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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Resumes, tests, interviews, references, and hiring

Increasingly, I'm a firm believer in the importance of systematic and rational approaches to hiring. Brad Smart's approach to Topgrading holds real resonance here -- by focusing our efforts to hire people within the top 10 per cent of ability and commitment, we are much more likely to be a successful business than if we just hire 'okay' people to fill vacant positions.

Smart and I agree that the quick and conventional interview provide far too much opportunity for 'faking' and dressing up your personality/competence for the work. I am not sure about whether tests are absolutely useless, however. Since the test we use for sales employees is relatively inexpensive, ( I wanted to see how much results would change if a candidate retook the test shortly after the original testing.

In the first case, the prospective candidate scored modestly well, but below our arbitrary thresholds. Without my consent or permission -- but without knowing the test costs about $35 to administer -- he went ahead and retook the test himself, and passed. In the second situation, a candidate for a writers' job phoned me this week to see if we were going to give her application further consideration. As we are in the final stages of evaluating candidates for this work, I said that we wouldn't take it further, but then engaged with her the idea of testing for the sales job. (Our sales positions are highly compatible with writing skills, and anyone who is looking for a writing job willing to 'sell' herself on it, might be an ideal candidate for our business.

In any case, she quickly took the test, but the test's validity algorithms kicked in, and the test results came out inconclusive, with the observation that she might be undergoing exceptional stress.

I invited her to explain; and said she could take the test again; but this time, answer as she really is, not as she wants to appear. This time around, her results scored truly low. (But she emailed me later in the day to say she had just been awarded a satisfying career and she had noticed she was receiving several offers out of the blue-- suggesting to me that her job-finding radar in fact was in high gear.)

These results might scare a validity expert -- how can one obtain very different results from the same test within days? Does this degrade the test's utility in the hiring process? To use a very bad pun, I think Smart (or anyone else) would be dumb to use this type of test as a key or final determining resource about who to hire. We simply put it in the middle of our screening process for public candidates, and as a first stage 'review' for people we have some interest in, but wish to evaluate quickly before going further. (These can include referred candidates, call-ins, and the like.)

In one case, for example, a very long-standing employee from our major competitor called us with tales of woe at his organization. He wanted to work with us. The conventional "do you understand the job" screening process is obviously unnecessary here (the competitor uses many of the same business models and practices as us -- in fact, the competitor's company founder is one of my former employees). My phone interview with this person took some interesting turns, as I gathered competitive intelligence, validated observations, and tried to figure out what to do if we hired the person -- who would come from a totally different culture. Not sure about what to do, we administered the test, and he scored less than the hiring threshold. I now had a third-party justification to not hire him.

In the second instance, the marketing representative at one of our major clients referred a relative. You really can't brush off someone like this -- so, after we followed the preliminary steps, we offered the online test. The candidate fared poorly. We could extricate ourselves from the awkwardness of not hiring the relative of a major client by sending our good client the test results.

Finally, the test is really useful and powerful in motivating potential candidates who do well to move forward to the final stages -- the working evaluation.

But what about interviews? Short and sweet phone interviews have value, I agree, in narrowing things down, but I wouldn't ever want to make a final hiring decision based primarily on an interview. You can miscue and misunderstand potential far too easily. But I agree with Smart's critics that complex and lengthy interviews are a pain for everyone -- both for the managers and colleagues doing the interviewing, and the job-seekers themselves.

Our solution, one that I think is practiced by just a few businesses, is to forget the full-scale interview cycle, and invite candidates to do some paid work for us.

We're going through that process with candidates for the editor right now. Our normal approach is to offer a freelance assignment to people who send in interesting writing samples and hire the best of the lot -- but this time around I took things a step further. I divided our editorial salary budget up, and offered one month freelance contracts to the two finalists. We can really see who works best, both in objective talent, and in ability to work with the team. And everyone is treated fairly -- the 'loser' still gets a decent cheque for the writing work.

In our system, frankly, up to now, the weak spot has been the reference checking process. Candidates who have fared well through all the tests and evaluations are truly tempting to hire without 'bothering' with the reference evaluations, but I now can see that I could have avoided virtually all of our mis-hires with proper reference checking. (Notably the mishires weren't that bad, objectively; while they worked with us they worked quite effectively -- and left without too much of a fuss when their problems became apparent.) We do our best to get around reference problems now by really focusing in the pre-screening that reference checking will happen at the final stages; this helps to cut some of the candidates who dress things up, but we need to have more discipline in the reference evaluations.

Why is this stuff so important to your business and marketing? Consider the cost to your company of bad employees; ones who don't get along with each other and the clients on an interpersonal level or who are simply incompetent or lazy at work. If you are a client, either current or potential, do you really like doing business with organizations full of second-rate people? If you are building a truly effective marketing plan, you really need to focus on finding really good employees.

In conclusion:

Hire carefully. Use a pre-screening questionnaire before even really looking at resumes;
  • Use personality/sales tests carefully -- these should never be your final tool but I believe they can be effective in screening or evaluating 'special' candidates, or as part of a systematic hiring process.

  • If possible, create a realistic (paid) working assignment in place of multiple interviews. You won't be frustrated with lengthy and tedious interviews, and your employee candidate will be happy to go through the process.

  • Don't skimp or avoid reference checking. Even organizations that have a policy for legal reasons not to provide references will always give a positive reference to a truly good former employee. You need to ask, or have the employee set up the call for you, however.

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