10 Questions to Help You Hire Better People

Jul 21, 2010

As a recruiter, how would you describe the culture at Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, or at your own organization? Being able to distill the essence of an organization’s culture into a few well-thought-out adjectives is worth a lot. Sometimes I ask a wide variety of people to come up with a few adjectives that describe a company and then use a tag cloud technology such as Wordle or TagCloud to generate a tag cloud map. This will give you a pretty good idea of how people feel about an organization’s culture.

For example, Apple might be described as perfectionist, controlling, modern, and demanding, while Microsoft might be described as Yuppie, Gen X, brash, or arrogant. IBM as stuffy, old school, traditional.

Customers form opinions about an organization from its brand image, its presentation and packaging of products and services, but most of all from their contact with employees.

We often call the collective personality of an organization its organizational culture.

Many recruiters recognize the value of understanding the organizational culture and finding people who are good fits for it. However, until the specific traits that make up this culture are articulated clearly, it is very hard to know who the right people are.

Taking the time to define and understand the talent philosophy of your organization will enhance your success and improve the productivity and retention of the people you hire.

While you and hiring managers may instinctively tend to hire people who act or think in ways that are compatible with your organization’s culture, we often make mistakes and even misjudge what the culture really demands. And hiring managers often hire people who reflect their own style rather than that of the organization. We all know how disruptive it can be to hire someone whose personal style is at odds with that of the rest of the team.

Employee Treatment Reflects Your Philosophy

One of the surest ways to begin defining your talent philosophy is to ask how employees are treated. Many organizations have evolved philosophies that are easy to understand. IBM had a philosophy of hiring young people, usually right after college, and promoting them internally after a rigorous internal development process. They hired for certain traits: people who wanted to have a career, who were eager to learn and continue studying, who were open to new opportunities, who were willing to wait for promotion, and who were going to play by the “rules” of IBM. Whether or not IBM hired deliberately for these traits I do not know, but they were certainly reflected in the kinds of people who stayed and who thrived there.

Other organizations have philosophies that are much more difficult to decipher either because they have not really defined a common philosophy or because they have many sub-cultures within the organization. This is particularly true of newer firms who have not yet had the time to evolve a distinct personality. But, even in these firms it is possible to see some basic traits that are emerging.

What Is Real and What is Wish?

Frequently I work with organizations that have developed a talent philosophy that is attractive to candidates but not reflective or what they really do. It is often more a statement of what they want the philosophy to be rather than what it really is.

It may state how the organization is committed to employee development and internal promotion, yet they almost always hire new people from the outside. Or it may contain statements about work/life balance when in reality everyone works 60 hours a week.

A talent philosophy is very hard to create. It is generally an outcome of who has been hired over time and what those folks, collectively, believe, and how they act. It is very hard to change without the highest level of internal support.

Talent philosophies are complicated things. They are a mix of individual traits and a set of overarching beliefs and practices that usually have evolved over time. They are based on assumptions about how people behave or about what they want from the workplace. For example, it is typical to assume that everyone wants a long-term career when, increasingly, today’s young people want opportunities for advancement and learning and don’t care too much about a career in a single firm. Knowing what your assumptions are is essential for successfully defining your talent philosophy, yet it is very hard for those in an organization to determine those assumptions.

Very often it is necessary to bring in an outside consultant to help, but here are a few questions that you can use to help in the unraveling process. By setting up groups of people, maybe incorporating customers or others from outside the organization to help, and by trying to answer these questions in an unbiased way, you can make a good start at clearly defining what assumptions you are making and what critical traits new employees should have.

Ten Tough Questions to Answer

  1. What single characteristic is considered most important by hiring managers in a potential candidate?
  2. If there are two equally well-qualified candidates for a job, what determines the final choice?
  3. What are the personality styles, traits, and habits of those who get promoted or seem to be the most highly regarded in your organization?
  4. If an employee were asked what adjective most accurately described the best employees’ personalities, what word would they choose?
  5. If a customer were asked to describe the culture of your organization, what would they say?
  6. How do you deal with poor-performing employees?
  7. Who is considered the most valuable employee in your organization? What distinctive traits or characteristics does s/he have?
  8. How do major decisions get made? Are they made by consensus, a majority viewpoint, or a single person?
  9. What do you expect a good employee to have as general career aspirations?
  10. What does an employee have to do/demonstrate in order to be considered for a promotion?

A truly honest understanding of your assumptions about people and their careers and a solid analysis of what common traits employees should have will go miles in improving the quality of the candidates you bring to the table.

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