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How to Avoid America’s Biggest Hiring Mistake

by Nov 8, 2012, 2:17 am ET

One of my frustrations with the recently completed political campaigns was the implication that if we elected Candidate A, our business problems would be solved. You and I know that’s not true; an organization determines its own fate. We have the ability to navigate towards success — especially if you’re a recruiter or hiring manager.

Here’s a mistake holding back many businesses: recruiters and hiring managers overemphasize industry experience and immediately dismiss candidates who do not have specific job-related experience. That might be fine if you’re hiring a doctor or a mechanic. But for most jobs in the business or non-profit sectors, it’s not the right tactic.

Companies miss out on candidates who, if taught the necessary skills, could be excellent employees. It’s unwise to base your conclusions solely on a candidate’s résumé or LinkedIn profile. Always be on the lookout for people who have the personality and character that can advance your organization.

I’m known in some HR circles as the author of a hiring book, but my full-time job is president of a publishing company. A little over two years ago our operations manager resigned, and the first person I called and asked to consider the position was someone who had zero publishing experience. I knew he possessed excellent critical thinking and people management skills based on this real-life experience he and I shared.

I had crossed paths with Kyle off-and-on over the years in recreational basketball leagues. When a neighbor of mine told my wife about shoddy treatment she received from a local fitness center (where Kyle worked as a manager), I gave him a call.

Kyle promptly responded to my voice mail. He immediately called me back and asked several detailed questions.

That same day he called my neighbor and invited her back to the fitness center for a personal discussion with him. Kyle called me after his meeting with my neighbor to thank me again and give me an update. She was signing a year-long contract with them, all in part to Kyle’s fast thinking and personal attention. A few days later I received a thank you letter from Kyle with a gift certificate to his fitness center.

That happened a few months before our ops manager position opened up, so the example was fresh in my mind. In the nearly two years Kyle has been on our team, he has excelled. Yes, he had to learn the ins and outs of publishing and still has knowledge to gain, but we’re happy to pay that price. His annual review is coming up soon, and here’s some feedback I’ve received from Kyle’s co-workers:

  • “His word is good: When Kyle tells you something, you know it will happen, and you’ll get an update on how things are going/went. He tracks you down and gives you the update and checks to make sure the results are what we needed.”
  • “Every time I go to Kyle with a question or issue, he works hard to answer and resolve it as soon as possible. He communicates well, always remains calm, and is always working in earnest to help those around him.”
  • “Kyle’s humility was the foundation for building a relationship with me. He has never been the big shot trying to tell vs. ask, he admits his shortcomings, regularly gives credit, and always thinks of others first. I have developed a great respect for him as a person and manager.”
  • “I think Kyle is one of the more amazing people at this company. His capacity to understand an issue and/or take on a problem seems almost endless.”

My company has found these eight questions reveal aspects of a candidate’s character and decision-making skills:

  1. Give me an example of a time when you had to do the hard thing or have a difficult conversation. Here are some examples: telling someone “no”; selling someone on doing things your way; managing someone’s expectations.
  2. Tell me about a problem you’ve had with someone you encountered on a regular basis. How did you solve it?
  3. Not everyone immediately agrees with our decisions. Tell me about a decision you made and how you gained acceptance from others.
  4. Give an example of something you accomplished that others around you said couldn’t be done and how you got it done.
  5. Can you tell me a couple of examples of systems or processes you installed that didn’t exist in the company before you worked there? How did you ensure those systems didn’t erode? How did you make sure they operated successfully for years?
  6. Can you give me an example of a time when you had to solve a really complex problem that required multiple steps across weeks or months?
  7. Tell me about a time you dealt with an angry or frustrated customer.
  8. What are the top three lessons you’ve learned in your professional life?

Keep in mind those questions won’t help a lick if your hiring gyroscope isn’t aligned correctly. Don’t focus only on experience in your industry. Instead, hold out to hire candidates with the right character traits and sound decision-making abilities.

Happy hiring!

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.

  • http://www.imomentous.com Sylvester Pascal

    Thanks for the post Jim, you brought out some of the most important facts that most of the companies usually miss out on. Every company hires looking at the applicants linked in profile or their university percentage and then then blames the candidate for not performing well after hiring. No one looks at the skill set or how much potential the candidate has given a little training from the company. Great post to pause and think about next time you’re hiring.

