Are You Hiring Future Champions or Future Saboteurs?

Mar 24, 2008

Each time we interview a prospective employee, we not only question the recruit, we question ourselves. Am I talking to a candidate who would become an asset to the company? This candidate looks good on paper and is in a best-behavior mode, but will he or she be a good match to support our organization’s goals? Or is this a potential company saboteur?

As recruiters, we have the daunting job of selecting employees who can deliver what an organization defines as its on-brand activity. We want to avoid an employee who doesn’t fit in, who will be unproductive, criticize management, provide substandard service, or undermine a company’s internal culture and its promise to its clients. These are traits we’ve identified as workplace “sabotage.”

If you think the word “saboteur” overstates the situation, consider the potential damage a saboteur can inflict on your organization: squandered recruitment costs, decrease in productivity, harm to company reputation, inadequate customer service, and negative workplace morale. Ultimately, these behaviors also chip away at your bottom line.

Distinguish Champions from Saboteurs During the Interview Process

Employees play a critical role in the success of the company by carrying out its values and establishing a culture of engagement and success. So we need to communicate to recruits what will be expected of them and, most critical, identify the characteristics we’re looking for and weed out potential saboteurs.

Each organization calls for a different set of behaviors and personality traits. Identifying these behaviors (and recognizing the absence of these traits) in the recruits we interview is a weighty challenge, but I’ve found the following practices to be effective:

  1. Develop a list of desired behaviors that match your company’s brand promise. Beyond the job description and corresponding competencies, identify personality features reflected in the company’s mission, vision, and values and its promise to its customers. No matter what the level of the job, to become a champion, an individual must also pair well with your company’s values and goals. A company focused on achieving product excellence, for example, requires innovation, a passion for quality and constant improvement. Customer intimacy, on the other hand, calls for traits that include respect for people, teamwork, caring, listening skills, and the ability to anticipate. As we all know, we can teach job skills, but change someone’s personality or values, well that’s a different story. It’s not a new thought, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s so important: Hire for attitude and train for skill.
  2. Evaluate the attitudes of your champions. To arrive at the traits and behaviors necessary for the success of your business, consider the champions within your own company: the high achievers who set the standard for quality. What behaviors have caught the attention of their managers and others? What words capture the positive aspects of their personalities? What do these employees value in the workplace? Use what you learn from this examination to question and evaluate your recruits during and after an interview, seeking the same “champion” traits, and thereby avoiding the hire of a saboteur.
  3. Enlist your champions to recruit champions. Select some of your champions to be recruiters. They know and are a part of the brand culture, and can attract or identify other like-minded applicants they see as a good fit. Provide them with a compelling referral card, to be used discriminately. The card should include a clever copy line and call to action that has a sense of immediacy.
  4. Provide full disclosure. Make sure you thoroughly provide candidates with the values/culture of your company and its expectations (work hours, dress code, holidays, pay structure, customer-service expectations). At the Disney “auditions,” a recruitment video lays out all the rules, all the do’s and don’ts, along with information about the company’s heritage, mission, and values. This is followed by a self-selection component, asking, “From what you’ve learned during this interview, is this the right job/company for you? Do you think you are right for the position/company?” This gives the recruit a chance to bow out and likely has saved the company from someone who wouldn’t have fit in (i.e., a potential saboteur).
  5. Think outside the interview. I know of recruiters who make the most of every minute a highly qualified candidate is in the building. Through a bit of informal sleuthing (i.e., planting an observer in the lobby to listen to candidates introduce themselves to the receptionist, watching them as they wait to be called to their appointment), they notice the candidate’s speech and behavior and report back to the interviewer. On a smaller scale, some recruiters ask the receptionist about how recruits announced themselves when they arrived and whether there was anything notable about their behavior while they waited. Did they look carefully at surroundings, turn on the TV, talk to other candidates, or talk on their cell phone? Southwest Airlines may be the leader in hiring for attitude, putting a heap of effort into finding new hires who match the Southwest formula (humor, teamwork, energy, and friendliness). Southwest’s “vice president of people” uses a group interview as part of the process to assess personality. In addition to watching how members of the group interact, she might ask a dozen participants to tell the group about when their sense of humor helped them, or what their personal motto is. It is not so much the answer; it’s the way a person answers the questions.
  6. Place candidates in a real-life situation. Carrying the practice of identifying desired traits a big step further, companies such as McDonald’s and Embassy Suites develop job-related scenarios as part of their hiring process. Applicants’ answers can be evaluated according to whether they are consistent with corporate goals. Referring to Disney again, recruiters set up a scenario in which a young park guest drops his ice-cream cone. The recruit is asked what he or she would do as a park employee observing this event. One answer: Clean up the spilled ice cream immediately to prevent people from slipping and to maintain the park’s cleanliness. Another answer: Take the child (and parents) to the closest ice-cream vendor to replace the cone. Which answer do you think is considered “the best” in the Magic Kingdom? The recruit who arrives at the latter answer shows that he or she understands the brand promise and likely has what it takes to become a brand champion. Pr?t ? Manger, a New York (and UK-based) business that sells healthy takeout food at reasonable prices, takes the following approach: After the initial interview, strong candidates are asked to work for one day in a Pr?t store and are evaluated based on the Pr?t “desired attitude.” At the end of the day, only about 20% of candidates are found eligible for the position.

We are all faced with the same dilemma. We need to be able to detect the future success or future failure of a candidate. We like to think we have good chemistry with the people we hire, but don’t go with your gut feelings about whether you and the recruit have good “vibes.”

From start to finish in the recruitment process, we need to seek personality traits that run parallel to company goals and culture and behaviors that reflect brand champions.

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