Kristi Wong, City of Sachse
The City of Sachse is home to approximately 27,000 people, nestled at the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. A small but mighty public sector hiring team screens for essential positions ranging from police and fire to public works, parks and rec, and more. With a diverse catalog of complex roles to fill to keep the city operating seamlessly, there’s a lot of pressure on the City of Sachse’s hiring decision-makers to hire the highest qualified candidates quickly.
Hiring for government roles is often a sluggish process due to substantial red tape built into traditional and outdated hiring processes. The demand to speed up hiring means making changes to hiring for government roles at all levels.
This episode of The Speed to Hire Show features Kristi Wong, Director of Human Resources for the City of Sachse.
- [5:52] Seize the opportunity to make improvements when filling a role: each time you enter the hiring process, look for ways you can improve the role, responsibilities, and performance outcomes with a new hire
- [7:55] Create an adaptable system for screening applicants: certain roles could require a different process to effectively assess talent. It’s important the process aligns with the job
- [13:55] Offer candidates the opportunity to connect with team members: when candidates get to meet with employees and leaders, they can asses for their fit with the team and culture in the hiring process
- [19:09] Build a solid hiring team that’s open to change: when building your hiring team, consider hiring decision-makers that are open to making improvements to create a fast, effective, and resilient hiring process
- [21:47] Be proactive about innovation in the hiring process: be open to change as new technologies and processes develop to meet the demands of the market
JOSH TOLAN: So let’s get started. So Kristi, tell me a little bit about yourself.
KRISTI WONG: I’ve been in HR for about 25 years, a long time. Almost all my experiences in local government and a little bit are not for profit. And local government is a little different than private sector HR. So a lot more rules to follow, a lot more structure a lot of times, and a lot of sometimes old school thought processes about how we hire people.
But having worked in various places, I have the pleasure now of the city I’m at to bring a combination of those ideas into what we do. But yeah, overall, public servant all my life, so all good.
JOSH TOLAN: What’s drawn you to the public sector?
KRISTI WONG: I think the big thing that drew me to the public sector, I started out in a very low-level position in my first city, I was a library aide. And I actually went into that job for the security, the job security of working in government. And the benefits that were available were attractive when I was in my early 20s.
And as I learned more about government and local government, how it works, and what we do for residents, I became very passionate about being a part of that. And then as I work through my education while my city supported me through tuition reimbursement, I ended up in HR and fell in love and haven’t left it since then.
JOSH TOLAN: The rest is history. That’s great. Well, tell me a little bit about the city you’re at now. What’s the population? How many employees do you guys have? A little background will be great.
KRISTI WONG: The population of Sasche is about 27,000. We have 170 budgeted positions. Right now we probably have about 158 employees. And it’s a full-service city. We’re small but mighty, is how I would explain this. We do police, we do fire, we do public works, we do parks and rec, we do all the normal city-type things. And of course, have a full administrative staff in place to support that.
Sasche is growing. We’re a part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. We’re on the outer edge of the metroplex, and so we’re a bedroom community for sure. A lot of people that live in Sasche work in Dallas or Fort Worth. But there’s a lot of growth going on. So it’s an exciting time to be a part of our city because there’s a lot coming.
A lot of businesses, a lot of commercial, and a lot of new residents that are looking for great service from the city.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. And what is your role there?
KRISTI WONG: I’m the director of human resources here at the city. So I am in charge of all things, HR, and all of our daily operations and oversight of all the various functions in HR. Again, a small but mighty team, it’s myself and two analysts. So we have a lot going on, do a lot to support the employees, and also have the pleasure of working for a city manager that’s wanting to make change and the way we do things internally as well.
So I guess you could do a lot of the fun HR stuff that I haven’t been able to do in a long time.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. And so you mentioned there’s the team of you and two others your central staff. Do you guys support the hiring and HR needs of all those different departments, so like fire and the police?
KRISTI WONG: Yes.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. So everything’s running through you. So you’ve got all of HR and all of hiring under your umbrella for every department that runs the city. That’s a lot, that’s a lot of responsibility. How do you guys manage? I mean, from a time management standpoint, that’s got to be pretty difficult with everything going on.
KRISTI WONG: It can be challenging. And we’ve been trying to implement– I’ve been here a short time, I’ve been here a little over a year and a half. And we’ve been trying to implement some new tools to help us out with time management and with how we do things and think of things a little bit differently and try to be more efficient. And honestly, Spark Hire has been one of those things that I brought on board.