  • http://www.strategichumaninsights.com Vicki Lauter

    Thanks for shedding light on this issue.

    Hey I agree. Companies should hire for attitude. The way this has worked for my healthcare clients is, the person has to have the specific technical skills first. (healthcare provider consulting exp.) Honestly if you haven’t done the work, its difficult to teach you. Then they use pre-hire assessments for the job they have benchmarked to get the right candidate with the right attributes.

    Most companies do hire for skills and fire for attitude. In some industries there will always be specific technical skills needed before they find out if the person is a right job fit and/or culture fit.

  • Tim Advent

    While I completely agree with the premis of this article, in practice, on a large, scale this will not happen. First Internal HR Recruiters don’t have a solid knowledge of positions to identify outlying candidates that may be a great fit. Second, hiring managers are very reluctant to take a gamble on these types of referrals unless they have a personal interaction with the candidate like the author did in this example.
    It is a shame becuase there are thousands of great candidates who could excell in positions they would have never considered or been considered for because they don’t have the right degree or certifications.

  • http://www.leadershipblueprint.biz John McCormack

    Obviously, the ideal candidate is the one who has the desired job experience AND the right personality and character. It’s very difficult to find that needle in the haystack. At least try to take steps to identify which side (if not both sides) the candidates’ strengths lie. Then you can visualize what upsides and downsides the candidate brings and make a more informed decision. A personality assessment tool that includes a job profiler capability could be a valuable tool.

  • Richard Melrose

    Any employer can conduct valid, job-related assessments of individuals for any job. Such practices not only have high predictive validity for job performance and job learning, but also provide the most direct path to regulatory compliance. Additionally, the associated job analyses provide the foundation for all HR practices.

    The tools and knowledge for hiring well have been around for decades. The payoff routinely exceeds 10x short-term ROI on the very modest cost of proper assessment and typically delivers 4-digit IRR over the employee lifecycle. The Internet makes the essential tools readily accessible to any business.

    As Peter Drucker wrote: “What you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it, that’s another matter.”

    Most business operate with employee selection processes that have predictive validity (correlation coefficient) r ≤ 0.35, when r ≥ 0.75 represents a readily attainable short-term target, with continuous improvement available, thereafter. The associated minimum 0.4 difference in predictive validity dramatically increases the annual (recurring) utility of employees hired with the improved selection process.

    Most companies leave all this money on the table, though … apparently preferring to fill and refill jobs and, absent miracles (dumb luck) accept mediocre job performance.

    For example, the article does not mention testing for the top two predictors of job performance and job learning (per Schmidt & Hunter; 1998) – i.e. general mental ability and integrity, which, when combined, explain 65% and 67% ofemployee variation in performance and learning, respectively.

    r.melrose@vision21.us

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Jim:
    the fact that you are willing to consider what a person can do as opposed to what they have done makes you a great rarity as a hiring manager.

    @Richard:
    Since it’s possible to measure someones skills through assessments, their motivation to achieve (attitude), and their temperament through personality tests, ISTM that by determining an appropriate weight to each, you could hire the objectively “best’ candidate without either a resume or an interview…Even if this were correct, I can’t imagine hiring authorities would give over their power to objective criteria- it would surrender too much of their power (real or perceived).

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • Richard Melrose

    @Keith

    “Even if this were correct, I can’t imagine hiring authorities would give over their power to objective criteria.” Sad, but too often true. A huge economic waste.

    Resume reads, application reviews, unstructured interviews, self-reporting personality tests, biodata inventories, education, training and experience exhibit low to zero predictive validity for job performance and job learning. That’s what the experts say.

    Meanwhile, together, GMA, Integrity, Job Knowledge Tests, Work Samples and Structured Interviews can acheive high Predictive Validity, at surprisingly low cost. That’s why the ROI and IRR on assessments are so high.

    But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a link ( http://bit.ly/yQhh4s ) to a U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) document on Assessment. Page 10 has a table based on the research that I quoted.

    If you ever find a hiriing authority who might like to better job, give him this non-commercial reference to read.

    Cheers back.