, you need to rethink this. Graduates aren’t kids, and are aware of what’s happening. How would you feel if that happened to you? Put graduates on “real” work and not made up projects, where they can feel like a valued and contributing member of the team. The very nature of a team also means they are part of a wider support network along with their mentor.

Provide some context about what they do and what the company does

Whether you have a formal on-boarding process or just a simple chat, provide them with some background. There can be a lot of history in the simplest of things. The nickname an employee has, how a tradition started, or understanding the goal of the company. These are all significant events along the way and can make you feel like part of the team. While relevant to anyone joining your company, remember that graduates are often new to the industry entirely. For example, new employees will understand the general function of Human Resources and Payroll. Graduates normally haven’t been exposed to this before. Be honest and highlight factors that played a role in the company’s decisions and/or current state (such as economic factors, financial markets, technology choices, legislation changes etc.). You’d be surprised how much buy-in you get by opening the doors and treating them like an equal.

Focus on the things that are important

When hiring graduates and interns, we are inclined to forget how much we have learned during our own years in the industry. So start with the basics and stay there. There is a limit to how much graduates can take in during the first day, week, and month. More often than not I see attempts to try and stuff far too much knowledge into their heads too quickly (most of which won’t stick). Focus on short teasers of skills or theory, which allow graduates to take away an idea that there’s more to learn. Don’t spend more than 30 minutes on a single topic. If you train via formal methods such as workshops, remember you don’t need anyone to be able to recite the content. The main thing they need is to know who to ask when they have a question. Teach them to be able to find out more by providing the right resources (people, forums, knowledge bases, etc.).

Give them opportunities to look back and realize how far they’ve come

The most common sentiment I encounter with graduates is that even after a couple of months, they are focused on how much they don’t know as opposed to how much they have learned. Surrounded by people who are more senior than them, it’s easy to focus on the wrong things.

Provide graduates with a way to realize how they’re doing. Ask them to mentor someone else, push them to speak at industry forums such as Meetups, or get them to internally present on a topic they were on the receiving end of a few months ago.

Be the voice for your graduates. Remember that they often feel they’re unqualified to talk and/or teach, but they often can’t see the possibilities, so help them out. Can they co-present with you? Can they present on what they have learned as a graduate? We openly tell the graduates in their first week that we expect them to be the presenters for the next round of graduates. Of course everyone nervously laughs as if in disbelief, but after some time they’re perfectly capable of teaching the next generation and we encourage them to do so.

Hiring graduates and interns is easy, right?

If this didn’t sound complicated enough, evolve.

At Xero, our induction and training programs are still works in progress, and we don’t pretend they’re perfect. In the three years since we first loosely created the graduate training program, not a single iteration has been the same as the one before. Instead, we take into account feedback from the last iteration, as well as general trends and changes in the company. Each one is treated as experimental and open to change, and it gets a regular overhaul, a fact we’re quite proud of.

Whether it’s employees who have a passion for mentoring and training, or previous graduates who see something that can be improved, get feedback. Be sure you allow any processes you have to adapt as needed. This will help make the next generation of graduates even better, faster and stronger. Do you have the right people feeding into it, and is it driven by people “from the floor”?

None of this is rocket science, in fact, it might seem like a non-subject. However, it’s surprising how frequently graduate recruitment isn’t considered as anything other than another talent pipeline. Graduates are different, and should be treated as such. They are individuals unusually keen to prove themselves. Yet they’re at a stage in their development that they need opportunities to expand and learn, more so than most other staff. Graduate programs aren’t about “watering and feeding,” they are about acknowledging that to get the best out you need to first spend time and effort. Choose to make a truly solid investment in that principle.

If you’ve done it right, you’ve given graduates a leg up on their “place in the universe.” They should now know what’s expected of them, how to best do their jobs and where to go for help. Combine this with making the right hiring decisions on graduates. You want people who are (street and/or book) smart, go-getters, and looking for a challenge. You can end up hiring graduates who want to stay in your company, are great at what they do, and become the next superstars to push your company forward.