Hiring Right!

The longer I practice HR the clearer a few things appear to me. Over the years, one of the things that has become patently clear to me is that many (to say all might sound a bit too presumptuous) of the problems currently experienced in companies can be traced to poor or inadequate hiring practices. Failure to address and correct hiring issues is not only creating countless problems for companies, but is also seriously preventing them and their various staffs from achieving their fullest potential.

The matter then becomes one of identifying the problems associated with hiring and seeking appropriate measures to rectify them. The good news in all of this for HR is that improving the hiring process is an area in which HR can undoubtedly take the lead and create substantial value for a corporate entity. HR has found itself in this enviable position because in many instances HR is the initiator and/or driver of the hiring process. In many instances, if HR is not in complete control of the hiring process, it is in at least a strategic position to exert a significant degree of influence on it.

This article will review a few processes that can lead to “poor hiring” decisions and suggest ways in which they can be rectified. All things being equal, I believe it is safe to say that “it takes excellent people to create excellent companies”. If this is the case, why are we finding it so difficult to find “excellent” people to fill positions within our various companies?  The answer I believe resides in the way we conduct our selection process. Here are some measures that HR can undertake to correct some of the deficiencies in the hiring process.

Understand the Corporate Culture

It is impossible to hire correctly without fully understanding the corporate cultural milieu in which one operates. Those of us who have experienced or lived in a different culture can well remember the often awkward, even embarrassing episodes we perhaps faced when we first encountered the new culture. Our “unfamiliarity” with the new culture negatively impacted our “normal” performance. In many ways we felt like ducks out of water. The more familiar we were with the new culture before encountering it, the easier or even quicker was our adjustment to it. The same is true in corporate settings. A person’s “cultural fit” with an organization can have a profound impact on that person’s performance.

In hiring, HR needs to ensure that there is a better “cultural fit” between people being considered for employment and the corporate culture that they are entering. The closer one gets to the “ideal” match the quicker and easier will be the person’s adjustment. An excellent case in point of this principle is demonstrated by Southwest Airlines (one of the world’s most profitable and successful airlines), where they understand the unique nature of their corporate culture. They understand that it takes a certain type of employee to be successful in their fun-loving, even irreverent corporate environment. Therefore Southwest’s hiring mantra has been “hire for attitude, train for skills”.

Southwest is in no way disregarding skills, but they are acknowledging that in the larger scheme of things, having the correct attitude trumps skills.  Not having the right attitude makes it difficult for a potential employee to adjust or even survive in their corporate environment. Failure to adjust to one’s environment can affect an employee’s present and future job performance.

Understand the Nature of the Position

Another major pitfall that HR can easily succumb to is trying to fill an open employment position while not fully understanding all of the requirements that go along with that position. Having an in-depth knowledge of a position before attempting to fill it should be a no-brainer, but more often than not this step is done rather shoddily, or not at all. To fill a position adequately, one must know all the details and requirements of that position. What characteristics a person would need to be successful or, for that matter unsuccessful, should be understood and addressed. The ultimate goal of HR should be to “fill positions” and not simply to “place people”. The emphasis first and foremost should be on the position. Focusing on the position will ensure that it will be filled with the most suitable candidate.

Another distraction can arise by the way HR chooses to review an applicant’s qualifications for a position. Many critical and important questions can crop up as HR seeks to address this issue. What constitutes an applicant meeting the requirements for a particular position? Are there minimum and maximum requirements for the position? Do the requirements need to be achieved formally (e.g. through some type of schooling), or informally (e.g. gained through practical experience)? What tools should be used to assess whether or not an applicant has the necessary requirements? These questions all need to be adequately addressed by HR to make certain that hiring decisions make an impact on the organization.

