Team Staffing Requires New HR Role

May 1, 1994
In today's team-based organizations, effective human resources departments are those that know when to take charge and when to let go, when to step in and when to bow out. It isn't an easy dance to learn, particularly when HR is used to running its own show. But for team-based management to be successful, teams have to be allowed to control their destiny to the greatest extent possible. This includes giving them the authority to make staffing decisions previously handled solely by the HR department.

This doesn't mean that HR is absolved of all responsibility related to recruitment and hiring. What it does mean, however, is that the role of HR has to change considerably.

Take C & S Wholesale Grocers Inc. in Brattleboro, Vermont, a company that has 1,600 employees, more than $1.3 billion in sales and a corner on New England's grocery supply market. Here, the warehouse crew has worked in self-directed teams since 1989, an organizational move that's credited with significantly boosting employee morale and with it, the company's profit margin.

At C & S, team members are involved in all hiring decisions. HR acts only from an external recruiting standpoint. When new employees are needed, HR advertises the open positions, screens candidates, then hires and trains the new employees. Then, the HR department places these new employees on a "rookie team" and pays them a base wage. Existing teams can select members from this team of new workers.

If, instead, teams want to recruit members from other teams, they go ahead. If they want to get rid of team members who aren't pulling their own weight, they're empowered to do so. If they want to reassign job responsibilities, they don't have to ask permission. Once new employees have been trained and placed on the rookie team, HR is out of the picture entirely. Why? As Mitch Davis, vice president of the company's people affairs department, explains, "HR doesn't know how the work gets done. Teams members do."

Human resources professionals in companies that are just making the move to self-directed work teams can learn a lot about team staffing from organizations like C & S. For instance, HR professionals need to be involved in the recruitment and hiring process, but they also need to know when to back off and let team members take responsibility. Let's face it: The teams ultimately have more at stake in the selection of a new employee than the HR department does. "It's hard for HR to get out of the way and let team members make staffing decisions," says Edward Marshall, president of the The Marshall Group in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "The biggest challenge HR has is becoming partners with the line organization." HR staffers must learn to act as internal consultants who offer expertise in the hiring process, but who don't necessarily have authority over every hiring decision.

When staffing a team, the key is balance.
So what then, does the team-staffing process look like? How does staffing for teams differ from staffing for individual jobs? At the beginning of a team venture, the staffing procedure varies little from that found in traditional, non-team-based organizations. At this stage, HR needs to manage the process because there aren't team members with whom to consult about staffing decisions. The main difference in staffing for teams is that candidates have to be screened carefully for their ability to work well with other team members (see "Selecting Good Team Members Requires Careful Job Analysis"). "For us, staffing for teams isn't that different from staffing for other positions," says Susan Howard, senior on-the-job training instructor with First Trust Corp. in Denver. "For team positions, however, we pay a lot more attention to candidates' interpersonal skills."

At Delta Dental Plan in Medford, Massachusetts, a self-directed team provides services for an insurance contract the company acquired with Massachusetts Public Employees last year. Because this contract, which involves providing dental insurance for 31,000 employees, is Delta Dental's largest business account, it was important that the team was staffed with qualified, motivated individuals.

"HR professionals need to be involved in the recruitment process, but they also need to know when to let team members take responsibility."

From January to July 1993, the HR department—in conjunction with the director of operations—worked to recruit employees for the new 12-member service team. In selecting team members, the company wanted a group of people whose strengths complemented each other. As Tom Raffio, senior vice president, explains, the operative word in the selection process was "balance." This was accomplished in several ways.

First, the company used the Myers-Briggs indicator to reveal the candidates' personality types. "We were looking for a combination of introverts and extroverts, people who reflect on things and people who close on things, and people who could process claims efficiently on a daily basis, as well as those who could keep in mind the long-term vision of the company," Raffio explains.

Next, because not all customers of the new account were English speaking—some spoke only Spanish, some French Creole—the company wanted to balance the team with some bilingual employees.

Finally, Delta Dental believed it important to have employees on board who understood the business and the company's culture. But because it was a new account, the company also wanted employees who brought fresh insight and perspective. For this reason, employees were recruited from both inside and outside the company.

