Finding Candidates with the Right Fit

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D.

About 20 percent of hiring decisions made for salaried jobs end in failure.

Failure rates for hourly jobs are even worse, frequently reaching levels of 50 percent or more, according to recent research by Kronos Inc. It is astonishing companies tolerate these failure rates, given the costs associated with poor job performance and staff turnover. It is even more surprising because everyone in the staffing process has a vested interest in making the best hires possible.

Hiring managers directly benefit from hiring good employees and bear much of the pain and frustration that result from hiring the wrong person. Recruiters’ reputations are made (or broken) based on the quality of candidates they find for their clients. Even candidates recognize it is rarely in their best interest to be hired for jobs they are ill-suited to perform.

Given that everyone from the CEO to the prospective employee has an interest in making effective staffing decisions, why do companies make so many poor hires? Two of the top reasons are that companies oversimplify what successful job performance looks like, and as a result, they hire candidates based on the wrong criteria. Second, hiring decision makers do not effectively use staffing assessment tools to evaluate candidates.

Job Success is Multidimensional

Imagine you hired a salesperson who consistently exceeded his quota but also treated co-workers with contempt and rarely did anything for the company unless it directly benefited him. Is this person a good or bad hire?

Your answer will depend on how much you value different dimensions of job performance. When hiring people, it is critical to remember there is no such thing as a good or bad candidate, in a general sense. People are not just good or bad — they are good or bad at doing certain things.

Both jobs and people are multidimensional. The challenge of hiring is matching candidates’ myriad characteristics with the myriad demands of the job. Despite this multidimensionality, companies often treat candidates as though they can be placed along a single dimension, ranging from best to worst.

This results in overemphasizing certain candidate characteristics while downplaying or overlooking others. The only way to avoid this problem is to define what behaviors drive successful job performance before you begin sourcing and selecting candidates. This requires getting hiring managers to carefully describe the different ways an employee might succeed or fail in the job.

Hiring managers frequently struggle when asked to describe what candidates actually will need to do to be successful in a job. Rather than defining what behaviors are critical for job success, they rattle off generic platitudes about good performance such as being “a passionate, service-oriented, team player.”

These things sound good, but they tell us nothing about what people actually need to do to be successful. What does it mean to be passionate? Is there romance involved?

To address this problem, integrate structured job analysis or competency modeling tools into the staffing process. These tools walk hiring managers through specific steps to define the dimensions of performance that drive success. If you do not have access to such tools, use the following simple method to uncover different job performance dimensions:

  1. Have hiring managers list eight to 10 people they know who work or have worked in jobs or environments similar to the one being staffed. The list should include both more- and less-successful performers.
  2. Randomly pick two people from the list and ask hiring managers to describe what one person did that made him or her more or less effective. Encourage them to go beyond general evaluative adjectives to describe the person’s actual behaviors. For example, instead of saying “He was more productive,” a manager might say, “He was more productive because he carefully prioritized tasks based on importance.”
  3. Work through different pairs to build a list of behaviors and characteristics that differentiate effective and ineffective employees.
  4. After you identify several behavioral themes to describe effective performance, ask hiring managers to indicate which ones are likely to have the greatest impact on success in the particular job being staffed.

Identifying specific job-performance dimensions provides a much clearer picture of what a good employee looks like. The resulting staffing process starts with a clear sense of what criteria should be used to identify, screen and select candidates.

Evaluating Candidate Experience, Potential and Interest

Making accurate hiring decisions requires collecting job-relevant information from candidates during the staffing process and then interpreting it appropriately to predict how they will behave on the job if hired.

For hiring decision makers to be effective, they must collect the right information from candidates, and they also must learn to control the influence of information not relevant to the job, as well as personal biases.

For example, what does it tell us if candidates arrive for an interview 10 minutes late? Is this a sign of poor organizational skills, an indication they are not committed to the job, or did someone simply give them lousy directions? It probably does tell us something about the candidate, but it’s not easy to determine exactly what.

Researchers in fields such as industrial-organizational psychology have spent years studying factors that influence the accuracy of hiring decisions. Their research has found people are remarkably bad at evaluating candidates unless they use some type of structured assessment process.

This research also has created many staffing assessment tools to help companies make accurate hiring decisions. These include things such as structured interview guides, qualifications-screening questions, personality measures, background checks, and knowledge and ability tests.

Staffing assessments tend to be more accurate than people because they take a systematic, thorough, objective and often complicated approach toward collecting and interpreting candidate information, and then they limit their focus to job-relevant information gathered from the candidate without being influenced by nonrelevant information or situational factors that often bias hiring decisions (e.g., evaluating candidates based on their personal appearance).