Minimum Vs Maximum Requirements:

In reviewing the list of job-related requirements HR is often faced with several choices. Should HR choose applicants with some, most or all of the identified job requirements in order to make a good hire? In my opinion, simply having to choose between low, medium or high skill levels is not the appropriate route or method to pursue.  A more appropriate route is deciding what skills are absolutely needed by anyone to be adequately functional in the targeted position. In other words, we are establishing a minimum or threshold level, below which we are not prepared or willing to accept any applicant.

By taking this position we are doing two things, (1) making a clear statement that to be considered seriously for an available position all applicants must have a basic level of skills and (2) recognizing that if applicants don’t have the basic skills they will not be able to immediately function adequately in the position.

What do we do with those applicants who have skill levels above the designated threshold? This is an excellent question and a wonderful position for any corporate body to find itself in.  If this is the case, there are several decisions HR can make depending on financial resources.

HR might want to go with the applicant with the basic skills set and compensate that individual at the lower end of the position’s pay range. This scenario is plausible if the position in question is changing at a slow enough pace to allow the incumbent sufficient time to acquire additional skills and grow with the job.

However, if the position exists in a more dynamic environment and requires any new hire to hit the ground running and always be a bit ahead of the skills curve, then HR might want to go initially with an applicant with more advanced skills. In this case HR will have to compensate the applicant at the mid section or higher end of the position’s pay range.

The skills level HR chooses to fill a position will also have an impact on HR’s training budget. There is usually an inverse relationship between the level of skills that one has and the level and degree of training needed.

Credentials Vs Experience:

There is often the issue of whether to fill a position with someone who has undergone formal training (e.g. a degree or equivalent) or with someone without a degree but who has amassed a great deal of experience on the job. HR must appreciate the fact that learning occurs in places other than the classroom. Learning takes place in all aspects of life and the results are just as valid as the classroom.  The question, then, should not be focused on where the learning took place, but rather on whether or not an individual can demonstrate the competencies that exhibit that learning did in fact take place. This is not to deny or ignore the fact that there are some positions (due to government or other regulatory concerns) that do require some type of formalized training.

The question then becomes is the applicant capable of demonstrating the competencies required by the position. If an applicant can do this, then the applicant should be given a shot at the position, regardless of where or how he/she got his/her training. I am afraid that if we continue to ignore people who “came up through the ranks” we might be overlooking a valuable source of excellent talent.

interviewMany of us can recall at least one situation where someone successfully “acted” in a position, but was denied an appointment to that position because they did not have the right “formal” credentials. This not only borders on the ridiculous, but it makes a mockery of any performance evaluation process that is in place. Think about it, we are removing someone who is satisfactorily performing in a position (they are not credentialed), to replace them with someone (who is credentialed) whose track record might be unknown and we are hoping, no betting, that they will perform satisfactorily in the position.

Understand the Selection Process

A process is often only as good as the tools it uses. Using the appropriate tools will increase the probability of a successful outcome. It is no different with the hiring process. The use of appropriate hiring tools will increase the probability of selecting excellent hires. A couple of tools I would like to briefly discuss include HR planning and the interview process.
HR Planning:

Actively looking for people only when you need them is a big mistake. The closest analogy I can use to describe such a process is one where we eat only when we were hungry. If we were to do this we would more than likely do ourselves nutritional harm by only choosing the foods that are readily available and not what’s healthy for us. We are all aware of and perhaps have practiced at some point panic or “warm body” hiring. When we engaged in these practices we are less likely to go after and select quality applicants.

Proper HR planning should remove some of the personnel surprises and eliminate or at least reduce the need for “panic hiring”.  Personnel needs should not come as a surprise to HR if past, current and future corporate trends are monitored closely. To support this effort, adequate replacement and succession plans ought to be in place to take care of any unexpected or short term vacancies.  A good gauge of how well HR is doing in the area of planning is to ask a few simple questions. What is our corporate turnover rate? Where is our most employment churn coming from? What events during the year place the greatest demands on the use of our human capital? What would HR do if there were an unexpected (increase/decrease) demand for our products/services? The answers to these questions will reveal HR readiness to account for and adequately manage personnel movements.