HR managers took information about the final candidates and charted it on a hiring matrix to make sure that among them, potential team members had all the attributes identified as necessary for a successful team. The candidates' interpersonal skills then were assessed through interviews with HR representatives and other employees and managers.

Once the team members were hired, the HR department continued its hands-on involvement by providing extensive training in such areas as corporate-culture issues, team dynamics, product knowledge and statistics.

The service team has been up and running for more than nine months, and HR has been out of the picture except for a couple of interventions related to team members' absences or tardiness. The longer the team works together, the less likely it is that HR will get involved. What will happen when turnover occurs and a new member is needed? HR will post the job and handle initial interviewing, Raffio says, but it will be up to the team members to select the final candidate.

If HR manages recruitment, team members must be involved.
Jeanne Wilson, project manager for Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh, believes that no matter how long a team has been working together, it remains HR's job to advertise team positions and to prescreen candidates. "Recruiting remains HR's responsibility, not the team's responsibility," she says. However, interviews should be done in partnership with existing team members or, in organizations that are new to teams, in partnership with line management.

At Libbey-Owens Ford, a glass manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio, new team members are recruited by HR using a selection process in which candidates are:

  • Brought in for an orientation to the company
  • Tested to reveal such attributes as motivation and aptitude
  • Assessed on their ability to spot defects in glass.

It isn't until these steps have been completed and the list of candidates is narrowed down that team members get involved. At this point, they, along with representatives from HR and production, conduct small-group discussions with candidates to assess such skills as communication, cooperation and problem solving. With the list of candidates narrowed even further, interviews are conducted by team members and HR staffers. "HR manages the recruitment process," explains Tracy Moser, HR specialist at Libbey-Owens Ford, "but production managers and team members are involved in the assessments and interviews." Why? "We want their buy-in on the candidate, and also they often look for different characteristics than we do."

When hiring new team members from outside the company, Libbey-Owens Ford uses a matching system in which candidates learn about each of the different teams and then indicate which team they'd like to work with by placing a marker on a job-preference poster. Then, team representatives make job offers after reviewing each candidate's background and job preference."We make 98% of the people happy using the matching system," Moser explains. New employees assimilate to the team much more quickly, she adds, when they're chosen to work on teams that interest them the most.

Wilson from DDI believes the eventual goal of team staffing is to have team members not only interview and hire new employees, but also be able to terminate low producers. How long should team members work together before they successfully can assume this accountability? "Not as long as you might think," she says. "When I first started working with self-directed teams, I thought it would take at least a year before team members could take on the responsibility for staffing. Now I'm finding they can handle this in just six to nine months."

At C & S Grocers, teams with openings look to other teams for potential candidates. Here, because employees are paid using a piecework compensation system, teams are competitive. Employees are compensated for every case order filled, and some top-producing teams can handle about 9,000 cases a day, which equates to approximately $20 an hour for employees.

Highly productive and thus highly compensated teams in which one member isn't carrying his or her weight are given the authority to pass that person off to another less-productive team, picking up a more-productive employee along the way. For example, say there are eight members on a top-producing team, each earning about $20 per hour. The team tracks the number of cases handled by each member and discovers that one person is producing at a rate of only $16 per hour, which eventually could bring down wages for other members.

Because team members work together so closely, they usually will strive to help that person bring up his or her productivity. If that doesn't work, they'll move him or her to a team worth about $14 per hour. The $14-per-hour team will be happy to have the new member, because he or she can bring up productivity levels and potential wages for everyone on that team. The original $20 team, which now has an open position, looks to other teams for superstars who are producing at higher levels than the teams on which they're currently members. All hiring by existing teams takes place through this internal swapping system. "It's an open draft all the time," Davis says. "Employees are moving up and down teams constantly."

The cornerstone of HR's function is training.
Some companies—especially those that have played the teamwork game for a long time—go even further in empowering employees to make hiring decisions. At Aid Association for Lutherans, a fraternal benefits society in Appleton, Wisconsin, teams recruit both internally and externally. Members are trained by HR to help them conduct effective interviews, assess a candidate's potential and learn the legal dos and don'ts related to hiring. Otherwise, the team is responsible for all aspects of the new hire, including defining the skills needed, devising the interview questions, conducting the actual interviews, extending the job offers and training the new members.

