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Ridiculist: More Silly Recruiting Ideas

by Nov 18, 2011, 12:53 pm ET

I owe the term “Riduculist” to Anderson Cooper. Every so often he discusses something so silly it defies explanation. This article deals with an email solicitation I received recently that was so ridiculous, I laughed out loud.

Job Failure and Job Success

My profession is studying jobs and designing tests/exercises/interviews that measure both skills and attitudes. Extensive job experience and exhaustive graduate studies have brought me into contact with hundreds of managers in large corporations. One of my first activities has always been to interview people, either in the job or supervising the job, and ask: “What are all the reasons employees succeed or fail in this job?” The following responses are typical:

Can’t manage time, Makes bad decisions, Can’t get along with people, Doesn’t seem to care, Can’t sell, Can’t lead others, Poor communicator, Not honest in dealing with people, Poor communication with customers, Poor planner, Doesn’t follow up, Can’t learn new information, Poor attitude, Doesn’t show initiative, Can’t see the forest for the trees, Doesn’t consider enough information, Never anticipates consequences, Has poor judgment, No tact, Not a “people person,” Ignores deadlines, Inflexible, Doesn’t like the work, Not a team player, Doesn’t support organizational goals, Can’t see the big picture, Can’t make a decision, Bad fit

Now that we know what people who supervise (and do) the job say, let’s look at how HR usually answers the same question:

No one helped them, Not given direction, Bad management, Never trained, Bad fit, De-motivated, Not really sure, Personality conflict …

(Yes, it’s usually a very short list.)

Notice the difference? Managers and job-holders cite about 80% skills-related items and 20% attitude-related ones. HR, on the other hand, almost always attributes performance to victimization. I think this is a pretty significant finding, don’t you? Now consider the following claims from the email vendor:

The vendor says:

  • Our research shows 89% of bad hires are due to attitude such as coachability, emotional intelligence, and temperament.
  • Source credibility for this data is attributed to articles in Fortune, IndustryWeek, and other newsstand magazines.
  • Almost everything about job attitudes can be discovered from an interview.
  • You can learn all your need to know by attending a 60-minute webinar.

On what planet?

Obviously the vendor’s body of research has been kept completely secret from the hiring-science community. Sure, if an employee arrives on the job with a full complement of skills, attitude can have a big effect. But, by completely ignoring ability, do you think this vendor is appealing to people who supervise the position, or the HR community? More to the point, if this product ignores 80% of job experts’ data, do you think their product can possibly be as good as they claim?

I’ve been on the end of many of interviews and can say with certainty most magazine authors are less-than-expert in the subject matter. In fact, they work hard to find simple sound-bite answers to complex questions, seldom caring about hard research because it makes for dry and uninteresting reading. In short, articles published in mainstream media are a better indicator of clever PR than expert peer-reviewed research. If you want opinions, visit the newsstand or bookstore. If you want facts, read unbiased hiring research studies.

Measure attitude using only an interview? Sure. For one thing, everyone knows a smart candidate can dance rings around a typical interviewer. For another, interviewers neither have the training nor the experience to be personality psychologists. Anyway, abundant literature (I know… booooring!) shows clinical evaluations (e.g. trained psychological experts) are inaccurate predictors of job success. You won’t find this information in the WSJ or HBR because it is not “catchy.”

Hard Facts

In my experience, there are thousands of training-program vendors, thousands of junk-science test vendors, and a few hundred professional selection tool vendors. Seldom will you find both training and professional selection technology coexisting — the technology and philosophy is totally different.

If a vendor’s website talks all about training, it’s a good idea to pass. You see, developing a professional hiring test takes more than drafting a few questions. It takes months of editing and statistical analysis to demonstrate it actually predicts some aspect of job performance. BTW: This would be a good time to revisit the manager’s succeed-or-fail list.

If you are responsible for making hiring decisions, be careful of self-promoting vendors entering the hiring and selection marketplace. Professionally, I never found one sufficiently qualified in the science of test development to develop a product that will eliminate dead-wood candidates. And believe me, if you use junk-science tests, you will learn the hard way they don’t work as advertised. Furthermore, all that dead-wood will be on your payroll.

This warning is true for all products that suggest they can teach you to analyze a candidate’s motivations, use self-reported personality surveys to match performance with a data base of job titles, predict job performance without actually measuring skills, or use any other method that is less than comprehensive or validated. From a legal perspective, the user, not the vendor, is always responsible for test use.

I have been accused by some of promoting “assessments?” Get real. It’s semantics: Interviews, resume reviews, application blanks, surveys, tests, sourcing, and so forth, all all assessments. Assessment is just another word for test, and, valid tests are useful tools for evaluating qualifications. If you don’t have proof your test/interview/assessment predicts job performance for your job in your organization, then you will assuredly turn away good people and hire useless ones.