Interviewing:

There is not a tool that is as frequently used and equally abused as the interview. The interview should be more than a casual chat with an applicant. A good interview should give the interviewer the necessary information about an applicant in order to make a good hiring decision.  Anything less is irrelevant and quite frankly a waste of the interviewee’s and/or interviewer’s time.

One way HR can improve on this process is to use a behavioral approach when interviewing. This particular approach seeks to do two things (1) identify the job competencies required for performance in the current position and (2) determine whether or not the applicant has demonstrated the use of these competencies in the past. The purpose of the interview should be to determine whether or not the applicant has the required skills needed to do the job. If HR is not using some type of behavioral interview to select employees, it remains questionable whether or not that they are selecting the best candidates.

Conclusion

The hiring process is still more of an art than a science.  Therefore, to expect perfection in the hiring process is unrealistic.  However, we do know that there is much that can be done to improve the existing system in order to increase the quality of hires. This increase in quality should lead to higher productivity that will benefit both the corporation and its employees.

H. Nathan Charles, Ph.D.
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Getting the Most Out of Training

istock_000001565941xsmallIn tough economic times, one of the first casualties in many organizations is often their training budgets. This is often the case because training is often seen as an expensive frill that can be tolerated in good economic times, and a tremendous financial burden that needs to be reduced or eliminated in more challenging times. Such an approach evaluates training solely based on its cost to the organization rather than on the value it generates. Though cost should not be completely ignored in any organization, it must not be the only basis on which training decisions should be made.

The question that ought to be asked of any program, and training is no exception, is whether or not it creates value in amounts that are significant and measurable to justify its existence. If the benefits do not exceed the cost, such programs should be considered for possible reduction and/or elimination.

The training department can and must play an integral role in helping the organization accurately assess the importance and benefits to be derived from a well designed and implemented training program. To do this, the training department must ensure that its existing and future programs incorporate the following ingredients in their design and implementation phases.

A Well Developed Strategy:

In my years of consulting I have had the opportunity to study the training programs of various organizations of all sizes in several industries. The one thing that I found consistent is that those organizations, regardless of size and industry, that had a clearly defined training strategy that was aligned with its organizational strategic objectives, had the most effective and successful training results. A clearly defined strategy does several things:

1.    It gives meaning and direction to what is being done. It prevents us from going astray or being distracted. Strategy serves as a guide that we can consistently consult to make sure that we are on the right path.
2.    It clearly communicates to others that there is a process in place and things are not being left to chance. Knowing that there is a process in place can serve as a confidence booster.

Identifying the Source of the Problem:

To make sure that our training efforts are successful we must accurately identify the source(s) of the problem(s).

There is often the tendency to allow training to become the organization’s scapegoat for all of its various woes. Not all problems in an organization can be successfully resolved through training. To believe so and act accordingly would be a mistake and result in dismal failure. To ascertain if training could be helpful in resolving a problem, the following assessment needs to be made.

Is the problem in question due to a lack of some skill or knowledge (“I don’t know and I am not doing”)? If this is the case then training can be helpful in providing the deficient skill or knowledge that can improve performance. However, if the lack of some skill or knowledge is not the issue (“I do know and I am not doing”), then training is not the issue and will not be helpful. In such cases we need to look for the answer(s) in other areas of the organization.

The Assurance of Learning:

The strength of any training program is the learning that takes place when it is taken.

If learning does not take place, regardless of how good a time was had, we have just wasted our employees’ time and other corporate resources. I happen to live in two worlds by being both an academician and a practitioner in my profession. I am often appalled when I compare the rigorous methods taken in the academic training world to ensure that learning occurs to those taken in the corporate training world to ensure the same.

Unfortunately, corporate training often pales in comparison to the academic world. I do see a difference between academic and corporate training and I am not recommending that we follow the exact procedures for both of them. Such an approach might not be appropriate or even beneficial.

