Hiring the best
By Christopher Ram
September 19, 1999
Management gurus have advanced their own ideas on what it will take for businesses to survive much less prosper in the twenty-first century. The reality, tough though it may seem, stares event he meekest of the minds in the face. Perhaps the title of Bill Gates latest book "Business at the speed of Thought" may seem an appropriate summation of what the future holds. In the predicted "world of accelerating change" the future threatens to think and act in real time or die.
The past has revealed a shift in management thinking from torrid management principles to focus on a softer approach where employees help to shape the future of the company.
Accomplished writer and speaker on "Leadership" Stephen Covey in his contribution to "Rethinking the Future" noted that a company's success is "about creating an empowered workforce around a common sense of meaning and vision, around a value system that is principle based and then tapping into the power of that workforce in order to compete in the global economy".
Covey recognises that people are the most valuable assets in an organisation, capable of achieving almost anything provided that the will and opportunity to unleash human potential, tremendous energy and creative power is given.
The first step to tapping into the potential of an organisation's human resources is to recruit, train and retain the right type of employees who will share the organisation's vision, objectives and corporate culture and then allowing them the room, the resources and the motivation to deliver results.
The importance of adopting the organisation's culture i.e. actions unconsciously reinforced as result of deeply shared values is critical to the existence of a prosperous relationship between employer and employee.
The selection process in recruiting staff therefore ought to be of significant importance to any organisation hoping to exist in the real-time business world.
Recent surveys show as reported in the Harvard Business Review that between 30% and 50% of all executive-level appointments end in firing or resignation.
Though sourcing and hiring employees with an understanding of the organisation's culture has always been challenging, hiring has been made more difficult by external factors such as changes in the economy, shifting demand of "certain types" of employees, deviations from the nature and functions of various ranks, relatively new concepts of organisational forms and incorrect assessment from interviews.
The ten hiring traps
Writing in the prestigious management journal Harvard Business Review, Human Resources consultant Argentinean Claudio Fernandez-Araoz identified ten hiring traps one or more of which account for recruitments that go wrong ending in resignation or firing.
Although the focus of Mr Fernandez-Araoz's article was the corporate executive the traps may also affect recruitments of middle and even junior managers. Indeed they seem to transcend levels as well as borders and are easily recognisable by observers of corporate life in Guyana.
Of the ten the following seem particularly relevant to Guyana: 1. The reactive approach: Here the company faced with replacing a departing employee seeks to recruit someone with the same good qualities of the previous jobholder without the defects - the same approach one takes in to a second marriage!
The problem with this approach is that it concentrates on personality rather than the skills and competencies required for the job.
2. Unrealistic specifications: Many job descriptions are too long and demanding with obvious contradictions such s `ability to work on one's own' and `a great team player' A consequence of this approach is that the field of potential candidates is unnecessarily small excluding some otherwise perfect fits.
3. Accepting people at face value: Interviewers often accept at face value the answers the applicant gives to some far from searching questions. The interviewer is either too polite to ask searching questions or to follow up inconsistencies lest they appear aggressive and scare the applicant.
4. Accepting references at face value: As with accepting the answers of the applicant many employers naively believe references from other previous employers. These reference are written in such glowing terms that the cautious person should immediately wonder why that employer allowed the person to leave in the first place. Very often the previous employer may have been so glad to rid himself of the employee but feels a moral obligation to assist him in getting a job.
5. The `just like me bias': Inevitably bias is present in the hiring process including stereotyping persons according to age, gender, religion or race or affiliation. Fernandez-Araoz considers the most insidious bias however is the one which leads the interviewer to choose a person who has the same type of background, qualifications or personality as he or she possesses. In doing so the interviewer may completely ignore the competency requirements of the job. The contents of the substantive job of the interviewer are more likely to be completely different from the position being filled and different yardsticks should be applied.
6. The interview process: An interview requires careful planning and professional execution. The seniority of the job should dictate the composition of the interviewing panel rather than the "busy" schedule of the executive who delegates the job to someone who is improperly briefed for the task. Instead of a highly structured session the interview becomes no more than idle conversation with no focus on the job.
7. An over-emphasis on technical qualification: All the evidence suggest that the further up the organisation one is the less relevant are technical qualifications. Far more important is the new buzz-word of the management writers - emotional intelligence. This is inadequately referred to as the "softer qualities" but yet research has shown that among senior managers `close to 90% of success can be attributed to the five emotional competencies" i.e. self awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.
8. Political pressures not of the crude type which was so common in the seventies and eighties but those common to corporate life. The mistake here is the appointment of the person because of familial connections, friends of the boss, members of the fraternity or from the school tie network, to repay a favour or just the well meaning wish to help someone.
Fernandez-Araoz regards this not only as the most pervasive but the one leading to the most spectacular hiring mistakes. Because of this he considers it not a trap but a "pool of quicksand".
The mere fact that 30-50% of executive level employees are mis-matched with their jobs suggest that the problems with recruitment run deep. More and more companies are realising that failure to set or to observe minimum standard for employment is proving costly.
Employment out of sympathy, convenience, urgency, etc. often result in a compromise on standards and performance on the part of the employer and dis-satisfaction, de-motivation and often a sense of feeling overwhelmed on the part of the employee.
By its very nature, there is always a risk that a hiring could go wrong. No matter how carefully planned or professionally executed, no interview can simulate the real life situation. Circumstances change and relationships either develop or deteriorate over time. Yet the cost of bad hiring in money, time and morale is so great that every effort has to be made to get it as right as possible.
Getting it right
Fernandez-Araoz recommends a systematic approach with two major parts: investing in the problem definition and doing the homework. Investing in the problem is about preparation which often requires an investment of both time and energy with greater benefits in the future. It is important not to concentrate on the technical or current requirements of the job but rather on the emotional component and future requirements.
Doing the homework describes the process to make interviewing and selection more insightful, reliable and successful. Objectivity, structure and composition o f the panel are as important as the process itself. One way to aid this process is to avoid the ten hiring traps identified earlier. The other way is to seek external help.
The selection process consumes a great deal of time as well as effort. Quite often employers rely on references provided rather than carry out background checks. Other times they identify academic qualifications and experience as requirements for employment and neglect the components of emotional intelligence, which are twice as important for excellent performance as pure intellect and expertise according to expert on emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman.
Though seeking the assistance of a placement firm is a relatively new development in Guyana companies need to recognise that they do not possess all the human resources management skills required to make good hirings at the senior level. More and more they need to start thinking about using outside professionals in this very critical area of activity. They should see this as an investment which pays healthy dividends.
Article contributed by the Entrepreneurial Services and Corporate Finance Department of Ram and McRae.
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