Why should you worry? Experts estimate poor employment decisions cost about six month’s salary, not to mention perpetuating HR’s professional reputation for quick, ineffective solutions to complex problems. Forget vendor hype. Simple, one-step hiring solutions are nonsense. They don’t deliver.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Todd Raphael

    I don’t know if you watched that “Headhuntress” show on Bravo this week that got so much buzz, but your post made me think of it. I thought it was a great show, and the makers did nothing wrong — since it was a reality TV show, not a documentary, not a news show. And perhaps it reflected exactly how hires are commonly made. But it certainly, in my mind, didn’t paint a pretty picture. Apparently the “tests” to determine job ability are a resume, a handshake, your hair, your clothing, and an interview (which as you and Lou Adler and Kevin Wheeler have pointed out for a long time, is usually about as accurate a determinant as a coin flip). The show (and again, I’m not saying it did anything wrong; for goodness sake, it’s a reality show, not an academic journal) implied that essentially the most superficial displays of personality make one fit or not fit for a job: if you have a loud voice and sound bubbly and such, you must be passionate. But that’s incredibly fleeting (see http://community.ere.net/blogs/todd-raphaels-world-of-talent/2011/07/passion-a-2-way-street/ ) and a candidate you think is passionate because they’re loud and bubbly will only seem annoying once you find out they don’t do the job well. A bit ridiculist.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thank you Dr. Williams.
    I’m glad you mentioned “be careful of self-promoting vendors”. This brings up a pet-peeve of mine:
    the few folks on ERE who are actually looking to learn something or participate in an an open, above-board exchange of recruiting-related fact and opinion are making it hard for the vast majority of us “self-promoting vendors” to try and make a (more-or-less) honest buck or thousand.

    A suggestion to you “Pitiful Few”:
    “Please post your thoughtful, well-considered, helpful comments someplace more suitable. Thank you.”

    Cheers,

    Keith “Ridiculist Since 1958″ Halperin

  • http://www.matchpointcareers.com Paul Basile

    Wendell,
    Your rants are always entertaining and, like almost everything else (including my judgments and my articles), contain some truths. You want to lean heavily on cognitive ability and skill, I surmise, which of course is not wrong. I agree in fact. But it’s not wrong to correctly and professionally and validly assess behaviors – which in fact dominate your first list of reasons why people succeed or fail in the job. Vendors do have competent, proven, successful test developers. Keep writing angry, narrow pieces – they make everyone think. And lack of thinking in one form or another may be the biggest single reason people fail in jobs.

  • http://www.cleanjourney.com/ K.C. Donovan

    Dr. Williams – always enjoy your posts…is the equation for hiring success really just 20% based on non functional ability? I always felt that you could be Einstein – but if your head was screwed on backwards that your capability could be muted.

    In our business, we don’t just recruit passive candidates from companies we respect because our clients ads and referrals don’t attract them – we do it mainly because if a worker can demonstrate doing a good job at a respected competitor – they probably can do the work to some degree…(we don’t leave it at that of course, but its where we start). In the early stages of recruitment we strive to understand a person’s AIM’s more than anything else? Should we not be placing so much emphasis on this?

    To your point, most hiring mid management (Mgr to Director) are much more focused on the work a person does, but we’ve always felt our success in making the right fit was that the attitudes, interests and motivations of the candidate’s submitted were in alignment with the company, team and mgmt culture…was wondering what you thought about this (although I have an idea…)?

    Todd – The TV show on Bravo is so much like the magazines Dr. Williams describes – plain BS…this TV show has little in common with the recruiting I know and way more in common with Hollywood Wives, Star Chefs yelling at waiters turned restaurant owners and the emotional degradation people will put up with to get on TV…just plain raunchy reality TV…now if someone actually made a movie about recruiting that was the “real thing’ it could be funny and possess all the human interest you would ever need for excellent entertainment…but it would probably be on something like PBS more than Bravo…

    Functional testing provides a

  • Michael Rosmer

    A few questions and some context regarding this article:

    1. I suspect and have always been a proponent of arguing in cases where attitude is cited as being 80% of the equation that the type of position is crucial. For example I rarely hear engineering firms ranting out how they hire for attitude and train for skill. The point is I guess and would be interested in data on it, that there is a significant difference in the factors affecting success as a McDonald’s cashier and a senior IT project manager for large scale ERP implementations.

    2. I’m curious about the economics of creating validity tests especially in smaller organizations and in a fast changing workplace. It seems to me that changes occur quickly enough in some jobs and some workplaces that the test would need to be redesigned on a fairly regular basis and that the work involved in building such a test would require a fairly significant volume of hiring to justify the costs.

    3. From a business economics perspective I think one thing often left out of the equation is an analysis of dollars in and dollars out, particularly as it pertains to costs of training and ramp up time. Consider that NO ONE shows very early stage potential for high success in an area as demonstrated by the fact that no one is born showing particular prowess for engineering and science, rather these are developed over a long period of time and predictive analysis very far in advance is next to impossible. (ie. it’s hard to predict that Steve Ballmer will one day be a great multi-national CEO, what we do instead is continually measure progress and narrow our results more and more, the best example of this is probably in sports picks where picking top players from first year players is next to impossible, but it gets cultivated over and over and over again until you’re left with the creme of the crop). This is where I find many tests particularly practical work tests in low skill jobs fail miserably. Because whether someone is good at something on the first day they try it is a poor indication of whether they’ll be good at it after a few weeks, months, or years of working at it. How do you deal with this challenge?

  • Keith Halperin

    Hmmm. ISTM there could be a way of assessing the “attitude” (aka: “social skills”) component of a job based on agreed-upon criteria. For example: a largely isolated/tele-commuting SWE would need less “attitude” than similar SWEs working physically together in a closely-interacting team. That’s one reason I like outsourcing/telecommuting for jobs which don’t require close physical presence to do: it can reduce the needed number of people who don’t actually like to be together.

    Cheers,

    Keith