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A popular corporate refrain is ‘our people are our greatest asset’, and for most organisations this is true. However, this is not the same thing as ‘we have the best performing people we could have’.
Almost everyone has a story about a bad hire, particularly at a senior level, and how this had a negative impact on the organisation. Indeed, the higher the level of the role, the greater the impact a bad fit can have.
For some, selecting the right people for a role can seem like a black art. Of more concern are those who believe they have a ‘natural talent’ for picking just the right person. Taking an objective and pragmatic approach can dispel any mystery and guide you to the best overall candidate.
Selecting great people means not blurring the lines between the role and the person. It is important to distinguish between:
- what the staff member is expected to do
- what attributes to look for, and how to evaluate and select for these
These phases break down into seven manageable steps:
- know what the role is trying to deliver
- identify the activities required to achieve these outcomes
- determine individual skills and characteristics needed to meet these outcomes
- recruit and short-list candidates
- assess strengths and suitability
- decide on the best candidate
- set them up for success
Selecting the right people can seem like a black art
This paper uses the role of intranet manager as a case study, but the process applies to all roles. It can also be used to help evaluate role-fit in times of organisational change or knowledge-related interventions.
1. Determine role outcomes
What is the intranet team trying to achieve?
All organisational activities need to contribute directly or indirectly to organisational outcomes. This may be clearer in some roles and organisations that in others — for example sales roles in a retail store clearly link to business outcomes compared to, say, compliance officers in a manufacturing plant.
How the intranet team delivers on organisational outcomes may be somewhat indirect, but it is important to have these in mind before proceeding. The organisational outcomes to which the intranet contributes will differ across organisations but might include:
- better customer experiences (better supported customer-facing staff)
- lower organisational risk (more accurate and timely information)
- lower operating costs (less replication and more collaboration)
- higher levels of staff engagement (better communications, both vertical and horizontal)
These provide overall purpose and direction to the intranet itself, but also to the intranet team and in turn help define the intranet manager role.
What is the intranet manager role trying to achieve?
Some or all of the following are likely to be intranet team outcomes, and so a typical intranet manager will be responsible for ensuring:
- the intranet is relevant for staff completing day-to-day activities
- the needs of key stakeholder groups such as human resources, communications and operations are catered for
- relationships with key support teams, such as IT, are collaborative and productive
- the activities of front line divisions (sales, customer support, manufacturing, production, etc.) are supported
- intranet developments are delivered on time and within budget
- senior stakeholders remain informed and continue to support intranet initiatives
- the intranet team is motivated, skilled and fully engaged
With the role outcomes clear, the activities that bring these about can be identified.
Role activities are not people characteristics
2. Clarify role activities
What are the tasks the intranet manager needs to perform to achieve team outcomes?
A comprehensive list of intranet manager role activities is covered in the earlier article Position descriptions for intranet managers, but the following is a representative list:
- communicate broadly with staff to determine their needs
- keep abreast of organisational developments to maintain visibility of current and future directions
- collaborate with other stakeholders to determine their requirements and ensure the intranet delivers on these
- oversee and coordinate the various maintenance and development projects
- build productive relationships with key support teams such as IT
- assign roles and responsibilities to intranet team members
- monitor project process and intervene as appropriate
- engage with senior business sponsors
3. Determine person characteristics
How do I translate role activities into person characteristics?
The language to this point is generally familiar and straightforward, and many feel that is all that is required. However translating role activities to person characteristics is a critical step. How well this is done can greatly impact the hiring decision.
The subtlety of this translation process is illustrated through the following example:
Role outcome: The needs of key stakeholder groups are taken into consideration
Role activity: collaborate well with key stakeholder groups
Person attribute: Needs to be collaborative?
This is correct, but is no more helpful than the activity description. Much more helpful is to ask ‘what does collaborative look like?‘ In practice, collaborative probably includes the following:
- responds tactfully when opposed
- explains information in an uncomplicated way
- does more listening than talking
- speaks clearly and fluently
- responds to feedback from stakeholders
- gains agreement among stakeholders
- manages political issues well
This much richer list of behaviours helps those responsible for hiring to clearly articulate what they are looking for. If you are not crystal clear on what collaboration looks like, you will not be able to evaluate it.
