Hiring Future Water Carriers

Apr 7, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

At Herman Miller, 1,300 of the company’s 6,000 employees are water carriers. The designation comes from American Indian tribal life, where the role of the water carrier was vital because carrying water to fellow tribe members sustained life. Water carriers are invited to join an elite group of employees when they reach their 20-year anniversary with the company.

“Water carriers play an important role at Herman Miller,” says Deb Exo, director of talent management. “They carry forward the context of the past that supports the future of the company and they provide insight about the company and mentoring to new employees.”

While having a stable of tenured employees might be newsworthy enough in 2008 employment lore, it’s the furniture pioneer’s ability to sustain those employee retention levels that might be its most notable accomplishment. The company averages 3 percent voluntary turnover per year and reported 9,600 applicants for 738 new positions, according to Fortune’s “Best Places to Work” list for 2008.

The company’s candidate selection process doesn’t currently include assessments or psychological profiles, but it does include a multi-day stay at the company’s Marigold Lodge, where candidates participate in an interviewing marathon.

Exo laughs as she says that the company’s interviewing process is legendary for being long and involved, and admits that she went through 12 interviews before receiving an offer.

“Following an initial screening for technical skills, the candidates stay at the lodge for several days, where they may go through as many as 8 to 12 interviews, but certainly no less than five,” says Exo. “The candidate gets the full experience of the company culture 24/7 while they stay there, because there’s a lot of storytelling that’s included in the process. They also bump up against water carriers and we get a chance to really engage the candidate, so we can see how they learn and think.”

Exo says that the length of the interviewing process isn’t pre-scripted, and while candidates are often exhausted after interviewing in the evenings and during meals, the complete disclosure methodology seems to give everyone involved enough information to make informed choices. Water carriers also carry forward the culture by presenting to new hires during orientation. New staff members are informally assigned to a mentor, who is usually a water carrier. They provide new employees with tips about how to get things done and navigate the company culture. Mentoring is designed to breed future water carriers.

Of course, not everything at Herman Miller has tribal roots. There are 2008-style incentives that encourage employees to stick around and become future water carriers. Exo received a pair of diamond earrings for her 25th anniversary, so now she not only carries water, she carries rocks.

For more about Herman Miller and the company’s migration to talent management, read the June issue of the Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.