But the purpose of staffing assessments is not to replace people in the hiring process. After all, assessments do not hire people — people hire people. Managers should not be expected to hire candidates if they do not feel good about them. But staffing decisions hiring managers and recruiters make tend to be much more accurate if they use staffing assessments as part of the selection process.

Based on the kinds of information they collect to predict a candidate’s likely job performance, staffing assessment tools tend to fall into three categories. These categories include assessments that measure:

  • What candidates have done based on work experience, job-relevant activities, accomplishments and education.
  • What candidates can do based on underlying potential and aptitude for different tasks and activities.
  • What candidates want to do based on work and nonwork goals, preferences and interests.

What Candidates Have Done

Based on the premise the best predictor of future behavior often is past behavior, these assessments include structured interview questions about experiences, resume-review tools that evaluate candidates based on work history, knowledge tests that measure things candidates have learned and pre-screening questionnaires that ask candidates about job-relevant experiences, educational achievements, skills and credentials.

These assessments’ main limitation is that people are not hired for what they have done but for what they will do. Candidates often are hired to do jobs that require them to do things they never have had an opportunity to do (e.g., hiring recent graduates). Overemphasizing experience also can decrease the pool of available candidates in a tight labor market. Although assessments that focus on measuring what candidates have done should be a key part of any selection process, they should not form the sole means to evaluate candidates.

What Candidates Can Do

These assessments measure characteristics associated with a candidate’s underlying personality and ability. Natural traits can make people predisposed for success in certain kinds of jobs. For example, just as most successful basketball players tend to be tall, most successful salespeople tend to be extroverted. You do not necessarily need to be tall to be a successful basketball player, nor do you need to be extroverted to be a good salesperson, but it helps.

Assessments that measure traits associated with what candidates “can do” often predict job performance far better than assessments of work experience. But they are also complex and do not always work as intended.

First, they often measure traits of which candidates are not even fully aware. Many people are unable to accurately describe their own personality and ability level. Second, they might measure things candidates hide so that they get a job offer. For example, many candidates are unlikely to say they lack intelligence or are emotionally unstable. Third, because these assessments measure intangible traits, it is very easy to create assessment tools that look effective but do not actually measure anything useful.

Building accurate assessments of what people can do requires rigorous empirical research to ensure they truly measure what they are supposed to measure. For these reasons, you need to be very careful when considering these kinds of assessments. An appropriately designed personality or ability assessment can greatly increase the quality of your hires, but a poorly designed assessment can introduce large amounts of error into the staffing process.

What Candidates Want to Do

These assessments measure motives, interests and goals related to work. For example, interviews often ask candidates where they want to be in five years.

These assessments often are used to predict organizational commitment, retention and culture fit. They might be less valuable to predict job performance, as people’s motives often show weak relationships to their actual behavior. Anyone who has failed to lose weight knows that just because you want to do something does not mean you will actually do it. Conversely, people frequently succeed in doing things they do not enjoy, at least for a limited amount of time.

The most effective staffing processes use a mixture of assessments that measure what candidates have done, can do and want to do. For example, you might screen candidates using resume-review tools or pre-screening questionnaires that measure experience and minimum qualifications.

The next step might be a short, structured interview to make sure the candidate’s interests and skills match the job. Qualified candidates could complete more in-depth personality and ability tests to examine the fit between their talents and the competencies needed for the job. The hiring manager could then use a structured interview to look at experience and career interests to guide the final hiring decision.

The Importance of Finding the Right Candidates

Many companies seem to accept high levels of hiring mistakes as a cost of business they just have to live with. This is unfortunate, given the damage bad hires cause. Hiring poor candidates:

  • Is extremely costly. Employing people whose performance is substandard is expensive. Bad hires also often end up quitting or being terminated early, which means companies incur hiring costs several times for the same position.
  • Means not hiring other, more qualified candidates. Settling for a poorer candidate to fill a position means calling off the sourcing process without allowing adequate time to uncover a really good candidate. Further, better qualified, overlooked candidates might end up with one of your competitors.
  • Can increase turnover among your existing employees. High performers like to work with high performers. If your current star employees feel company hiring standards are slipping, they might look for a position at another organization, where they can work with a more elite group of professionals.

Hiring mistakes are both extremely costly and frequently avoidable. Resources spent using techniques to increase hiring success rates will be recouped many times over by increasing value from hiring successes and reducing costs caused by hiring people for jobs they are ill-suited to perform.

Call James: 1 (519) 383-6002 for a chance to learn a little more.

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