An interview question may still ask ‘tell me about a time when you had to work hard to engage project stakeholders?’ But the rich list of what is being sought can now be used to see if the candidate provides compelling evidence in the examples they relate. The list also provides signposts for interviewers to probe more deeply if evidence is not forthcoming.
What characteristics are we looking for in the ideal candidate?
It can be challenging to create a detailed list of person characteristics for all role activities. For example, listening skills will support many of the activities listed above, and so is likely a key personal characteristic for an intranet manager.
Some organisations have developed a language that describes people characteristics within their business which makes this step easier.
If your organisation has such a language it is often referred to as a capability or competency framework. This consists of a list of perhaps 20 discrete clusters of characteristics. These clusters encompass a broad range of organisational behaviours, and a subset of the most appropriate competencies are chosen for a given role.
Ensure all selection criteria are based on job requirements
If you have access to such a framework, make the effort to become familiar with it and integrate it fully into the hiring process.
For those without such support, you can use open source resources (www.onet.gov) or commercially available ones.
Drawing on one such commercially available capability framework (SHL’s Universal Competency Framework), the critical behavioural clusters for the intranet manger role are probably:
- relating and networking
- deciding and initiating action
- planning and organising
- leading and supervising
- persuading and influencing
- coping with pressures and setbacks
Some underpinning skills will also be important, including:
- verbal skills
- project management
For sure, other factors come into play: experience, education, special qualifications and other specific requirements but these are more likely to tell who is unsuitable for a role and can be used to short-list candidates who can do the job, covered next.
But it is the person characteristics listed above that form the basis for how you select between average and great candidate, covered later.
Be clear about what you want, so you know what to look for
4. Recruit and short-list
How do we eliminate the chaff?
Having collated all of the relevant role and person specifications along with the hiring criteria into a single ‘position description’ we are now ready to ‘go to market’.
Recruitment is the process of creating a list of available candidates and distilling from this larger pool a group of ‘qualified’ candidates who will be evaluated in more detail. This filtering, or short-listing, is the process of rejecting those who are not suitable.
In attracting candidates, you want to ensure that you recruit a higher proportion of suitable applicants with the minimum number of unsuitable ones.
To ensure you get this balance right:
- make explicit what will exclude would-be applicants, allowing them to self-select out of the process
- promote the positive aspects of the role, but also be accurate about less desirable aspects, for example extended periods away from home. Almost hiring a great candidate who opts out late in the process can be time-consuming and expensive
- describe clearly the required qualifications and characteristics for the role
- give clues to the selection process, so candidates who might have bluffed will know their ploy is likely to be uncovered
Self-reported information, such as resumes, are easy to fabricate, so ensure you check credentials and claims. Including a short, well constructed candidate telephone interview can be an effective way to clarify achievement claims and other self-reported information.
The accept/reject tolerance will depend on the number of applicants. But being spoilt for choice at this stage introduces the risk that you use criterion that make it easier for you to eliminate candidates but can result in unfair practices and discrimination. It is critical that selection criteria are based on inherent requirements of the job. For example, requiring potential employees to be physically fit may be fair for a fireman role but unfair for an intranet manager.
Behavioural skills can be assessed alongside harder skills
5. Assess the candidates
What methods should I use to assess candidate strengths?
At this point you are likely to have a list of people who can probably do the job, but some are better than others. Your task is to identify the one that will be most successful in the role. Success will be a combination of ability to perform, as well as role and culture fit all of which now need to be assessed.
Assessment methods vary along a number of dimensions, including:
- how good they are at predicting on-the-job performance
- how resource-intensive they are, which mostly translates to time and money
- how practical they are to deploy
Traditional assessment methods tend to be poor predictors of success. Some may suffice for the purposes of short-listing, but the following are very poor at distinguishing between good, better and best employees:
- years of job experience
- biographical data (including resumes)
- academic record
- unstructured ‘make it up as you go’ interviews
The best predictor, the work-sample test, where the candidate performs a sample of the actual work they will be required to do, provides the most valid information. Tailoring work-samples tests can be expensive and they are often reserved for highest risk or senior roles where selecting the wrong candidate can be exceedingly costly.
