When job seekers sit down for an interview with John Golden, chief technology officer at CNA Insurance, he sometimes hits them with this question: 'You're stuck in traffic. What do you do?'

When job seekers sit down for an interview with John Golden, chief technology officer at CNA Insurance, he sometimes hits them with this question: "You're stuck in traffic. What do you do?"

Some candidates say they would grab their cellphones, others that they'd leave the highway to look for an alternate route. A few say they'd get really mad. This isn't casual conversation. Golden believes that the response provides insight into a candidate's character, and it's one way the Chicago-based insurance firm ensures that new IT employees match well with the company's culture.

"There isn't a right or wrong answer, but it gives you a lot of insight about them, and now you can ask a lot of other questions," Golden says. "We need people who can adapt and change. We need people who can negotiate. We need strong communications skills. You can't garner those out of a résumé."

Finding the right match between employee and company has gotten trickier over the past few years, according to companies on Computerworld US' Best Places to Work in IT list. Human resources staffers, who once needed to sell the company's ideals to candidates who were weighing several job offers, now must carefully sift through hundreds of résumés, looking for the best candidate. What's more, unhappy employees aren't leaving like they used to. With turnover rates at less than 2% at these Best Places companies, the wrong hiring choice could have long-term repercussions.

"People who come here stay here. So we're pretty careful about the people we hire, because there's a good chance we could be working with them for 20 years," says Mark Horn, a business development specialist at American Family Mutual Insurance in Madison, Wisconsin, who has hired 50 IT employees over the past year.

All of these companies look for candidates who can lead, communicate and work with a team and who understand their businesses. Some try to forecast the long-term potential of college graduates, who will make up the bulk of their new hires.

Finding a candidate who clicks with the company's ideals and culture has transformed hiring into both a science and an art. The best companies have come up with creative and meticulous ways of identifying that perfect match.

Apply the chemistry test

At CNA Insurance, Golden keeps close tabs on "bad attrition" -- the loss of employees who possess the "three C's": character, chemistry and capabilities. Right now, CNA's bad attrition is zero, thanks to the hiring team's growing ability to accurately read job candidates from the start.

CNA has found that an effective approach is to give candidates a hypothetical situation and "ask them to problem-solve themselves out of it," Golden explains. "How well rounded is the solution that they come up with? Do they talk about the people issues, the need for communication and common priorities? By the nature of what they talk about, it gives you an idea of how they approach the problem."

Senior-level job candidates are even subjected to a three-to-four-hour interview by an independent team of psychologists who measure each candidate's chemistry with the company. The questions are used to assess how open-minded the candidate is to other ideas, whether he seeks credit or gives it, and whether he always needs to be in charge, Golden explains. So far, 20 senior-level IT employees have been hired after passing the chemistry test, and all are performing well, he says.

Stock the talent pool

If you've recently spoken at an IT conference or were quoted in a trade magazine, chances are you're on Fannie Mae's list of potential IT job candidates.

At the Washington-based financial services company, an in-house recruiting database holds the names of thousands of qualified job candidates garnered from conference speaker lists, magazine articles and association memberships.

"We needed to be able to tap into candidates faster," explains Betty Thompson, vice president of human resources at Fannie Mae. "Managers often want to do an expensive search [through an outside firm]. We thought we could do it. Now, when the manager says he has four positions he needs to fill, we're presenting candidates within a week. Before, it would take a couple weeks." The database also saves Fannie Mae $8000 to $15,000 in outside recruiting costs per new hire.

Encourage friendly referrals

Employee referrals rank as one of the best ways to find culturally compatible job candidates. AXA Financial in New York offers its employees $US5000 to $US10,000 for bringing in qualified IT candidates who are ultimately hired. "That helps us with the cultural fit. They know who we are and what we do," explains Garr Stephenson, AXA's director of IT staff development.

Last year, more than 40% of Fannie Mae's new hires came from its referral program. "Your friends give you a realistic view of what it's like to work here," Thompson says.

Polish diamonds in the rough

At Minnesota Life Insurance in St. Paul, 90% of new hires fill entry-level positions, and most of them come from the company's comprehensive internship program.

Minnesota Life's human resources department has developed relationships with professors in university information systems departments, and CIO Jean Delaney Nelson sits on the advisory board at a local college.

"We start them as interns, and it gives us the opportunity to integrate them into Minnesota Life and see how they fit into the environment," she explains.

Interns are chosen in their junior year based on academics and the leadership skills that they have demonstrated up to that point in college. Once in the program, they're assigned a three-month project.

"They really do give you real work, not just filing papers away," says Leah Hoeschen, a senior programmer analyst who started as an intern at Minnesota Life in the summer of 2000. "You actually add value, and you really do learn a lot." During her internship, Hoeschen worked on a computer/telephony integration application to develop pop-up screens that insurance agents use to quickly view customer information.

The economy has forced some companies to narrow their college recruiting focus. Two years ago, FedEx Services in Collierville, Tennessee, visited 60 campuses across the country. "Now we're down to 12 to 15 campuses where we really spend a lot of time participating with student groups, sending people to conduct lectures," explains Julie Yancy, director of recruiting, training and support at FedEx Services.

Some 50% of the company's new employees come through its internship programme, and new hires from those targeted universities stay an average of two to three years longer than recruits from other colleges.

3M sends recent hires back to their college campuses with senior staffers to help with recruiting. Lyla Campbell, IT manager of employee development, tells them, "Pretend like this is your business and you're writing the paycheck out of your checkbook. Who would you be willing to pay to work next to you?" The St Paul-based company offers full-time jobs to 62% of its interns, but it plans to increase that number to 80% over the next four years as it adopts new methods for long-term employment planning.

Make them happy forever

Once companies snag those top performers, the next challenge is keeping them motivated. The most common practice for keeping great employees for the long haul is providing a variety of assignments during their careers.

Kathy Regan joined the IT department at United Parcel Service Inc. in 1987. During her tenure, she has accomplished six major assignments that have given her new skills and responsibilities. "It keeps the interest and excitement about a job," says Regan, now an application manager responsible for 355 IT staffers.

At Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois, IT staffers are even encouraged to leave the department and venture into other areas of the company. "We want to export IT people into Caterpillar at large because they understand the business," says Sid Banwart, CIO and vice president of the systems and processes division. "Many IT alums have been successful in other parts of the company."

Collett is a freelance writer in Sterling, Virginia.

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