Successful Habits in Hiring, Onboarding, and Evaluating Student Employees
With the commotion of another academic year finally behind us, we get an opportunity to evaluate our successful habits. This is always an interesting exercise for me, as most of my time in the audio-visual industry was spent in the private sector. Now I have a unique perspective with evaluating the habits which translated well into higher education; likewise, the successful habits I learned in higher ed that I never would have been exposed to in the private sector.
Here on the student union event services team at the University of Connecticut, I started this past semester with 17 student employees, eight of whom just graduated. That is, of course, one of the challenging natures of employing students. I also have the obstacle of training a student with virtually no technology experience, or work history, to technical proficiency. Of all our procedures, the hiring and onboarding process is the most vital for my area to maintain success, and self-assessments are critical to identify habits that maximize on our efforts.
Hiring is a lot like a game of poker: everyone wants to convince you they have a winning hand, even when they don’t. In this vein, I look for application “tells”—areas an applicant who is bluffing might forget to hide.
For example, student employee applicants often profess a genuine interest in the job, a strong attention to detail, and the ability to work with minimal supervision. I’ve seen some of those applicants also have a typo in their email address. That may seem trite, but failing to notice an error with your contact information indicates you might not have a strong attention to detail. Not double-checking your application before submitting suggests you may not be serious about getting this job. If I need to correct you on your own email address, that suggests you might require excessive supervision. The error itself is relatively insignificant; it’s the cause of the error that raises a red flag.
We look for indicators outside the application, as well. One example is applicants who have yet to set up their voicemail, or have a full inbox. That demonstrates they did not adequately prepare to be contacted by a prospective employer, which, to me, translates as lacking a sincere interest in the position. We also pay close attention to their tone and conversation style. Many of our positions require interacting with directors, deans, or professors. How they choose to speak to a potential employer reflects how they might converse with the provost. While not every single situation requires sternness, the ability to know when it’s appropriate is required.
During the interview stage, the most important thing I’ve learned is to not ask leading questions. If I ask, “How do you feel you would handle a stressful encounter with an upset customer?” I’ve indicated there is a right and wrong answer. No one will respond, “I get frustrated and may respond with hostility.” Instead, it’s vital to encourage a relaxed environment. In place of that question, I’ll give my “nightmare” customer service story and talk about how it made me feel and how I reacted to it. Bonding, particularly over bad customer service experiences, let’s them feel more at ease and open.
At the end of the day though, this is still a game of poker. Case in point, I once interviewed someone who seemed like a perfect fit: great resume, relevant experience, and charming throughout the interview. When the conversation turned to sharing our customer service “war stories,” the interviewee told a shocking account about getting so angry with a customer, they needed to be restrained by a coworker. If not for the relaxed tone, this was not an experience with which they would have been forthcoming. Re-evaluating how I ask interview questions is the reason we didn’t find out the hard way this person does not handle stressful situations well.
This past semester we tried a new approach to onboarding new hires. In prior semesters, we progressed very slowly through their training process. Most applicants are first- or second-year students who have never had a job before. Ironically, despite living in an age surrounded by technology, most lack hands-on experience. I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that our work demands can easily become overwhelming given those circumstances.
I began noticing that some technicians were exceling at a faster rate compared to others hired at the same time. At first glance, all things seemed to be equal: they worked a similar number of hours each week, saw the same number of shift types, and had the same number of trainings. Eventually, I found the techs who were exceling happened to be working faster paced shifts. Their proficiency wasn’t because of the number of hours or shifts they worked each week, it was the raw number of setups.
In hindsight, of course that seems obvious. But at the time, I never considered having new hires purposefully shadow fast-paced shifts. I was fearful they would find the shifts too intense and intimidating. Losing a new hire, even early on, causes major setbacks. Understanding now that the threshold is significantly higher meant we could revamp our training schedule. Additionally, of almost equal importance was the realization that proficiency benchmarks should be based on number of setups completed, not employment duration.
Our training schedule now focuses on showing new hires 100 setups in as short amount of time as possible. Whereas before the process could take up to six weeks, we are now able to complete it in under two, allowing them to shadow the more advanced event shifts significantly sooner. The frequency of events can vary dramatically throughout the semester, often with many lulls. In past semesters, by the time new hires reached a level of proficiency to where they could begin shadowing events, the majority of events had already happened. Having new hires reach basic proficiency four weeks sooner gives us a huge advantage.
Obviously maintaining long-term employees is more than good hiring practices and training programs. We conduct evaluations each semester, with mid-semester check-ins. Having more than one per year with multiple check-ins allows us to keep things from getting too far off course. One of the most difficult things to do is unlearn a bad habit, but catching a misunderstanding early on prevents that. It also allows us to discover hidden strengths. We have a lot of success with peer-to-peer training. Identifying an employee who is strong with building knowledge, for example, indicates they would be a great resource to conduct orientations with our new hires.
However, evaluations can also be tricky. To everyone involved, it feels like it’s “your” opinion of their performance. Though it shouldn’t be my opinion of their performance, it should be their demonstration of objective criteria. What’s difficult is standardizing certain criteria items in an objective way. Often, evaluation criteria can sound subjective; for example, how effective they are with nonverbal communication. That doesn’t initially sound like a category that can be measured with data points, but I think it can be.
For me, this means written communication: email correspondence, scheduling software, shift reports. Do they respond to an email within the expected timeframe? Is their class schedule and availability correct? Are their shift reports comprehensive and accurate? I know what non-verbal communication looks like as a category; it’s about measuring when those areas fall in and out of expectations.
Campus jobs are, by nature, temporary. The individuals occupying them are here to focus on academics first. It’s unreasonable for me to expect perfection from a student employee; everyone makes mistakes. The question is, how many mistakes are acceptable and how many are unacceptable.
The mantra I’ve always liked is this: the first time is a mistake because you didn’t know better. The second time is an accident—you knew better, you just slipped up. The third time is a habit, because you didn’t internalize the previous two incidents as something to try to prevent in the future. If a student only has a solitary mistake in each of the categories, they exceeded my expectations. If they showed enough self-motivation to prevent mistakes from becoming habits, they performed as I hoped and met expectations. If they let these mistakes turn into habits, they need improvement. Now when it’s time to do evaluations, seemingly subjective criteria like “effective use of nonverbal communication” is easier to quantify.