Lyndsey Allen used to work across the street from Zappos' main office in Henderson, Nev. She'd sit in her cube, watching Zappos staffers stage impromptu parades around the parking lot in themed garb. She was perfectly content at her current job, but wanted something different. For six months, she prowled the Zappos job site and when a recruiter position opened, she pounced. A year-and-a-half later, she conducts phone interviews at a desk in the middle of the Zappos office, where those spontaneous parades now play an important part in her daily work.

"If [a prospective job candidate] laughs and asks me what's going on, it tells me if the person on the other end is O.K. with our office; if they seem annoyed that they had to pause the interview for 30 seconds, it tells me that they're not the right fit."

At Zappos, an online shoe and apparel company, the first round of interviews is a phone screening with Allen that's based solely on cultural fit. Among the interview questions: On a scale from one to 10, how weird are you?

Allen has found a niche at Zappos - not only professionally, but socially. Experts say this is the key to not only hiring the right person, but keeping them.

"Engagement begets engagement," says Dave Palmisano, vice president at the Albertini Group, a talent acquisition firm. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates the cost of a disengaged worker to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. In stark contrast, world-class organizations with an engagement ratio near 8:1 have built a sustainable model using our approach. "It's a salient scientific ingredient to creating an emotional connection with employees; if you have a best friend at work, you're more likely to be engaged." Palmisano referenced the 1980s hit show "Cheers" as an example of what people want when they go to work. "They want to have Cliff right next to them on the proverbial bar stool. People want growth and development, an engaging organization, financial stability and exciting work, which all comes down to community."

 

Seeking soft skills

Creating community starts with finding the right talent in the first place.

At Zappos, they are clear about what their culture is like from the get-go, but they first had to define what it was.

"It's all about preparation and defining what your culture is," says Wanda Barrett, employment manager at the Society for Human Resource Management. She says internally at SHRM, they look for well-organized and structured people, so they tend to tailor questions around those characteristics. "Questions tend to be targeted around your character, and then developing questions to access one's competencies. Although they may be soft-skill questions, you're targeting a behavior or a skill like high performance."

Last year, Zappos had 55,000 applicants for around 200 jobs, but only a few made it through the lengthy interview process. Once candidates get through the initial phone culture screening, they're passed onto a hiring manager who delves into hard skills necessary for the job. Then, applicants take a test that is tailored by the interviewing department, and another that is company-wide. Only then are finalists brought in for an onsite interview, which lasts a full day and includes a tour, numerous interviews and an outing to either lunch or happy hour to get a real feel for who the candidate is.

Allen says for some positions, she has two people come in for onsite interviews; for others, like marketing openings, it may be up to 10.

New hires also go through a four-week onboarding training, which also serves as an extended test.

"We're slow to hire, but we're quick to fire when it comes to that," she says. "Most people get caught in the training class, and they don't realize it's still a test, so [they] let their guard down." Even after the onboarding period, an employee can be fired at any time because Nevada is a "right-to-work" state, meaning an employee can be terminated at any time except for performance-related issues.

Hiring for skills and a culture fit extends into retention down the line. At its headquarters last year, Zappos experienced a voluntary turnover rate of 8%, while the voluntary turnover rate at its warehouses in Kentucky was 15%.

"Engagement and culture are synonymous; the way you get them engaged is by having them feel they're a stakeholder in the organization," Palmisano says. At Zappos, this translates into those parades, which are used in lieu of companywide emails. Recently, a parade announced the company's participation in a corporate sports challenge where employees will compete against other companies in the Las Vegas region; 10-to-15 staff members dressed up in various sporting outfits and handed out fliers.

"I could see how people would think this is counter-productive, but our employees are anything but that," Allen assures. "The CEO trusts employees to get work done, and he doesn't micromanage people. In the middle of day, if you want to play foosball, that's O.K. Employees don't lose work because of it; it makes them want to work harder."

For companies that covet Zappos' engagement levels and want to mimic them, leaders can call on Zappos' "Insights" team, which conducts half-day and full-day trainings for companies that want to improve their own productivity. Research suggests such training may be needed: In the first half of 2011, 30% of U.S. workers employed full or part time were engaged in their work and workplace, up slightly from 28% in late 2010. Approximately half of U.S. workers were not engaged, and nearly one in five were actively disengaged, unchanged from late 2010.

Allen admits the parades and open structure won't work for all companies, but that it's important for employers to use whatever ways are culturally appropriate to find the right people. Without the right people, she says, even parades wouldn't have attracted her.

"The definition of culture is the personality of an organization. It doesn't matter how qualified the candidate is; it's who fits the culture, is there to enhance it, to fit in or completely change it."

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