Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Stitches in Time - PART I

Abstract – Why it’s important to take the time at sifting and interview stage to ensure that you get the right person for the job. How to go about a hire in a methodical manner. Why this is so important to the health of a company.

A lot of lip service goes into companies’ recruitment strategies. “Excellence” “The best people” “Strategic fit” “Ongoing development” “Rigorous selection”. To which I say: “Garbage!”

Garbage because these statements are mere puffery to make the shareholders feel better about who is employed, not because these kinds of hiring goals are incorrect. In the mad rush to appease bottom line and results-focused managers, HR goes through the motions of a recruitment without providing the expert advice which is really necessary to get the best person into the role. HR, in short, is not fully utilised in its originating and strongest capacity.

The best practice process for a hire is lengthy and expensive, requiring commitment from many different people in the organisation. Some organisations will carefully hire management levels but haphazardly hire administrative and support staff, others will promote internally without any process at all. Those who have read my other articles and who are familiar with my general outlook on business know that I like to strip as much unnecessary procedure out of any given task as I can. This is one of the rare times when I will advise to have MORE rather than less process. Not for the generally given reasons of ‘fairness’ or to ensure that the business’ backside is covered from appeal or unions – but simply because this is one of the most important things that a business does alongside its core process.

Businesses are made of products and people, in service businesses these two aren’t even distinct. The outcomes of hiring (whether in the short or long term) impact directly upon output, bottom line results, culture and overall excellence. The more complex your hiring process is, the more likely you will sieve out those that you want from those that don’t belong. In the long term, it is far better to spend time and money on a recruitment drive than later have to cope with a problem employee which will take even more time (thanks to business-unfriendly legislation) and effort to get rid of. Invest now for less headaches and expense later.

What, then, does a good recruitment involve? Let’s go back to defining what recruitment IS. Recruitment is the selection of a person to fill a role within a company. Implicitly, then, we need to know exactly what the role is and what kind of a person we want – then we see how closely we can match the two to have a solution to our staffing problem. We also have to decide how we will go about this. Common sense though this is, the implementation of this solution involves many disparate steps.

The role

Organisations must realise that an administrator is not an administrator is not an administrator. The same goes for managers, salespeople, cleaners, receptionists, process workers and any other role you care to name. The core function itself may be similar across sites or departments, but the people that the new hire must interact with will be different as well as the smaller jobs or responsibilities they will have in each separate locaton. HR often tries to save time by standardising Job Descriptions and interview questions. Don’t give into the temptation of taking either of these on without having a very thorough look through them to ensure that they are an EXACT fit to what you want. Fight HR if you need to – better now than when there’s already a person in place drawing your attention to the fact that what you’ve just asked them to do is not actually in their Job Description.

Take the time to sit down and really think about what this person will be doing, what kinds of skills they will HAVE to have on day one and which skills you can train in on-the-job. Decide on a title, decide on a remuneration – and don’t be stingy – you get what you pay for.
Don’t just do this with higher level and managerial positions. Any manager relies heavily on administrative and other support staff to make his or her ideas a concretised reality. Good support staff are essential for the efficient running of a business.

The person

There are two things you are looking for in every new hire. Skills and attitude.

I’ve talked about skills above. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a 50/50 split - here’s why.

Let me give you a scenario. You have hired someone with fantastic attitude but not enough skills to complete the job. You are faced with training them using any courses at your disposal as well as staff time to explain your systems. They are calm in accepting your assessment of their skill gap and easily commit to changing this. Their can-do attitude helps them learn quickly and apply that learning to their task. Their cheerful demeanour helps smooth the impact of any mistakes they have made on fellow staff. Your problem will be solved relatively quickly. If their role needs to undergo a change, there will be relatively little problem in selling this to them – in fact, they will probably help to develop the role to better serve the company.

Scenario two is the flipside of this. You have hired someone of startling technical competence but whose attitude needs a lot of work. In their first week, they have offended half your office and alienated the other half with their superiority complex. You approach them with your observations of their shortcomings and they react with anger and denial. You know that changing this innate character flaw will be an uphill and time-consuming battle. In the meantime, they produce excellent work within the parameters of their job but you can already imagine their vehemence if what they were asked to do changed even slightly.

