Hiring: What You Don’t Know Hurts!

May 25, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

When I was a kid, I watched adults get their teeth pulled and replaced by dentures. My kid-brain thought it was normal. When I grew up, my adult brain learned it wasn’t necessary to give up on your teeth. The same goes for most organizations. People routinely think reviewing resumes and conducting casual interviews are normal. After all, that’s the way it has always been done. But like poor dental hygiene, resumes and casual interviews lead to toothless results.

I was lucky enough to watch startup organizations identify critical job competencies, validate multiple testing methods, thoroughly evaluate each candidate, and hire only people who could demonstrate they had job skills. Needless to say, the results were awesome! Profitable in half the time; salesforces broke all previous records; turnover dropped significantly; and pre-employment training time shortened. Was it a miracle? No. Lke flossing and brushing, it was the product of best-hiring practices.

Did I invent best practices? No. Did I receive them from aliens while in an altered state of conscientiousness? No, the government published them in the late 1970s, as a result of the Civil Rights Act. It hired a panel of experts to develop a uniform set of hiring and placement practices governmental organizations could follow. It called it the 1978 Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection. But it’s 30 years later and the majority of hiring folks I meet still have no idea the Guidelines exist or have anything to do with their job. It’s as if they live in Lake Woebegon where all the men are strong, the women are good looking, and all the kids are above average. Why do a majority of people involved in hiring refuse to get with the program? I’ve come across a few reasons.

Quantity, not Quality

HR and recruiters are primarily concerned with managing transactions, or as one person said, “Filling seats with bums.” They know and understand work orders, placing ads, screening, and getting to know candidates; but, they pass off to the hiring manager responsibility for determining applicant qualifications. Wrong. Not only does this diffusion of responsibility results in an almost complete lack of quality control of incoming employees, it causes a major rift between HR and line management.

Best Practices Are Considered Optional

Less-bright people seem to think the ‘Guidelines’ are something that either does not apply to them, or are only used in EEOC or OFCCP challenges. Some people have commented to me with a straight face, “The Guidelines are only optional; we do not have to follow them” or “Very few organizations are sued.” Those ideas come from complete ignorance of what the Guidelines can do for organizations. Who, for example, can argue against thoroughly understanding critical job requirements, basing assessments on job requirements and business necessity, using only valid and reliable tests, and constantly monitoring adverse impact? Yep. The Guidelines are only optional if you don’t want to understand job requirements, ignore job requirements and business necessity, use crappy tests, and ignore adverse impact. That’s some option!

Non-Feedback Feedback

Follow up on hiring quality is also a serious shortcoming. Time and again I have heard recruiters claim they should do more follow-up on the quality of candidates. This is a problem. Managers are reluctant to publicly admit they hired the wrong person (i.e., admitting you wasted tens of thousands on a bad hiring decision is not exactly a career builder). External recruiters tell me they measure success one guarantee period at a time. (When will they learn longevity does not always equal productivity?) And, internal recruiters tend to rely on smile sheets (yep, another waste of time). Legitimate follow-up is impossible unless you compare pre-hire data with post-hire data. Don’t get hung up on words; an assessment is any method used to evaluate job candidates.

Fear of the Unknown

HR generally is risk averse, distrusts things they do not understand, has a limited budget, a limited staff, and its professional association seems to take the importance of good hiring practices for granted (an attitude I think will lead to its eventual demise). I knew one HR manager who refused to follow best practices because it would make her job harder. Gee, I wonder how management would feel about that attitude? Replace her with a fully competent HR manager, maybe? In addition, I’ve noticed that HR is quicker to adopt web-screening systems (i.e., manage applicant flow) than improve new employee quality. Good for them. Bad for the organization.

Good Luck Is Often the Product of Hard Work

Best-practices are hard. They require giving up comfortable alternatives. They require an admission that you can’t “break-into” professional recruiting any more than you can “break-into” medicine, law, or accounting. Hiring professionals must learn the technology of the profession. Best practices also make the recruiting job harder. Hiring is a probability game of identification, evaluation, and follow up. It takes a concentrated effort. Personal anecdotes of one-off results won’t cut it. And, sorry to disappoint, but reading articles might raise your awareness; however, it’s no substitute for going back to school, investing long years of practice, or having the bucks to hire an expert.

Unconscious Decision-Making

Human decision making is fundamentally flawed. People trust more what they know than what they don’t. They tend to remember when they were right, and forget when they were wrong. The need to become “comfortable” with a candidate is rooted in an evolutionary need to quickly assess personal danger, not evaluate candidate competencies. More often than not, when people base hiring decisions on personality, as opposed to skills, they make hiring mistakes. If you want to see how powerful unconscious factors are, read the comments associated with other ERE articles insisting “fit” and personality are the most important hiring factor.

Bad Practices Are Costly

The consequences of following bad practices include promotion pools that have too few skilled people; sending people to workshops to “fix” them; unnecessary EEOC and OFCCP exposure; bloated workforces that hemorrhage 20-50% annual payroll each year; weak competitive bench strength; and organization culture “drift,” to name a few.

There are no shortcuts. There is no easy solution. There are no magic questions. Any organization that wants to take command of its future must first take command of its workforce. If you find that getting managers on your side is a problem, invite them to a meeting or conference call with someone who knows and understands best practices. Let the Geek do the talking for you. If the call goes badly, you can both commiserate. If the call goes well, you can take all the credit.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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