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Fresh Intelligence founder and CEO Corrine Sandler (Tim Fraser FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Fresh Intelligence founder and CEO Corrine Sandler (Tim Fraser FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE

Culture shock: Adjusting to a move from a large firm to a small one Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Most of Corrine Sandler’s new hires aren’t used to working at a small company.

Ms. Sandler is the founder and chief executive officer of Fresh Intelligence Research Corp., a Toronto-based market-research company she started in 2004.

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It’s a boutique firm, but most of Ms. Sandler’s 18 employees were hired away from much larger companies, including some of the largest in the industry.

However, many employees who move from a large, multinational company to a small boutique firm often suffer from business “culture shock” when they first arrive, Ms. Sandler says.

At large companies, employees are used to clearly defined job roles, hierarchies, and access to a vast network of resources, she explains.

But at Fresh Intelligence, roles are more loosely defined, hierarchies are shallow, and resources are scarcer, says Ms. Sandler, whose firm generated $2.3-million in revenue in 2011.

Ms. Sandler also says that the employees she hires from large companies often have trouble adjusting to the speed of business at Fresh Intelligence.

 “At big companies, projects take a long time to move forward. There are more divisions, more approval processes.” At her firm, “we work at the speed of light,” she says.

Ms. Sandler says she tries to hire for cultural fit, and strongly emphasizes the company’s story, culture, and core values throughout the hiring and on-boarding process.

She also says she understands the importance of giving employees time to adjust to the culture of her business.

However, despite her best efforts, some new employees just don’t adjust well, she says. “I had two employees that, because they could not settle in and adjust to the corporate culture, I actually had to let them go.”

The Challenge: How can the company help new employees moving from large companies adjust to the culture of a small firm?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Jan G. van der Hoop, president of Halifax-based HiringSmart

There is not much Ms. Sandler can do to help new hires adjust to the culture if they were not the right candidates in the first place. If the fit’s not right, it won’t improve with time.

Employers commonly find themselves hiring people who have all the right credentials, look just perfect on paper and interview really well, only to let them go because the fit’s not right. Hiring good performers away from your competitors is a particularly risky strategy, as it is almost certain that the unique combination of factors that contributed to their success there will not be present at your place.

The far more valuable question is, how can Ms. Sandler better identify early on, those candidates who have a far higher likelihood of succeeding there to start with? This requires using the right tools (not a gut approach) to screen carefully for four critical aspects of fit: fit with the manager, with the job, the team and the culture. Once fit is established, then getting them onboard, trained and productive is a much more straightforward process.

Sarah Liverance, partner at Toronto-based Sklar Wilton & Associates

Over the years, we have developed interview techniques that help us identify self-starters who are also team players and are comfortable with ambiguity.

While the magic is in the hiring, we do all we can to support new hires as they settle in. They are assigned a buddy who takes them under their wing for the first several weeks and helps our 37 employees get to know them on a deeper level.

We also have an extended on-boarding process that introduces them to our tools and ways of working via one-to-one sessions with other employees and more formal [internal training] courses. We round this out with periodic informal social gatherings that allow for relationship-building outside of the day-day project work.

Sam Ibrahim, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Arrow Professional Services

I have run into similar issues in the past and find the on-boarding process with a potential new hire starts a lot earlier than their first day at work. The reality is [the company] needs to start preparing this new employee right from the inception of the recruitment process.

I would also recommend you do a team interview. I find these collegial interviews are becoming much more common especially in the smaller-mid size firms. Having a former [employee from the same large company] tell the interviewee exactly your challenge will be a lot more meaningful than an owner, or a senior executive. Also take the employee on a tour of the facility and walk them through a “typical” day on the job.

If an employee is coming from a large conglomerate, it is important to not just toss them to the wolves. Several of my colleagues complain new employees just sit there and wait to be told what to do on their first day(s) of work.

My response is new employees don’t know what they don’t know. and starting a new job is a very vulnerable time for a person. It is very important that someone, or a group of people, are in charge of a new employee’s first day or days at work. This doesn’t have to be a manager, or even someone in the same department; call it a culture committee. If a new employee is coming in from a large firm, it will be a relief for both parties if the first few days are more structured and they know who to turn to if they have a question or concern.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW

Refine the hiring process

Use screening tools, do team interviews, and ask interview questions to better identify and ensure candidates have the qualities to fit into a smaller organization.

Structure the early days

Ensure that the new hire’s first few days are well-structured. If he or she comes from a highly structured firm, this can help ease the transition.

Create a buddy system

Assign an employee to buddy up with a newcomer; one-on-one interactions can help clue a new employee into a company’s culture.

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