The Trick To Finding Employees Who Fit

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

How to accurately assess employee candidates for job-fit.

Searching for the right person for a spot in your organization is always tricky. The cost of making a mistake usually runs high and includes anguish, disruption, and bad feelings, as well as lost productivity and efficiency.

In the so-called good old days, one could be fired for any frivolous reason, and it certainly did make a manager’s job easier. The manager could correct hiring mistakes quickly, based on nothing more than a hunch that the victim wasn’t right for the firm.

Today, however, you are limited in the questions you can legally ask a prospective employee. And, of course, firing a person can take place only with clear, documented evidence and significant reasons. Add to this the current emphasis on participatory management, the teamwork approach, and willing adherence to a pervasive set of company values and philosophies, and it’s easy to see why it’s more important than ever to pick the right people and to put them into positions that are best for them.

It is fairly easy to determine whether a candidate for employment or promotion has the necessary technical skills. In this age of specialized training, certification, and higher education, it is a simple matter to check on a person’s education and background. But this is only half the picture and, indeed, it is often the less important half.

There is an increasing emphasis on matching personality of the individual to the needs within the firm. Can he manage? How well does she get along with others? Does he know how to operate in a team environment? Does she deal with conflict easily, or does she behave like a bull in a china shop? Is he a good communicator, and is he sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs? All of these personality variables are vitally important to the future of the firm and to the career aspirations of its employees.

Some years ago, it was normal for a firm to insist on personality tests and assessments for anyone it was hiring. Eventually, however, decisions based on tests alone were called into question, and companies found themselves in lawsuits with employees who were demoted, refused promotions, or fired based on the test results. The employees generally won because the companies and the psychologists were unable to prove satisfactorily that the test instruments were reliable and valid for everyone. This led to a period of several years during which testing fell into disfavour. In the interim, decisions about employees’ careers were made on the basis of first-hand evidence, anecdotal records, and periodic performance reviews by superiors.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme and testing is back in favour; indeed, it is required by many firms and employees. Two factors contributed to bringing this about.

The first is that the test designers have worked hard to rectify the faults in their tests, so we now have instruments that are valid and reliable and that have an acceptable performance record.

The second factor is related to a U.S. court case in which an employee who was denied promotion took her employers to court, alleging unfair discrimination. She argued that her supervisor was biased against her and had no hard evidence of her unsuitability to move to a better position. The court agreed, stating that personal opinions and judgements alone were insufficient evidence upon which to deny a promotion. In fact, the court suggested that an accurate assessment should have been part of the promotion procedure.

Well, you can see what has happened. We are taking a new look at testing again, but this time with better instruments and legal precedents to support it.

It does make good sense to use all the resources you can find to select the right people and slot them into the right positions. Too many firms have hired the wrong people or moved them into positions they couldn’t handle, based on somebody’s gut feeling, or on listening to the wrong people.

Years ago, I saw an example of listening to the wrong people when I watched subordinates fool their superior into promoting them. Embarking on a carefully through-out campaign, Bert and Harry took turns telling their boss just how wonderful the other was and how highly he was regarded by everyone. It took almost eight months, but when the time came to promotions, who do you think was advanced? Right, Bert and Harry leapfrogged over the people who really had the capabilities. Of course, the truth eventually did come out, but it took the supervisor years to get rid of them and even longer to remedy the damage they had caused.

If you want to develop your organization by selecting and promoting the best people and putting them in the right place, follow these steps:

• Determine what personality characteristics and technical skills the successful applicant should possess. List these requirements and create a job profile to be used as a yardstick for measuring prospective candidates.

• The next step is to assess the candidates themselves. Normally this is done by using standardized instruments, which can be administered in a paper-and-pencil format or by computer. There are hundreds of instruments available, but you will need some assistance in selecting the most appropriate ones and in getting them scored and interpreted.

• The results should be shared with candidates and others in a position of authority above them.

• Finally, you should recognize that it is unwise and dangerous to base your decision solely on the results of the test or even a group of test instruments. The instruments should be just one element of an assessment process that looks at as much evidence as possible.

Many firms are using assessments to measure regularly the effectiveness of their employees, particularly their managers. Managers too, can become stale, stuck, and outmoded. Progressive firms use managerial-effectiveness surveys to identify candidates for promotion and to determine when they are ready for the next move up the corporate ladder. In addition, they use these procedures as part of their regular performance-appraisal system and amass a pool of information on the general managerial ability of the company as a whole. This makes planning succession easier and pinpoints the managerial skills that need to be improved and developed.

If used properly, personality assessments can provide information to help you in your hiring procedures, to make the correct placement of your people, to ensure proper promotions, and to monitor and develop managerial skills throughout the firm. In this age of technological advances, any firm that doesn’t know about these tools and isn’t using them is falling behind and is failing its employees and shareholders.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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