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Friday, June 12, 2009

The bell curve: Incompetence and genius

Our company needs a new bookkeeper/accounting support person. This work, of course, involves specialized skills and experience, and much precision and attention to detail. The latter two qualities are not my strongest points.

Of course, we could go to a headhunter, or temp agency, or even our own general accountant and pay for someone to do the job. But I prefer to have a close and immediate working relationship with the person handling our books. So we advertised, using the Canadian government's free Job Bank service. (In Canada, the employment service is provided on a national, rather than the state level in the U.S.)

Within days, we had more than 120 resumes. How could we sort through all of these potential candidates and weed out the less-than-effective ones?

I decided to use some online resources. First, I found a free "competency test" from the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers with a Google search. Since our business has some U.S. elements, our ideal candidate will know U.S. as well as Canadian accounting and bookkeeping rules (there are a few differences) and how to integrate accounting reports to produce consolidated financial statements. This is therefore not work for someone who has taken a two month basic bookkeeping course.

With test in hand, I loaded it on free publishing software provided by (we are paying $200 per year extra for the enhanced version to allow us to edit pages and upload video files for the new Design and Construction Report.)

Then I took the email addresses from the people who applied, set up a Constant Contact list, and emailed everyone a brief job description, along with a request they complete the test, answer a brief questionnaire, and send in another copy of their resume.

By the deadline Thursday, we had about 40 responses.

Now the fun began. Before I even looked at the questionnaires, I started marking the multiple-choice tests tests using the answer keys provided by the association. Shockingly, most candidates got five or more questions wrong, some failed to answer half the questions on the multiple-choice test correctly. (Sheesh... this is an open book exam, unsupervised, and I invited the candidates to look up the answers if they weren't sure.)

We've now narrowed the list down to three names. They got one or at most two answers wrong. We'll interview the finalists, check references, and then set up a final interview with the company's general accountant who can lob real competency questions at the candidates. (This covers the remote possibility that someone would actually fake their way through the test and truly not know anything.)

But what about the more than 100 candidates who either decided not to complete the test, or completed it with many errors?

Of course, the explanation is that the really good and competent bookkeepers are currently employed, and employers are generally loathe to give up on great employees. In the current economy, many partially competent bookkeepers may also be looking for work, they can 'sort of' do the job, but really are not shining lights. A few good ones are around, of course; the challenge is to sift through the less-than-perfect ones to find someone who is truly right for the work.

Note we use a modified version of this hiring approach for all of our employees. Everyone who applies gets a chance; we only screen resumes after a prequalification test that indicates their fundamental competence and interest in the work.

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