Which would you prefer? Is skills and attitude really an equal trade-off? You can now see why I say ‘no’.

This is not to say that it is impossible to change the second type of person, but why give yourself that kind of grief if you can get things right in the first place?

This is why if I am to make any mistake at all in a hire, I would prefer overestimating someone’s skills rather than being mistaken as to their character.

On the practical side, when people are answering questions, take note of how they speak of their previous employer and co-workers, how they express the reasons for any failures they have had, what their attitude toward further learning is, how they speak to you, whether or not they make eye contact with everyone on the panel, what their body language is like, how they’ve chosen to dress, who on the panel they address when answering questions, how comfortable they are with a question out of left field, how they respond to a change of pace and formality in the interview etc. You need to take a lot of things into account before you get your ‘gut’ instinct about a person.

The Team

It’s all well and good to throw up the old bromides of ‘excellence’, ‘teamwork’, ‘dynamism’, ‘friendliness’, ‘leadership’ – but what do these mean in the context of where your new hire will work?

Will they need to be assertive in a team made up of strong individuals or will they need to take a leadership role in a team of people who can rarely come to a quick decision? Are you hiring people to bring a ‘breath of fresh air’ into the team or are you hiring someone to fit a role, a slot, EXACTLY without making too many waves in the process?

All of these considerations highlight my previous point of not taking a stock standard Job Description on – you simply won’t be selecting for the correct team fit if you don’t decide what kind of personality you want beforehand.

Make note of what kind of person you want and ensure that it is the focus of one or two formal interview questions.

The Questions

So we finally come to the questions to be asked. My take on this is that it is important to grill the interviewee for as long as it takes (why not make an interview 1.5 or 2 hours? Why the rush?) to ensure that you have covered all bases. Much more important than sparing yourself (or them) the ordeal of a tough interview process. It’s vital to end up with as complete a picture of each candidate as possible.

Standard HR will tell you to ask the same questions of each person to ensure ‘fairness’ – I prescribe the same process for an entirely different reason. In the end, an interview is there for the employer, not for the employee. It is a fact-finding mission, not an exercise in political correctness. So find facts – logically and systematically.

If you were comparing 5 brands of washers, you would probably set up a spreadsheet in order to track each washer’s size, cost, noise level, energy efficiency, water usage and aesthetic design. You would be, essentially, asking the same ‘questions’ of every model so that you could make an informed judgement as to the ranking of each against the key criteria.

Transfer this to an interview situation. By analysing the job itself you have determined what you need skills-wise, by analysing the team and the company you have determined what you need personality-wise. Why not ensure that you have asked each candidate the same questions so that when you come to the end of face to face interviews, you have a complete set of data to made decisions from?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for clarification on a point or delve deeper where you think there’s something interesting to be discovered.

Questions should be split between technical-style queries into the person’s competence in the field and more personally probing questions to see how the person has coped with or would cope with hypothetical scenarios.

You also have the choice of including a few ‘old chestnuts’ such as “What are your weaknesses?” and “Why should we choose you for the role?”

There are many books out there with sample interview questions that you can reference for the personality probing questions. Technical questions should be easy to write, a line manager will be able to determine what is needed in that area.

Above all, don’t include trick questions. An interview situation is a nerve wracking experience and the candidate will be taking everything you say literally, not reading shades of meaning into it. Like cryptic crossword clues that are obvious in hindsight, trick interview questions are merely a harder way to get to the end result – not necessarily a better way.

I also like to send the line manager the completed list of questions and ask them to write model answers in point form for me. This has a three-fold effect.

Firstly, I am a Human Resources person – I really don’t know what a good answer to a technical question looks like. The model answers help me to more confidently assess the interviewee’s skills competence in their field.

Secondly, this focuses the panel in comparing each interviewee against a template ‘model answer’ rather than just against the last interviewee or the group being interviewed. It also prevents each panel member from having their own idea of what an ideal candidate’s answers will look like. Keep your panel working off the same page.

Lastly, it helps the panel easily assess if the interviewee’s answer is on track very, very quickly and if they’ve covered all the points that should be covered in such an answer.

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