I am, however, suggesting that we apply a greater degree of rigor in our corporate training methodology to ensure that learning does in fact take place. I am tired of seeing corporate training where no substantial mechanisms are in place to determine whether or not learning has occurred or that participants have acquired the identified competencies.

I have witnessed corporate training sessions where some participants arrive late, leave frequently to answer or make calls, don’t engage in note taking, and seem otherwise disengaged, because they know full well that they will not be held accountable in any measurable manner for the material presented. I am advocating that more stringent methods be adopted to ensure that all participants leave the training session on the same page.

If the assurance of learning is a desired objective we need to carefully examine the manner in which the material is presented to the learner. All too often in corporate training a pedagogical (the teaching of children) rather than an andragogical (the teaching of adults) approach is taken. A fact that should not be lost in corporate training is that we are dealing exclusively with adult learners. This being the case, it must be noted that adults learn differently and they bring more things to the table than younger learners. Therefore the method used to present material to adult learners must be age appropriate if it is to be viewed as meaningful and successfully assimilated by adults.

The Transfer of Learning:

This is the flip side of the assurance of learning.  If assurance of learning is focused on the learning that occurs during the training session, then the transfer of learning is focused on how this learning is effectively utilized in the workplace. Both aspects are important and are dependent on each other. If the learning derived during the training program does not positively impact performance in the workplace, then such training was a failure. Demonstrating a difference in workplace performance is the gold standard for the efficacy of training. There are several measures that can be added to a training program to ensure that a transfer of learning takes place.

1.    Involvement of other management staff – The training department should make every effort to involve the management staff of the function for which it is designing the training. The functional areas are the customers and they should be involved at every level of the design and implementation processes. The respective function should own the processes from beginning to end, with the training department serving as the facilitators of the processes. This way we can be assured that a program will be designed that meets the needs of the customers.

If the management teams from other departments are actively involved in the process, they are more likely to be supportive of the training that participants received and are trying to implement in their respective workplaces. This support can include giving encouragement and opportunities to trainees to use their newly acquired learning in ways that will benefit them, their departments and eventually their organizations. We can all recount with frustration, the times when we or others had received training and were not given the opportunity to use such training back on the job.

2.    Use of appropriate methodology – Again, we must remember that we are dealing with adult learners. Adult participants need to be involved in their own learning.  I will strongly suggest the use of relevant simulations, role play and other methods that will draw upon the adult’s life and work experiences. The best approach is to get participants actively involved and working on problems that are similar to those that they will encounter back in their work areas. If the training environment does not mirror/reflect the work environment then we should probably rethink our training approach.

3.    Use of feedback from previous participants – The training department needs to keep in touch with alumni of training programs to get their feedback on the value of the training they received. This feedback can be used to improve future editions of the training to ensure that they are meeting their objectives.

Evaluation of Impact of Training:

The training department job is not done when the required training has been delivered. There is always the question of the impact that the training is having on the organization. Without this information we will not be able to identify whether or not the training undertaken was a worthwhile exercise. To evaluate impact we must conduct carefully designed experiments with the appropriate controls to rule out random error.

For example, if we put in place a sales training program to increase the effectiveness of our sales team, we might want to evaluate the program’s impact in terms of a few key financial metrics. The results of this evaluation will help us in calculating the ROI (return on investment) for this program. Undisputedly proving the effectiveness of any program will not only enhance the credibility of the training department, but it will also demonstrate that training can affect the bottom line and enhance the profitability of a company.

Conclusion:

Training will continue, especially in tough economic times, to have its challenges. Perhaps the training department will have to adjust what it does, or the way it conducts it business in order to meet these daunting challenges. One thing is certain, the training department has to continually demonstrate its effectiveness and make a case for its existence. If training is not seen as a value adder to the organizational process or bottom line, it will be easily dismissed and made the target of future cuts. But if it can demonstrate that it can positively influence the profitability of a company, it will be embraced as a key strategic player.

H. Nathan Charles, Ph.D.
[email_link]