I used it at my last city and had a lot of good luck after we introduced it and trying to make the hiring process more efficient. And when I got here, I suggested it to the city manager as a tool, one you might want to consider. But yeah, things like that are always– when you have a small team doing a lot of things, any tools that you can implement to make your job easier and work smarter are what you need to be looking at.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. Yeah, that’s awesome. And as far as the roles you’re recruiting for, I know we just mentioned a couple of the different departments, what are some of the jobs that are top on mind for you guys right now?
KRISTI WONG: Right now probably the biggest thing we’ve got going on is we’re looking for someone, for a planner for our planning department. We’re looking for an engineer for public works. We’re looking for dispatchers for our police department. Police officers and HR analysts, I’m actually filling my second analyst spot right now. So we run the gamut, maintenance workers for public works.
Almost it’s rare for us not to be recruiting for something and usually, it’s multiple things. And that’s actually one of the exciting things about a city, is we have so many different types of jobs that there’s always a wide variety of things that you’re working on and looking at.
JOSH TOLAN: Great. And with that breadth of roles, what’s the process for you guys as an HR team to truly understand, what do we need to screen and interview for to make sure that you’re bringing the best and the right people in for your managers and then to meet with?
KRISTI WONG: So typically what we do is just that we meet with the managers in order to start the recruitment process. And we talk with them about what they’re looking for. Of course, we always review job descriptions, see if there’s anything we need to update or anything we need to change because in a lot of our positions at least in the time I’ve been here we’ve had very long-term employees leave.
And so we take that as your opportunity to rethink what you’re doing. Is the job that you’re filling the same job? Is it has something changed? Does a department need something different? Do we need to reclassify the job, and make it something different that’s more effective for the department? Because when somebody’s been here 20 years and they leave, most likely there are things you might want to take that opportunity to look at differently.
So we have those types of meetings first and fill everybody out for what is it we really need and what are we looking for. Revise things as needed for a job description. And then depending on the position, once we start accepting applications, a lot of them, these days we’re narrowing down to who they like, usually, their top 10 to 15 candidates and we send out Spark Hires for those.
Especially for the more professional positions. Like the engineering type jobs, the planner, the HR jobs, and some of the higher level administrative staff. For some finance positions we’ve filled, we found it to be really effective to send out and have the opportunity to have that video interview first and let the hiring manager review that and pick up on some of the skills and the nuances there. And then narrow it down to the people they actually want to make their finalists for consideration.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. And so speaking of the hiring process, can you take me through all of those different steps? It sounds like Spark Hire is one of them. There’s a manager interview. And what’s it look like.
KRISTI WONG: It depends. Not every job do we do exactly the same things. But typically we start with accepting applications through our applicant tracking system. We review them first and narrow them down for the hiring managers and narrow out anybody that doesn’t meet or let the system narrow out anybody that doesn’t meet the qualifications for the job. Then we usually do a look over the ones that are qualified before we pass them on.
Because again, sometimes people get through the system that aren’t necessarily the top candidates. So we’ll scan through those on the HR side and then pass on to the hiring manager and let them review and let them then narrow down to who are the people that they feel like are the best matches for them. That’s typically the way most of our administrative-type jobs.
Police and fire are a lot more intense and a whole lot of different things you have to do with them. Because there’s testing involved and physical testing and written testing and usually two or three interviews and a psychological and a polygraph. So there’s a lot to go along with police and fire that are a lot more intense. But I feel like probably most of our administrative positions look and feel a lot like how a private sector company would interview, would go through the process, and determine who they want to interview.
We still typically do panel interviews here. So when we do in-person interviews, when we’ve narrowed it down to that, it’s usually at least three people sit on a panel and interview and help the hiring manager decide. It could be other department heads if it’s a department head interviewing. It could be other people in the department that they want to have input in the hiring process.
So we try to be fairly flexible. I think we’re probably more flexible here than some of the other cities I’ve worked at.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure.
KRISTI WONG: And we try to make sure the process matches up with the job. Might have some practical exercises, might have Excel, might have Word, it just depends on the job.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. Well, it’s great that you guys have that structure to your hiring process and that you are flexible to change it from role to role as you guys see fit. I also like that you do have that panel committee at the end of the process that isn’t just the manager that’s going to manage that person later on because it gives you a variety of evaluations on that candidate versus just one person making a decision.
