Year after year, they enter the workforce: fresh graduates and interns, young talent who have just completed their studies and are stepping into the world of work for the first time. Some organisations value them enough to actively prioritise hiring them; others are more conservative, preferring candidates with at least a year or two under the belt.
Whichever the case, fresh graduates present certain challenges in hiring and retention. To begin with, they are difficult to differentiate. In terms of skills, their technical skillsets are for the most part very similar and distinguished mainly by academic performance – which is not necessarily the best indicator of work performance. Their professional skills will mostly be rudimentary. Their non-academic knowledge is hit and miss. So how should recruiters and hiring managers choose from within this large group of more or less identical candidates?
Assess them by soft skills and culture fit
HR leaders, recruiters, and hiring managers agree that in the absence of professional experience, it's important to be more open-minded about assessing graduate candidates. For this group, three specific areas are good indicators of whether someone will be a good hire: soft skills, culture fit, and potential for growth.
Soft skills can be evaluated by looking firstly at a candidate's non-academic performance: co-curricular activities, volunteering projects, involvement in activities outside school. These can stand in as opportunities for candidates to have picked up and demonstrated skills such as communications, teamwork, leadership, initiative, flexibility, and so on.
Secondly, recruiters can get a sense of candidates' behavioural attributes and general attitude through situational interview questions. Some important attributes to look out for are ability to get along with others, work ethic, willingness to learn, adaptability in different environments, agility when situations change, and a reasonably good sense of judgment. All these add up to whether the candidate will be a good culture fit with the organisation.
Select them by potential
As fresh graduates will not have a track record of previous workplace performance, a better way to evaluate them is by gauging their potential to perform well in the role, the team, or the organisation generally.
KC Wai, Head of People at Deliveroo in Hong Kong, told People Matters that he looks at these factors among others: “Can the candidates take on the role independently or rise through the rankings? Would you like to hang out with this person after work? To me, work is no longer strictly transactional or an individualistic role. We must look at the potential of teamwork and consider the applicant beyond office hours.”
This requires some amount of forecasting on the hiring manager's part: how might this candidate do after six months in the job? It also requires HR leaders to have a system and structure in place for career development, with benchmarks and expectations that can be adjusted to fit candidates with no previous work experience.
Train them in workplace norms
When onboarding a fresh graduate who's entering the workplace for the first time, HR leaders and managers need to be aware of important things: firstly, the new hire is likely to be unaware of workplace norms, and will not be able to gauge, by themselves, whether their working environment, their interactions with the team, or even their own performance is normal for the organisation.
Secondly, fresh graduates may lack the confidence to speak up if they need assistance or if they have a contribution to make to the team. And thirdly, they may not realize the importance of certain activities not directly related to their work, such as networking or mentorship.
What all this means is that managers will have to invest considerably more time and effort in getting these first-time employees integrated with the team and the organisational culture. They will need to pay additional attention to the new hire's needs, possibly by arranging for regular one-on-one meetings for feedback, relationship building, and some level of coaching until the person is settled in. If necessary, they may even need to train the rest of the team on how to work with the new hire – if only by encouraging more experienced team members to take the input of this most junior member seriously.
A structured program is most effective for this, according to many HR leaders. Sally Elson, Head of People Advisory & Talent at MYOB, told People Matters: “The essential aspects of a good early career development program are to give them a sense of belonging, help them to feel confident enough to learn and ask questions, and clear on what is expected of them in their program.”
Give them what they don't know to ask for
Besides assimilating them into the organisation, the training and development for fresh graduates should be designed to fill in certain gaps in their knowledge – areas that more experienced people might take for granted.
These include an understanding of the organisational structure, including reporting lines and the responsibilities attached to various levels of seniority; the ability to make full use of the workplace tools they are provided; the ability to work in a diverse and globalized environment, one that may span cultures, geographies, and time zones; and of course the ability to network and make themselves visible beyond the organisation and even the industry.
On top of these gaps, COVID-19 has imposed a number of disadvantages upon first-time employees within these few years. The shift to remote work has deprived many fresh graduates of the opportunity to learn through watching their co-workers, and the intangible skills that would otherwise be communicated by example and instantaneous feedback in a physical setting are difficult to convey in the virtual environment. Similarly, the critical ability to network and build relationships is even harder to develop when people cannot meet face to face in a less formal setting unmediated by technology and schedules.
At the end of the day, those who are responsible for the recruitment, development, and retention of this demographic need to adjust their expectations and approach to accommodate the limitations faced by these young candidates and employees. This includes viewing them through the lens of their potential rather than their past performance: developing them along the lines of what they need to grow and succeed, and most importantly, exercising extra patience and empathy where needed. HR leaders must set the tone; recruiters and managers must put it into practice. Soon enough, the challenges and limitations will give way to the realization of that potential, and if the young employee has been well treated and well assimilated into the organisation, at that point retention will be significantly less of a concern.