HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Start Right; Hire Right!

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (Spring and Summer 2001), the HR Group newsletter.

“If you had hired the right person in the first place *! *!, we wouldn’t ……” 

Avoid significant grief! Get it right in the first place! Most organizations and their managers spend far too little time on the whole process of recruitment, selection and interviewing. Employees are seen primarily as “resources” that can easily be purchased and discarded as required. The whole process is frequently viewed as a boring waste of time, sitting there having to interview several candidates and asking the same types of questions over and over again. It is considered a chore that can be farmed out to the Human Resource Department or, worse yet, to an outside agency. 

These same organizations will spend thousands of dollars trying to create a more productive workplace, yet they won’t take adequate time to try and ensure that they have the right staff in the first place; staff that are capable and willing to exhibit the required competencies and behaviors that constitute a productive workplace culture. Recruitment, selection and interviewing is certainly a very tiring process. It is very difficult to sit and interview 4 or 5 candidates for the same position and to actively listen all day. But if management’s primary responsibility is to create and sustain a productive workplace, then it is a major part of that overall responsibility to hire the right staff in the first place.

We talk about risk management in every area but staffing. We talk about managing risk in finance, in safety, in quality control and in production; yet we fail to remember that all of these areas are managed and run by staff. So why not manage your primary risk which is the quality of your staff? Many organizations, however, rely on policies, rules, regulations and elaborate processes and procedures to preclude any use of human discretion and minimize the risk of human error. Policies, however, cannot by themselves prevent risk or the necessity for human discretion. Employees that are knowledgeable, good problem solvers and able to use their common sense, can do far more for risk management than any number of policies. So why not hire staff that exhibit and possess such competencies and behaviors in the first place?

The traditional methods of recruitment have been “negative” in their approach. What we mean is that we have taken a group of candidates, weeded out those that clearly do not meet the minimum requirements in the areas of knowledge, skills and experience and then through some process of rating and elimination we are left with one candidate who is selected, in effect, by default. We have not, however, really proven that the selected candidate can do all that we want and require and that they truly have the “best fit” for the job. A more positive approach is to clearly determine what overall competencies and behaviors are required and to then prove to one’s satisfaction which candidate actually possesses those requirements and truly “fits” both the job and the organizational culture.

First of all, let us briefly define what we mean by competencies and behaviors. The obvious ones that we have traditionally based our hiring on are such things as knowledge, skills and experience. These are usually quite easily identified from the candidate’s résumé. The more important ones, however, are hidden from view and not that easily identified. What traits and behaviors does the applicant normally portray at work? Do they show initiative? Are they good problem solvers? Do they work well in a team environment? Do they put the customer first even under trying circumstances? How do they handle conflict and stress? What is their interpersonal behavior like? The answers to these questions are not found on a résumé. They are crucial, however, to obtaining staff that “fit” into a productive workplace environment that we have discussed earlier. As one expert puts it, “People are hired for their technical knowledge, promoted for their innovation, and fired for their interpersonal behavior.”

Take, for example, the position of a receptionist. You may have an applicant that has ten years of experience, can keyboard 80 words a minute error free in between calls and visitors and can fill in for accounts payable at the same time. If she cannot, however, talk to callers and greet visitors in a courteous and friendly manner at all times, then she cannot do the job well. But we don’t normally test for or determine whether or not she has such competencies and behaviors and they cannot be determined from a résumé.

How do we then determine the competencies and behaviors of an applicant? First we need to fully define and describe what it is that we are looking for. These are referred to as the Selection Criteria. Legally speaking, as long as we are looking for “Bona Fide Occupational Requirements” and “Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications”, we are free to stipulate the competencies and behaviors that are required. In the case of the receptionist, for example, we would stipulate that the successful candidate must have a courteous, friendly and helpful approach to all callers and visitors even at times of pressure. We then need to structure the interview in such a manner that we ask questions that are designed to determine whether or not the applicant does possess and has demonstrated the use of such competencies and behaviors. For the receptionist applicants we would ask such questions as, “Describe a situation where you have had an irate customer and how you handled them.” We are not asking them how they might handle such a hypothetical situation. It does not take a genius to understand the response that is expected; if they don’t possess that minimum amount of intelligence then they don’t deserve any further interview time. What you do ask is how they actually have handled such a situation. You are asking for hard proof rather than just “gut feel”.  This, as we discuss later, can be further verified in the reference checking process. This type of questioning is usually referred to as “Behavioral Descriptive Interviewing”.

You can further validate the required competencies and behaviors, at least in the case of a prospective receptionist, by asking them to do the job on a casual basis for a day or two and allow everyone to observe and assess the applicant’s abilities. In other situations, especially managerial ones, it is extremely useful to have the final few applicants spend at least one full day

in the department in which they are going to work and in the organization in general. They can ask questions of whomever they want and be asked questions by all staff in return. In this manner the organization can obtain valuable feedback from staff and other managers and can also ask the applicants what impressions they gained and what ideas they might have as a result in order to better assess the applicants abilities and potential “fit”. You might also ask the applicant to assess the particular work area and provide a quick report as to how well they feel the organization is performing and what they would do to improve it.

It is always advisable to have more than one individual involved in the entire recruitment process; different people notice different things about each applicant and it provides a far greater degree of objectivity. By all means listen to your “gut feel”, that little inner voice of experience that’s trying to tell you something, but it should be tempered by the judgement of others. A small panel of people that represent different aspects of the organization that are relevant to the position being applied for is desirable. In the case of the receptionist you would, of course, have the direct supervisor involved, but you might also include another manager and a peer or, if possible, the incumbent that is leaving. If an applicant is applying for a position that is part of a team, you might consider having the team do the selection. Peer input is usually far more insightful than that of the supervisor; they understand the job demands far better and they are in the best position to determine true organizational and team “fit”.

