Hiring Metrics: Totally Useful or Totally Useless?

Sep 15, 2010

This is a real dilemma for me. On one hand, corporate recruiters clamor for metrics, but when I tell them what is necessary, their eyes glaze over. My advice to them is to be careful: you just might get what you wish for. You see, metrics attract attention. When competent people have competent metrics at their fingertips, they know what to do with them. Incompetent people just get confused. Depending on your competency, hiring metrics will attract attention that can either work for … or against … you.

About Metrics

The only reason to collect metrics is to make informed decisions: am I doing well? What do I need to improve? Are my activities helping achieve organizational goals? And, so forth. Metrics are not the “cool” thing to do, nor are they an interesting thing to play with. Metrics should provide specific feedback in specific areas that are actionable.

Consider quality initiatives. Many manufacturers measure product quality at the end of the production line. This is problematic because there are many small steps along the production line that could affect the final product. Measuring quality at the end of the line tells you whether the product is good or bad, but almost nothing about how to fix it. About 50 years ago, W.E. Deming and J.J Juran became leaders in quality improvement by breaking manufacturing into small process steps; collecting data at each step; working to control the process variability; and repeating the process until it was under control. In my experience, HR needs to incorporate some of their ideas.

To incorporate quality control into hiring, we must identify specific job competencies (i.e., the “how,” not the “what”), evaluate the accuracy of each testing-tool, evaluate demographic impact, gather performance evidence, work to control the variability, and so forth. Evaluating hiring quality takes professional practice. So why is it not done more often? I can only think of four reasons:

  1. People don’t have a clue how to do it
  2. They think it’s too much work
  3. They only care about surviving the guarantee period (this is what I hear most from external recruiters)
  4. They did not think of it themselves (see #1, #2 and #3)

The Status Quo

It does not help that people think recruiting is a field one can “break into” more than one can break into law, medicine, science, or engineering. So old-school recruiting practices remain strongly rooted in reviewing a job description, interviewing a hiring manager, and using HiHowAreYa interview questions. The usual result is unclear job skills that must be inferred from resume data or taken at face value. In the final run, candidates are often compared with one another instead of to the job, and usually the ones who walk and talk most like current employees get hired. As a result, only about half of new hires fail to achieve high performance. A few months or weeks later, enterprising internal recruiters send out one-size fits-all smile sheets to hiring managers expecting to get honest feedback from people who are highly motivated not to admit any kind of bad hiring decision. Is it any wonder why status quo metrics seldom tell you very much?

Useful Metrics

Let’s start with identifying specific skills that lead to results. This is done when a job analyst interviews job holders and their managers about what it takes to do the job; what leads to successes; and, what leads to failures. This is a learned art because the analyst must know how to listen for clues associated with competencies that either precede or are associated with performance. For example, a long story about a successful project may involve learning, decision making, interpersonal skills, planning, and so forth. It’s up to the analyst to listen to each story to isolate the key competencies against which new candidates should be measured.

Specific competencies serve as the least common denominator against which all metrics are collected. For example, metrics will tell us if our job analysis missed anything; if the job changed; if our tests and measures (i.e., that includes interviews) were accurate and trustworthy; what needs to be modified; if pass/fail scores were set too-high or too-low; or, if any of the tests and measures adversely impacted protected groups. And, yes, this includes manager-employee fit.

Foggy Bottom

Military experts often refer to the fog of war. That is when everything is happening at once and nothing is clear. We can use the same term for the fog of performance: foggy because managers’ ratings are often part opinion and part fact; hard performance numbers often conflict (e.g., customer satisfaction and time per call are often negatively related); and, results-data often occur long after competencies are applied. Nevertheless, a skilled analyst knows how to gather highly useful and actionable data that can be used to improve and modify quality of hire.

If you don’t know specifically what to measure, how to measure it, and what to do with the results, then metrics can become a muddy mess. It takes clear job analysis, validated tests, structured interviews, and effective manager feedback to make hiring metrics work.

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