And I think that’s really important.
KRISTI WONG: Most hiring managers feel like that’s positive, like getting that other input. Like, for instance, the interviews I’m holding for my position, I have a couple of different departments that are high utilizers of HR. I have representatives from those departments on my interview panel because ultimately they’re my customer. So I like to get their input into what they see and how they feel like that person’s going to fit with the city, with our team.
And it’s been very valuable. This is my second time having to fill the analyst spot while I’m here and both times the panels have been great at helping pick up on nuances they see or things they think might be a challenge.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. And do you give them specific things to look for or questions to ask? Because I imagine you’ve like technically vetted them where you know that person is capable of doing the job and now you’re asking the committee to look for something else.
KRISTI WONG: Exactly. We’re definitely looking– when we do the more in-person panel interview, we’re typically looking at more of the soft skill side of people, more of the interactions, more of how they would deal with conflict because we’ve already technically vetted that they can do the job.
There’s no doubt that they can do the job, it’s more about, how are they going to fit in with the culture of the city, with the culture of the team, and how are they going to interact mainly and be a part of the team with everyone else?
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. That’s really important. And I’m sure that also builds somewhat of a hiring culture within the city as well where people feel bought into the process, feel like they’re included. And it gives them a little more stake in the hiring outcomes. So I imagine that’s good for the people that aren’t just the direct manager is like, OK, if I’m going to be working with this new HR analyst, the fact that I get to interview them or talk to them during the interview process and be able to provide my feedback to the hiring manager.
That makes them not only feel good about participating in that process but I think it just makes them feel more included in the success of the city as a whole.
KRISTI WONG: I agree. I think it does get a lot of buy-in from the various departments that they had, say basically, and what you’ve decided to do. And also I think it makes them react differently to the person when they come on board. Because they already feel like, hey, I’ve met this person and I know they’re a good choice, I know it’s going to be good.
And I think it makes the new hire feel more comfortable as well. Like I’ve already met these people, I see them. The first week I’m here they’re telling me, hey, we’re happy you’re here, it’s great to see you again. It just gives more of a sense of community, I think, than if they just met with me and I made the decision and then they came on board.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. And that’s a great point. Because when candidates get an opportunity to interview with different team members that they might be interacting with on like a peer level in the workplace, I think there’s also a benefit there for them getting that experience. And being able to ask their questions and get an idea of what the work environment is like and what teamwork is like within the city from people that they’d be working alongside with versus talking directly to you.
So we do that a lot here at Spark Hire in our hiring process. For example, if we’re bringing on a leadership team member, one of the things that I try and set up is a meeting with that potential hire and other members of the leadership team. Even if it’s finance and marketing and customer success, it gives our team not only the ability to ask that person questions and then provide their feedback, but it gives the candidate the ability to do the same thing.
And so I think that helps if you have strong alignment after that where the candidate’s like, yeah, it was great meeting with everybody, I really felt like this was a team that I could gel with and contribute to. You have that candidate’s further buy-in. Versus if you just go straight from hiring manager interview to offer and you’re the only person they’ve really met within the organization. And it’s like, OK I don’t really feel like I have the full scope.
KRISTI WONG: Exactly. I think it’s important to remember they’re interviewing us just as much as we’re interviewing them. They’re making a choice too. It’s not just us the city who’s making a decision to hire someone, they’re making a decision whether they want to be here or not. And if we don’t share some of who we are and show them what we’re about, we’re not really giving them a great opportunity to understand whether this is something they want to be a part of.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. Yeah. And then at the end of the day, if they’re making a decision on whether they want to move forward in your process or move forward with an offer if they don’t have a full view on the organization, it leaves some things up in the air. And the lack of clarity can sometimes be a deciding factor if a candidate doesn’t accept the role, even if it would be a great fit for them and for the city and everything lines up.
But just because of the unknowns, you could have a candidate say, you know what? I’m going to stay in my current position, there are too many uncertainties here. Throughout the rest of the hiring process, are you guys doing anything special to bring more information about the city to the attention of your candidates? Are you putting any resources in front of them or content or letting them speak to other people within the team?
KRISTI WONG: Like, for instance, obviously mine’s easy because every interaction is going to be with somebody from HR. So they’re getting a lot of touch and feel from who they’re going to be working with. But we try to be that way with anybody. So once — the department does a lot of the pre, they do the initial interviews, they make their decision.