Do team members usually agree on the best candidate? "It's remarkable," says Jill Murrow, service team director at AAL. "I've been in several new-hire situations in which team members had to choose their first, second and third choices. We've always agreed on which candidate was best for the job." Teams work together so closely, she adds, that they intuitively sense who would fit in.

Another company in which teams are given great authority for hiring new members is Cummins Engine Company Inc. in Columbus, Indiana. "Teams aren't responsible for going out on the street and recruiting people," says Marilyn Tennell, executive director of HR. "HR handles the initial recruitment. But only team members have the expertise to decide if a candidate would be a good fit, both with regard to technical skills and personal characteristics."

Tennell believes that the role of human resources in team-based staffing is one of providing systems, processes and procedures that help team members make good staffing choices. At Cummins, for example, HR has devised a system to help identify work flow, which helps teams determine member responsibilities. HR also has created the recruitment process to help identify potential candidates. Like AAL, the HR department at Cummins also provides team members with training to help them understand the legal requirements of interviewing, how to evaluate a candidate and how to reach a consensus on staffing decisions. "The important thing for HR to understand is that they are the supplier, and teams are the customers," Tennell says. HR has to provide the tools necessary for the teams to do their jobs effectively, and that includes tools to help with the hiring process.

One of the most valuable tools Cummins' HR department has developed for its teams is an assessment center. At this center, candidates go through a series of simulations that mirror job-related activities, while HR staff and existing team members evaluate their performance. "This gives candidates a clear picture of the working environment," Tennell says, "and it gives team members a sense of how well the candidate will fit in."

Wilson believes assessment centers can be a valuable part of the team-hiring process. Most organizations make hiring decisions based on application forms, unstructured interviews and reference checks, she explains. This format, however, doesn't address many critical requirements for effective team membership.

"Interviews tend to work best when the applicant has had experience in the type of job for which he or she is being interviewed," Wilson says. Unfortunately, many applicants for team positions have had no experience working in teams, so it can be difficult to estimate how effective they'll be when placed in a team position. But assessments, which typically include two or three simulations, enable candidates to demonstrate their skills in situations similar to the team tasks they will perform on the job, such as problem solving, manufacturing and group-discussion exercises.

Team-based hiring results in tremendous benefits—and a few challenges.
In a traditional hiring situation, HR professionals recruit, screen, interview and hire new employees with little input from the candidates' potential co-workers. HR simply introduces the new employee to the other members of the department in which he or she will be working, explains the work that person will be doing and departs. The supervisor has no loyalty to the new hire, co-workers have no reason to make sure that person fits in and the new employee is left floundering without any real allies. It's no wonder that most turnover in organizations takes places within employees' first six months.

When teams are involved in hiring new members, however, they have a vested interest in making sure that person is successful, explains Deborah Harrington-Mackin, president of New Directions Corporate Consulting Group in North Bennington, Vermont. "Teams spend a lot of energy on the hiring process, and they want the new person to succeed," she says. "Their reputation is on the line, so they'll work to find employees they know will be successful." This means better assimilation. "You have to see it to believe it," Wilson adds. "Teams will go to incredible lengths to make sure their chosen candidate fits in." Quicker assimilation also means that turnover in team-based organizations tends to be a great deal lower than in organizations using more traditional hiring practices. At AAL, for example, the corporate turnover rate is only 4%.

But getting teams involved in hiring also presents challenges. "Basically, you're taking a process normally handled by a single person and making room for several people to be involved," Mackin says. This takes time—to train team members on the selection process, for employees to meet without work suffering, and to conduct the interviews.

Also, in a team environment, it isn't enough to have members vote democratically on their chosen candidate; they should reach a consensus. This requires a lot of up-front work on issues related to problem solving and communication.

Still, by far the biggest challenge for HR professionals is getting out of the way and making room for involvement from team members. If HR professionals don't take this step, they run the risk of teams bypassing their department entirely, losing their function's valuable expertise in the process.

Personnel Journal, May 1994, Vol.73, No. 5, pp. 88-94.