IT firm pounces on travelling techies

If you are wearing an IT T-shirt don't be surprised if a stranger stops you in the street and offers you a job, writes John...

If you are wearing an IT T-shirt don't be surprised if a stranger stops you in the street and offers you a job, writes John Kavanagh.

This is the recruitment approach of extranet software developer Aventail - which also has special ways of keeping staff happy once they join the company.

When Aventail personnel director Kathi Jones was over from the US to recruit IT staff for the new UK operation last week, she started at the luggage carousel at Heathrow Airport.

"I look at luggage tags to find IT company addresses and then chat to the people or call them later," she says.

"I've stopped people in the street and in my local coffee shop if they've worn T-shirts with slogans like, 'I set up Linux'. That's a walking CV. You can also get leads from snippets of conversation overheard in a restaurant.

"I'm always totally upfront and back off immediately if the vibes are wrong, but I've had successes.

"We also have a staff referral scheme - staff get £500 when someone they recommend starts work, and another £500 after six months. If they get four people in a year they get a holiday. And if they bring in eight people they can lease virtually any car they want for a year.

"Even if an applicant isn't right there are probably six leads in his or her CV - the referees, colleagues in the same team, and so on.

"As a result we've only paid job agency fees for four of our 160 staff."

Another of Jones' ploys is to scour Internet newsgroups on IT to find bright people. "I found an incredible 19-year-old but he lived the other side of the country. So we also moved out one of his friends and found him a job outside the company."

This is typical of the steps Aventail takes to keep staff. Managers find out small personal details at job interviews, so new recruits find a jar of their favourite biscuits on their desk, for example. And a warm welcome is a priority - everyone is e-mailed and asked to drop by if possible.

Each new member of staff gets a mentor to introduce basic things such as the free drinks, nibbles and sweets, the date of the monthly beer afternoon and the monthly party for everyone who has had a birthday. Staff find a balloon tied to their chair on their birthday, and everyone is alerted to the celebration by e-mail. Jones herself tries to visit everyone for a brief chat every Monday.

Staff are invited with their families for an annual company summer picnic and winter holiday, at which partners get presents to thank them for their support.

In return, Aventail expects hard work, and lays this out at interviews, telling applicants exactly the job they will be working on and what will be expected of them in the first few months. They can work the hours they want, as long as the work is done. Some prefer to work from the afternoon to 2am, while others like early starts. Dress is casual, even among top executives.

"Our core values are integrity, not just to customers but to each other, plus humility towards each other, and above all we have fun," Jones says.

Aventail, which expects to expand from three to 20 people in the UK in the next six months, has found its approach paying off. Staff turnover in its fast-expanding field of Internet applications is just 5%.

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