And depending on the department, they may do — they have them come back, they’ve their finalists come in for more of a casual interaction, not just an interview. I actually have two people coming this week to do that with me and my boss, the assistant city manager, so they can have more of a casual interaction and get to see us as people, not just somebody asking them questions.
And I’ve encouraged more of the departments to take that approach with the people that they’ve really narrowed down the finest. Finance has embraced it and has done a great job with it. Our community development team has done a great job with it. Public works is working on it, it’s a little harder for them because it’s field positions and it feels a little different to them to approach it that way.
Our fire department has embraced it and given a pizza party for their candidates to come in and meet with people and get to know the fire department better. And understand, walk the station, what’s it like, see some calls, them going out on calls. And the police is really good about doing right along so they can get a better feel for what Sasche is because every city is different, like what your call volume is for police is very different.
So they try to get people to come and do ride-a-longs so they can see what the city’s really like. So I think those are all important, those are more personal interactions for someone to have and get a better feel for when we’re not just all sitting with a piece of paper to ask you questions, who we really are. And I think that’s important and I think that’s what people want now.
I think that’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for, what’s really going to feel like. What is it really going to be like? What are the people who work here, who are they? So I think that’s really important that you build that into your process.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. And you mentioned in the beginning that typically in the public sector there’s a little bit more red tape, things move a little bit slower, and sometimes people are resistant to change. And how are you guys breaking that mold? It sounds like you guys are doing a lot of really cool things with the tools and the strategies that you’re implementing.
But how do you get buy-in from other people in the city to make these changes?
KRISTI WONG: I think I’m super lucky honestly. I have had the stars align that I have a fantastic city manager who although she like me has been working in local government for a long time but she’s very innovative. She’s very open. She’s very committed to trying to make things better.
And then my assistant city manager, she’s open, she brings a lot of great ideas. The three of us kick ideas around together and try to figure out how to combat some of these key HR issues, the great resignation, and the silent quitting. All the things we’re hearing about right now that have been going on, they’ve been the war on talent, all that stuff.
They’ve been great at let’s try to figure out what we can do and have been very supportive and encouraging. And then I’m also lucky that we have a really great leadership team – our department has. Again, of all of us have been in public service for a long time. But we happen to be this weirdly unique group of people that is open to doing things differently, which we haven’t always found that in my career.
And I don’t know whether it’s because it’s just the right timing and we’re all an age group that we’re a mix of millennials and Gen X. So we have this weird – like we don’t want to be treated — the Xers are like, we don’t want to treat people the way we were treated. And the millennials are like, we need to change. So I think we’re starting to blend together and make it happen.
And like I said, I’m lucky that everybody is open. And for the most part, and now I’m not going to say everybody loves everything we come up with and that we don’t get pushback. But we’ve definitely got people that are willing to try. So that’s half the battle.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. That’s great. And from your experience in where you’re at now versus other municipalities you’ve worked for, have you seen a difference when you guys are proactively implementing innovative things that are different from other local governments you’ve worked at or other governments in the surrounding areas? Have you seen the impact of that on your hiring pipeline?
KRISTI WONG: Yes. I’ve seen it impact on our hiring pipeline. I’ve seen an impact on the type of candidates we’re hiring. I mean, I think we’re a little selective because we are looking at culture change and wanting to drive things in a certain way and in a more positive, upbeat way. And I’ve had lots of people come.
We’ve hired several people in the time I’ve been here from other cities around the area who talk about how different it is here and how much more of a communal feel and much more of an openness there is in the city in general. And then I’ll also say that some of the other cities want to copy what we’re doing.
When they hear that we’re trying something different or doing something different, I’ve had several of our neighboring cities want to embrace some of the things that we’ve been trying to do. Which I mean–
JOSH TOLAN: Form of flattery, right?
KRISTI WONG: Form of flattery.
JOSH TOLAN: So what would you say to people that are in a similar role to you at other municipalities that are looking to make cultural changes within the HR department and in the greater org of the municipality related to hiring, related to candidate experience, related to employee engagement? Where should they start to try and get that buy-in, maybe if they’re not as lucky as you that you have a lot of team members that are all about this?
KRISTI WONG: I think some of the good places to start is, I mean, they’re starting to be more and more articles supporting why public sector needs to change. And why we need to try to loosen some of the strangleholds we’ve had on how we do things and that if we want people to come and work for us we’ve got to look at things differently.
