Hiring for empowerment

Candidate selection is the key to building a self-directed work team.

By Mark J. Cicerchi, P.E.

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In most traditional organizations, the hiring process starts with the Human Resources Department screening applicants for suitability — background, education and experience. Successful candidates get passed to departmental management to conduct interviews and subsequently inform HR which candidates are to receive an offer. With this approach, the new hire’s co-workers might never meet the person until they show up for their first day on the job.

Although this hiring method has employed many successful people over the years and departmental managers are convinced that the best person for the job was hired, in many cases, it leaves the new employee’s co-workers in doubt. They might be unsure that the best candidate was hired. Even worse, coworkers might feel that a person was hired strictly because of “who they are” or “who they know.” The belief that the “good ol’ boy” network is at work leads to resentment toward the new hire. As a result, current employees have no ownership in the new hire’s success and might not act to make them successful. They might actually subconsciously hope the new person fails to be the best candidate. This leads to gross workplace inefficiency.

In workplaces with a heavy dependence on supervision directing activities, how well workers are able or willing to interact might not be highly critical. However, many work groups are highly empowered and expected to operate with less supervision than in the past. In an effort to reduce costs and make work groups more productive, many companies eliminate the traditional supervisor in favor of working leaders.

While training is certainly a way to improve skills, the best way to build the desired skill base is to start with the hiring process.

– Mark J. Cicerchi, P.E.

In some cases, work is structured around self-directed work teams with no regular supervision present. In these situations, it’s critical to team success that employees have the desire and ability to work together. This means that the workforce must have different skills than in the past. While training is certainly a way to improve skills, the best way to build the desired skill base is to start with the hiring process. While no selection process is foolproof, an organization can increase the chance of success by tailoring the process to evaluate the candidate’s complete skill set against the skills the job demands.

This is a multi-step process in which each step further reduces the pool of candidates. Valuable resources won’t be used on candidates that don’t meet one of the criteria the position requires. The selection process should measure not only the so-called hard or technical skills, but also should look at softer skills required for successful team interaction.

To make it a mutual selection process, give the candidate an opportunity to understand the position as well as the chance for the company to evaluate the candidate. It’s unproductive to invest resources to hire and train someone, only to have them leave after a short time because the job wasn’t what they expected. The process should involve as many from the work force as practical to ensure their buy-in. Only when these steps are taken will the organization optimize the chances of a successful fit for all concerned.

Initial screening

The initial screening is no different than what many organizations use to determine candidate suitability. Testing reveals whether the candidate has the basic skills necessary for a particular job. The hiring department and Human Resources should jointly elucidate the criteria needed to be successful in a particular position before developing the test. The criteria should be validated against work performance to avoid biases to enter.

With criteria established, you need a suitable test that measures against them and the minimum acceptable result. The set of tests will be different for every position and might be written, verbal or physical in nature. For example, a job that requires heavy lifting might have a test that determines whether a candidate can lift a certain weight. This test would, of course, be inappropriate for a bookkeeper position. This testing might also take the form of the many standardized tests that measure math skills, mechanical aptitude and the like. Each test should have a minimum acceptable result to serve as a go/no-go for proceeding further in the process. You want to know whether the candidate can be successful in that position, not which has the highest score.

It’s not unusual to receive hundreds of applications for every opening. Strike a balance between the desire to measure everything possible and the time available to hire. Depending on the location, it might be possible to use local or state agencies to identify candidates and do the initial screening based on your criteria. Some job services are willing to help with this task for a fee. It’s sometimes advantageous to use your employees to administer and proctor the examinations as a way to get them involved in making the best hiring decision. Each organization must decide what works.

Group assessment

After initial screening, you have a pool of candidates with the minimum technical skills required for the position. The next step is to see if they also have the interpersonal skills to be successful. By putting each candidate into an environment that involves group problem solving, it’s possible to get a good indication of how effectively that person works with others. For this exercise to be useful, the problem must be one that anyone can work on, but specific enough that each person can have definite ideas as to the solution.

The type of problem I’ve seen used successfully is an Arctic Survival or similar exercise. A group of five or six candidates are seated at a table and given instruction for the exercise. They’re told that after a certain time they’ll need to present their results to a group of judges. They’re also told that a group of two or three observers will be monitoring their progress from the corner of the room. The observers won’t answer questions, make comments or help them in any way.

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