Like it or Not, You Are Testing Applicants (Part 2 of 2)

Sep 20, 2013

In Part 1, I explained that job skills walk around on two feet; past achievements are less important than the skills used to accomplish them; employers rent two-legged skills to do specific jobs; and headhunters produce about the same hiring quality as internal recruiters. I suggested readers Google “Principles for the validation and use of personnel selection procedures”and follow the link; and, read how applicants feel about organizations that follow best-practices.

In Part 2, I’ll continue the discussion.

Proficiency Test

If you want to learn whether HR is doing a good job screening candidates for critical job skills, ask the hiring manager. If he/she frequently expresses anger and frustration wasting time interviewing unqualified candidates, you got it wrong. Although hiring managers may not be able to describe critical job skills, they recognize when a candidate doesn’t have them (i.e., remember from Part 1 who knows the most about doing the job?). HR departments that follow best practices should only have to recommend two or three candidates to a hiring manager for a personal “chemistry” check.

Remember: Hiring managers know blatantly unqualified candidates when they see them.

Guessing or Knowing: Accurate Measurement

Once you determine job-critical skills, it’s time to accurately measure candidates. Measurement can be defined as either guessing whether the candidate is job-skilled or actually seeing him/her perform the skill before your very eyes. Let’s look at this closer. Here are a few of the most common methods used by HR to screen candidates.

  • Review a resume or application blank
  • Ask interview questions
  • Occasionally give personality tests used in workshops

What all these techniques have in common is they all require you to guess critical skills. That is, trusting what the candidate says … not actually observing his/her skills. An inexperienced interviewer senses that these techniques are guessing games, so he/she searches for better questions. As they become more experienced, interviewers generally stop looking for skills and start looking for red flags. Yet, interviews persist largely because people forget their failures and remember successes; few people know how to accurately measure employee on-the-job quality; performance in the interview and performance on the job are seldom correlated; and, there is a tendency to blame employee failure on something other than insufficient job skills.

If HR actually wanted to reduce the number of bad hires to the bare minimum, they would:

  • Develop, and work exclusively, from lists of job-critical skills
  • Use only behavioral interviewers who are thoroughly trained and rigidly follow best practices
  • Give tests and exercises directly related to the job skill, are hard to fake, and backed by internal studies showing scores predict both high and low job performance (i.e., proven valid by the company … not empty vendor claims).
  • Use carefully crafted job samples and simulations that required the candidate to demonstrate he/she had critical job skills (this technique is especially true for jobs requiring strong interpersonal skills such as service, sales, and management).

Why are these more accurate than resumes and interviews? Guessing is replaced with knowing so that what you see is what you get. You might ask if this kind of accuracy worth the time and money. Consider this: research shows companies using traditional hiring methods are often staffed with too many people doing too little work leading to an estimated waste of 10-50 percent of annual payroll. Only you can calculate the ROI for your organization, but even the most expensive best-practice system completely pays for itself within a few months.

Some people think these techniques reduce the human element. That would be like arguing the speedometer and fuel gauge on your dashboard reduces your ability to drive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Data is data. And basing decisions on data is always more accurate than basing decisions on guesses. (I wonder if these arguments would disappear if they had to reimburse the company out of their own pocket for each bad hire?)

Remember: Knowing will always be more accurate than guessing.

Full Speed Backward!

I have presented nothing new. The information in this article is backed by decades of research. So why do bad practices persist? I think there are a number of possible explanations:

  • HR departments have a maintenance and administrative mindset that is seldom proactive
  • HR is seen as a place where people can learn on-the-job … special skills are unnecessary
  • It takes considerable time and effort to learn best-practices
  • HR seldom measures success by long-term employee performance, but by time-to-fill or survival times
  • HR tends to blame line managers for “not helping” employees
  • Other departments, not HR, usually suffer the consequences of bad hires/promotions
  • People in HR are quick to position themselves as hiring experts, but seldom willing to do the work to gain (or maintain) the necessary skills
  • HR has not done a good job soliciting CEO support for best practices
  • HR often argues they want to “give people a chance”
  • Responsibility for hiring quality is often shifted to the hiring manager
  • And, I think the biggest reason of all: no one calculates the cost of bad hires.

Remember: HR is like a screen door: the size of the holes controls the number of pests.

Lost Opportunity

Most of the time, companies will invest more time and energy selecting a $6,000 copier than they will a $60,000/year employee. That’s because people know more about copiers than identifying and measuring job skills.

A company is made up of people. They solve problems, sell products, make products, recommend solutions, serve customers, and so forth. Employees are the single largest out-of-pocket expense for most organizations. Best practices won’t fill the company with perfect employees and managers, but they will screen out candidates who don’t have job skills.

Unfortunately the department crying out the loudest for respect … the one with the greatest opportunity to make a significant impact on the bottom line … the one that can screen-out more bottom feeders … just refuses to get better.

Don’t believe it? Give it time. You will.

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