Hiring for empowerment

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

By Mark J. Cicerchi, P.E.

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.

The observers are given a list of criteria that they are to assess. These criteria should be the skills the organization finds desirable. These might include “ability to build on others’ ideas” or “presents ideas in a logical manner.” Each candidate is given a score for each criterion. Remember, the point of the exercise is to assess interpersonal skills, not obtain the best solution to the problem. Once the exercise is over, the observers get together and reach consensus over who should move on in the process based on the interpersonal skills demonstrated.

If this assessment is done properly, it can serve not only to help select candidates for further evaluation, but also helps cement buy-in on the part of the organization that candidates were fairly evaluated and that the successful ones will fit in with the organization. The observers should come from a broad group of employees who have a stake in the new hire’s success. The observers could be a supervisor, an incumbent in the position and a people services representative, for example. Regardless of who is on the panel, it’s important they all receive the same training on what attributes to look for in a candidate.

A variation of this exercise that evaluates more candidates in a short time is to have several rooms going at the same time. Give instructions to the entire group at the beginning. This also is a good time to welcome the candidate group and present information about your company.

The candidates and observers are assigned to breakout rooms, where they complete their work. The entire group can be reconvened for presentations and parting comments, if desired. The number of simultaneous sessions is limited only by the number of rooms and observers available. If multiple rooms are used, the entire group of observers should meet afterwards to agree on which candidates move on in the process.

If this multiple-room approach is used, it’s also useful to have “roving” observers who spend some time in every room. People experienced with the group process are sometimes used as roving observers. They further provide consistency between groups of observers to ensure that screening is consistent across groups.

In-depth interviews

The remaining candidates are most likely qualified for the position. That alone won’t ensure a successful match. The in-depth interview ensures the candidate is a good fit and that your organization is a good fit for the individual. You don’t want to hire someone, only to find they leave in a short time because the “job wasn’t what they thought it was.” Avoiding this requires a two-part final interview.

The first part involves a structured interview process to address a list of questions developed before the interviews. The same questions are used for all candidates to promote ease of comparison and reduced chance of any appearance of discrimination. It also helps less-experienced interviewers who might run out of questions and revert to discussing last night’s game or some other distraction. The interviewers can probe further into areas for clarification based on the answers to the questions.

The structured interview can involve several interviews that focus on a specific area. These interviews can be conducted one-on-one or might involve multiple interviewers. Using several interviewers is an effective way to train less-experienced interviewers without sacrificing interview quality. The interview teams also can match people with different perspectives, for example, a supervisor with an operator or an engineer with an office assistant.

Regardless how the interview teams are arranged, it’s imperative that everyone involved with the interview receive some training so they understand their roles and responsibilities. This also is the time to discuss what can and can’t be discussed during a job interview. This is especially important if you’re using this approach for the first time or if there are first-time interviewers in the group.

The in-depth interview should include a tour of the facility with particular attention to the candidate’s working environment. While you want to sell the organization and workplace to the candidate, be sure to show both good and bad points of the job. Show the candidate as much of the job as security and safety concerns allow. If the person needs to be dressed a certain way for the tour, let them know before the interview so that they dress appropriately.

This tour also provides a chance to see how the candidate reacts in the job setting. If there are any physical tests that are normally done, they can be done here. Just be sure that they’re actually job-related. This tour should be conducted by someone currently in the position being applied for or someone close to the job.

Final decision

The final decision is one of the most important an organization can make. If the organization is thriving, the bond between that organization and the new hire can last for years. A poor selection might mean a constant turnover with the associated cost of hiring and retraining. The decision should involve input from all the interviewers. Agree upon criteria before this meeting to make the process as objective as possible. A scoring system is sometimes useful, but you’ll get more buy-in from the entire organization if the interviewers can reach a consensus.

In any case, the process for reaching a final decision should be clear to everyone so there are no hard feelings among interviewers. Stress to all interviewers that any information learned is considered confidential and isn’t to be discussed with others.

The group also must agree to support the decision once it’s made. Those who can’t agree to these ground rules should not be part of the process and weeded out as part of the training. Nothing undermines an organization and hurts a new hire’s progress faster than people leaving the hiring process with the feeling that the best people weren’t selected.

This looks like a time-consuming process. It can be, but the results are worth the effort. It allows the entire organization to feel involved and provides the buy-in that the best candidates have been hired. While no hiring process is fool proof, following this approach greatly increases the chances that the new hire will be successful. It also can provide a boost to the entire organization. Everyone feels they came out a winner.

Mark J. Cicerchi, P.E., is a management consultant specializing in optimizing span of control. Contact him at mcicerchi@alumni.cmu.edu.