More generic and less costly work simulations can provide good results and include:
- role-plays and group situations where actors or fellow candidates provide realistic environments which simulate workplace challenges
- in trays where structured, multiple, and overlapping tasks are provided, with material that needs to be reviewed, evaluated and decided upon
These and other similar assessments often require skilled interpretation, making them only suitable for assessing small numbers of people.
Between these two extremes are a suite of practical assessments that, when used together, can be very effective. These assessments include:
- cognitive tests that relate to specific aspects of the role (not to be confused with more generic IQ tests which are less effective)
- work style or personality assessments (again, only those designed for the workplace should be considered)
- structured interviews, where standard and well constructed questions invite responses that provide strong direct (what you observe) and indirect (what they tell you) evidence
Combine multiple perspectives for best outcomes
Best practice for combining these three assessment methods are:
- use the cognitive tests to ensure candidates demonstrate the minimum ability level required for the role (also very effective at the shortlisting stage)
- use a personality assessment to understand how their working style might support or derail them in the role and organisational culture
- using information from the ability tests and personality assessments, conduct a structured interview to gain more direct and indirect evidence about the candidates’ role suitability
This assessment process will exclude more candidates and leave you with a remaining pool of qualified candidates to choose from. Your task now is to select the best overall.
Don’t try to make an area for development into a key strength
6. Decide, but avoid bias
Is it possible to make an objective decision?
No one can make a truly objective decision. The best you can hope for is to be as fair as possible to all concerned.
Armed with all of the information collected so far, apply the same judgement criteria to all candidates equally and make a reasoned judgement on which candidate overall will be the best fit for the position.
If there are a lot of assessment methods used or a lot of candidates it may be useful to create a matrix that collates all of the information in a concise manner aiding decision making.
The main pitfall throughout, but particularly at the decision point, is bias. Bias that is explicit can often be identified and countered, but unconscious biases also exist and can be particularly difficult to spot.
The following precautions can help minimise many of the common biases:
- ensure all candidates are given equal treatment, including internal applicants
- involve several people in the process in an open and transparent way (while respecting the privacy of the candidates)
- assume the process will need to survive scrutiny by an objective party
- ensure that all decisions made are based on sound observable evidence rather than ‘gut-feeling’ or similarly vague data
- document all aspects of the process including reasons for decisions made
- if you must include less predictive methods in assessing candidates, put less emphasis on them in the decision making process
The litmus test is to assume a disgruntled candidate challenges your decision and you are comfortable your process will survive the scrutiny of a court.
7. Set new hires up for success
If you have closely adhered to the above process then in all likelihood you have a candidate who is very capable and well suited to the role. The responsibility for the success of this candidate now falls largely on the organisation and the manager they report to.
The candidate will not be perfect, but from the hiring process there is a wealth of information about:
- the role itself
- the candidate’s strengths
- the candidate’s development needs
Use this information to support the candidate through the initial months and years. Focus on making strengths better and managing the gaps in case they derail the individual. Avoid attempting to make an area for development into a key strength as this is unlikely to be successful.
The following are some of the crucial factors in ensuring the candidate is successful:
- a well planned induction ensuing the candidate knows what their role is and how they are expected to go about it
- clear expectations on role outcomes and how these will be measured and performance-managed
- feedback on the selection results covering strengths and areas for potential development
- making available resources and support to help the candidate do what is expected of them
In addition to getting you the best hire, the process above supports you as the hiring manager by:
- providing tools to develop and performance manage your team
- having transparent conversations with staff and peers
- enabling you to provide honest feedback to unsuccessful candidates
You may not be ready to implement the full process outlined here, but you can begin to introduce better methods and be watchful against rogue or simply ill-informed practices.