Jun 4, 2009

What makes a good candidate different from a bad one? What defines a high quality candidate? I can’t count the conversations I have had with recruiters on these questions, and few have had answers.

For as long as I can remember, recruiters have focused on cost as the primary measure of their effectiveness and value to the organization. The most popular recruiting metric has been cost-per-hire, and recruiting functions justify their existence by showing how much less expensive they are than an outsourced solution.

This, however, has begun to change.

Even though we are in a recession, skilled talent is hard to find, and demographic projections indicate a long-term swing toward a candidate-driven market. If you are in Europe or recruit for European operations, the aging workforce and the lack of fresh, skilled talent has to be a major concern.

Positions are open longer and hiring managers ask for more resumes to review, not being satisfied with those recruiters provide. There may be hundreds of candidates on the job market at the moment, but managers are still frustrated at the inability of their internal recruiters to find what they consider quality talent. The most important metrics today are those of speed and quality. The best recruiters are measured on how quickly they present candidates and on the quality of those candidates.

In many organizations, outsourcing decisions are being made on these metrics, not on cost. Managers are finding that having a good employee when they need one is much more important than how much it costs to get him or her.

But one hurdle looms over all of this. That hurdle is to define what we mean when we say that one candidate is “better” than another. How do recruiters and hiring managers define quality? Who defines it? And how can it be tracked? These are the tough questions that need answers.

Quality can be defined and here are a few ideas on how to do it. The only caveat is that this process has to be dome for each type of position in your organization.

Number 1: Establish specific competencies or traits that equal quality in the minds of your hiring managers and use it to assess candidates

Most hiring managers do not have any definition of a “quality employee.” Some managers say that they know a quality employee when they have one, but they struggle with a hard definition.

A recruiter’s job is to help them create that definition. The place to start is to unravel the skills, competencies, and traits of the best performers. Unravel the ones that really differentiate average and superior employees and make a list of those. A list should be short and clear, with levels of accomplishment included. It might look something like the diagram you see with this article. I usually try very hard to keep the list to two key items per topic.

It may also be very useful to look at the worst performers and see what it is they don’t have. By listing the characteristics that are common to both the best and the worst employees in a function, you will begin to develop a profile that can eventually be used for selection, performance management, and development. These characteristics could be traits such as willingness to compromise, an open attitude toward new ideas, or frugality in business dealings. Or they could be competencies such as the ability to create spreadsheets in a certain time, or the capability of editing complex documents. And they can also include a level of knowledge such as expert-level knowledge of Unix or of a manufacturing process.

Most likely any definitions of quality would include elements from each of these categories. Notice that these are all output-based measures — in other words, measures that can be seen or demonstrated in the work an employee does. They are the opposite of input-based measures such as length of experience or level of education. These types of measures tell you very little about the quality of a person’s performance.

You may need to partner with your internal organizational development group or with your training department to do this. It does take time and it takes willing managers to partner with you in the process. The result, though, will be a much clearer understanding of what kinds of people need to be sourced and hired.

Number 2: Educate hiring managers

Very few hiring managers know much about selection or about what it takes to assess a candidate. Even though you may have put all the managers though some sort of interview training, I am sure they have forgotten most of it and have used it less. Most of us are not disciplined nor can we expect the typical manager to become expert with these techniques. One area where recruiters can add value is to pre-screen and evaluate candidates against the criteria that you developed above. These criteria, remember, should have been determined in partnership with the managers. Each of you can use lists of these and behavioral interview questions or a variety of tests can be developed and used to measure these traits, competencies, and knowledge. Managers can help you determine how to weight the criteria, and they should be well aware of the consequences of using the criteria.

You can spend small amounts of time over a few weeks presenting bits of this information and moving the managers to understanding and acceptance. If you can, you could also hold seminars and use case studies and examples from your own organization to help managers understand how important it is to select people with the right skills and the right organizational fit and attitude.

Number 3: Investigate and experiment with new tools for screening and selection

It is still a bit surprising to me that very few firms are taking advantage of the many online tools that are emerging to help screen candidates before investing a large amount of time in interviews. By using the Internet and your corporate website, you can ask candidates to engage in a dialogue and mutual assessment process. While you are looking at their skills and fit, they can be looking at your organization and can make decisions on whether or not they like what they see. Many people I have spoken with have seen one side of an organization while interviewing, and another less attractive one after they are hired. There is still value in letting candidates email other employees for information about the company and work-life. There is a need for job previews and better job descriptions that are based on reality, not what we wish were true.

By defining up front what constitutes a quality candidate, you can remove much of the present frustration candidates have over why they were not chosen for an interview, and you can also reduce the number of unqualified candidates who apply. Many do so because they do not know or understand your definition of quality.

By working with hiring managers, getting them to write down and define for you the competencies and traits of successful employees, and by putting those to use in your screening and interviewing processes, you can improve candidate quality in a measurable way.

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