So I think doing your research and building a business case for why things need to change or why you need to try something different. And having facts to back you up, that’s where to start. And I think part of it is especially if it’s somebody like me that’s come up in the public sector and been doing it for a long time. Don’t lose your openness, and don’t become the typical government employee.
Don’t just say, this is the way we’ve always done it. Be willing to embrace the change. Be willing to listen to the employees. Be open to what they have to say. And then be willing to fight the fight when you need to fight the fight to bring some of the things to the forefront. And hopefully, all those things will come together and work.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s great. And you mentioned a little bit earlier some of the differences between the public and the private sector. When you guys are hiring, are you competing against private-sector employers as well?
KRISTI WONG: Yes, for sure, for some positions. I mean, not all of our jobs would have a match. In the private sector, I mean, police and fire or police and fire. There’s really nobody else that does that all day, every day except us. But when you’re looking at maintenance workers who work in public works or parks, I mean that’s construction. Construction jobs are all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so we’re definitely competing there.
Administrative jobs, HR, finance type jobs, those are everywhere. I mean, they may not look exactly like ours but they’re everywhere. And so there is a lot of competition for that. And one of the things we did in this last year that I’ve been here is we did a massive salary survey and relooked at some of our compensation because we had to try to at least bring ourselves up to somewhere to compete.
Which isn’t easy because the private sector typically pays a lot more than we do. But you’ve got to start to be realistic about some of those things and try to find something that makes you different. Try to find something that makes you attractive. Something you do really well or something you offer that sets you apart and maybe you can’t be the highest paying.
Maybe you can’t offer as much flexibility as the private sector but play to the things that you can offer and try to find those things to highlight about yourself.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. And I think it also speaks to the importance of modernizing your hiring process as well and focusing on speed, efficiency. All those things come into play because to your point there are going to be private sector organizations that can offer more money or better benefits or whatever it is. And you guys are going to obviously try and hold up the things that are really great about working for your city.
But the other differentiator that you have is your hiring process. If you can just move faster than some other organizations and get an offer out faster–
KRISTI WONG: It doesn’t take us as long. It doesn’t take us two months to hire somebody. I know plenty of government agencies, it takes two to three months just, I mean, even from an offer to get in somebody on board.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah.
KRISTI WONG: No. That could not work.
JOSH TOLAN: And that plays into a candidate’s decision. If a candidate can move faster your hiring process. if they get all the information they need because you’re having them meet with a committee of people that they’re going to work alongside, you’re doing pizza parties with the fire department. You’re doing things where they learn about the organization and they get through your interview process quickly.
Those are differentiators that I think a lot of organizations miss, is you can embed those differentiators in your hiring process. And it does make a difference at the end of the day when somebody is considering an offer versus somewhere else where they still have two to three interviews left to go or they’re waiting forever to hear back.
And even though the money might be a little bit better somewhere else, they feel more comfortable and confident in working for you because of the process that you’ve taken through.
KRISTI WONG: I think that’s one of the worst things in my entire career. Is yeah, I grew up in HR with– well, it’s OK for us for our process to take this long because everybody wants to come to work for us. Well, back in the ’90s, we didn’t have to fight a lot to get people to come to work in the government. That’s not where we’re at in 2023.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. You’re competing with a lot more employers also just because of technology and the internet versus the ’90s, the employers have way more reach. The level of competition has just exponentially increased, which is why you’ve got to find every single advantage that you can in the hiring process.
KRISTI WONG: Exactly.
JOSH TOLAN: Great. Well, this was really helpful. I know we mentioned Spark Hire a little bit. For our customers that are listening or for companies that are thinking about coming on board with us, are there any best practices you would recommend to them as they look to implement this in their hiring process or in the process of doing that right now?
KRISTI WONG: I think it’s just – start small so that you can — if you’re going to try it, start small, pick a couple of jobs you think that, hey, I think this could be a really great way to tweak up this process and make it run faster. Because to me it’s about time. Spark Hire helps us move faster. It helps us note the candidate list down quickly. And to me, it works super well with like I said administrative-type positions, and professional positions.
Pick a couple, focus on that, hone your process, and then start expanding it to more and more jobs. That’s how we’ve done it.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. Well, Kristi thanks so much. I really appreciate the time and everybody that’s listening is going to get a ton of insights from what you’ve shared today. So thank you.