The next critical step, which is frequently not done or not done very thoroughly, is to check references. Written references, for the most part, are not worth the paper that they are written on. We have frequently had to write “references” for people that were terminated for poor performance as part of their settlement package. It is amazing how much can be said without saying anything significant. What is required are verbal references so that there is ample opportunity in conversation to probe, clarify and follow through on different pieces of information that might come to light.  These references should be from sources that you can trust to provide you with honest and open feedback regarding the applicant’s work and not from his or her friends, physician or parish priest.

Easier said than done you might very well say! Some organizations, as a matter of policy, do not provide references; this is usually a reaction to any potential legal threat. Most give vague, broad brush answers that tell you very little. Human Resource Departments are very skilled at answering your questions, but divulging nothing of consequence. Despite these potential difficulties, you can usually obtain valuable feedback if you persist; and you should persist. Do you buy a car without fully checking out its performance and maintenance record as well as the warrantee? Do you buy purely on “gut feel”. Then why do the same when hiring an employee that is probably going to cost you far more than a car?

Referees should be those that can answer questions about the applicants past and or present business experience. They should always include the applicant’s current supervisor. If the applicant is concerned about their current employer becoming aware of their looking elsewhere, then the reference can be made contingent upon them otherwise being the successful applicant. If the applicant is concerned because they do not get along well with their current supervisor or because they were terminated for some reason, they should still be able to provide their supervisor as a referee and to explain the circumstances. Personality clashes do occur. People also get terminated for many reasons other than poor performance. They may not have “fit” their past employer, but may still be a perfect candidate for your organization. How they explain the circumstances should also provide you with more valuable insight into the “true” applicant.

The questions asked of referees should wherever possible refer back to the behavioral descriptive questions that were asked in the job interview. Remember that these questions are designed to obtain factual examples of past work that illustrate the competencies and behaviors of the applicant. So when talking with a referee they should be asked to validate the specific examples provided by the applicant wherever possible. If the applicant, for example, said that they used their own initiative to design a completely new work procedure that saved the company thousands of dollars, then ask his or her past supervisor whether or not this was the case. It may have been, but it may also have been true that this new procedure was designed by the applicant and several other team members. Asking such specific questions is also a great help in getting referees to talk as they have something specific to answer rather than a vague question dealing with the applicant’s strengths or weaknesses, for example.

One last question that should usually be asked is, “Would you rehire this person?” This puts the referee squarely on the spot. As mentioned above, some organizations do not provide any references because they are concerned about possible legal ramifications. They are entitled to do that. It should be noted, however, that an employer, if they do give a reference, is legally obliged to give an honest one or face being sued by the subsequent employer of the applicant in question.

The best referees are usually those that are not provided. But wait a minute, you say. How can one check references if they’re not provided by the applicant? The last I heard this was still a free country and nothing prevents one from networking and asking someone else’s opinion of the applicant. You may not wish to let them know that the applicant has applied for a position with your organization, but you can still find ways of eliciting useful information. If the applicant asks you not to contact their current employer, then don’t. But you may very well know someone that belongs to the same professional association or someone that does business with the applicant on a regular basis. These are by far the best references that you can get because they are freely given by people that you know and respect in the same area of work. Use your networks to the utmost.

There is all too often the idea or feeling that checking references or asking specific and demanding questions in an interview is an intrusion into a person’s private affairs. This is probably partly due to the “rights” culture that has become part of our society. And no doubt that it is an intrusion; one that should be diligently pursued at all costs for the benefit of the organization as a whole and the benefit of all future coworkers. If you apply for a job, you should expect to be thoroughly “grilled”.  This is also to the applicant’s benefit. The more thorough the recruitment process the better chance that those selected will “fit” the organization and be successful.

Some organizations like to rely on various psychological tests to determine and verify an applicant’s general competencies and behaviors. If recruiting for the Police Force, it is understandable that one would want to try and determine the applicant’s overall psychological makeup. For most other types of general jobs in society, however, it is far more practical and accurate to determine the applicant’s proven track record through behavioral descriptive interviewing and thorough reference checking. I would far rather rely on an applicant’s proven track record for determining initiative and teamwork, for example, than the results of some psychological test. I recall early on in my career being tested for a sales position. One of the multiple choice questions asked whether or not I preferred staying home with my stamp collection, reading a book, or going out with the boys for a beer on Friday night. Guess which answer was the desired one?

The applicant’s track record may be further substantiated or refuted through such practical tests as letting them actually try the position as with the example of the Receptionist above. In the case of specific skills such as keyboarding ability, mathematical calculations and spatial awareness, for example, it is always a valid process to test the applicant if there is any doubt as to their ability or competence.

In summary, if you wish to avoid significant grief then spend the time up front in hiring the right staff. The cost of poor hiring can be enormous. Consider the potential costs of advertising, time spent in the recruitment process, training, performance management, overtime to cover the vacant position, poor morale of coworkers, lost productivity and possible legal fees and severance pay.

Remember if management’s primary responsibility is to create and sustain a productive workplace, then it is a major part of that overall responsibility to hire the right staff in the first place. Recruitment, selection and interviewing is a very time consuming process when done well; it should be.