Adapting to Changes in Job Duties

I wrote a couple of months ago about how McDonald’s is changing the cognitive requirements of some of its jobs by adding channels for customers to order food. I argued that such a development should get them thinking about who they hire and how they train new employees.

If you have recently wandered into one of their stores, you probably noticed that, if it is not too busy, a McDonald’s employee may bring you your order. OK, this is not particularly revolutionary. But, to quote a franchisee in an article, “We’re bringing the employees from behind the counter out front to engage, in a more personal way, with our customers.” Maybe I am making more out of this particular example than it warrants, but this strikes me a really upping the customer service requirements of a McDonald’s employee. And I am guessing that a fair amount of the employees are not going to meet it. It’s just not what they signed up for.

This is not about whether McDonald’s employees are capable of providing the additional service or whether their ability to do it well affects the customer experience and/or sales. Rather, it appears to be an example of company changing job requirements and then assuming that people hired using a process that does not account for the new skills will be able to carry out the new duties.

Changing skills requirements is a good thing. It shows adaptation to technology and customer needs and makes the work experience more interesting for people in repetitive jobs. But, companies cannot assume that the incumbents can magically adapt without training and revised performance expectations.

This change also requires updating validation selection processes. Whether it means increasing the weight given to certain aspects or validating a new test, we must adapt our workforce to new job requirements on the front end. As jobs change, hiring practices should as well.

Technology and customers are big drivers of change in the skills, abilities, and personality characteristics required of employees. Smart companies not only redesign work to account for this, but they also update how they train and hire to help their workforce adapt.

Selection When There Are More Jobs Than People

As the economy adds new jobs, some sectors are having a problem finding enough workers for them, including construction. This is regardless of the pay and benefits associated with the jobs. However, the same is true in other blue-collar sectors. This is not a shock to those of you who have been trying to hire people for these types of positions in companies that were not hit by the great recession. For instance, utility companies have been having a difficult time recruiting lineman (sic) for years, and these jobs pay into the six-figures will full benefits.

While the reasons for the hiring shortage are numerous (“You can’t pay me enough to do that kind of work,” “I’d rather work in tech,” “I want to set my own hours,” etc.), these businesses do have a significant challenge. There are some things that you cannot use technology to replace (yet).

In this situation, HR should take the long view. With low unemployment, it’s unlikely that you can just hire your way out this. The labor pool won’t support it. Rather, companies need to engage with high schools and trade colleges to develop candidates. But, they also need to promote and market these jobs in a way that will make them more appealing because right now. This is because many more young people (and their parents) would rather code than swing a hammer.

To avoid the expense of high turnover when hiring for these positions, companies need to do a very good job of validating good selection tools with tenure in mind (as well as performance). They include:

1) Modified versions of Interest inventories (what are someone’s likes and dislikes).

2) Biographical information (do candidates enjoy physically difficult hobbies) surveys (also known as biodata) are very useful ways to determine whether a person is likely to stay in a specific area of work.

I have had good success in validating these for hard to fill positions in manufacturing. This is especially true where giving physical ability tests are either expensive, have a risk of injury, or may lead to high levels of adverse impact against women.

These companies also need to embrace the investment in training and accelerating wages as new hires gain more skills. I have seen this put to effective use in reducing turnover.

There will not be a silver-bullet for creating enough workers for physically demanding jobs in the near term. However, employers who think long term may find viable solutions that will serve them well.

Adapting Selection Systems After the Robots Take Over

I am not sure that any HR futurist can tell us how many jobs will be displaced by automation over the next 5, 10, or 20 years. The answer is clearly more than zero. The latest example of this can be read here. The theme of the article is, “Really, a formula can make predictions better than a person’s intuition?” In psychology (well, industrial psychology), we have only known this since the mid-1950s (see this book), so I can see why the idea is just catching on.

Any kind of judgment that is made based on accumulating data will ALWAYS be more accurate over time when done by a machine than a person. This is because the machine is not biased by what has happened most recently, how impacted it is by the decision, how attractive the others who are involved are, etc. While this type of analysis is somewhat difficult for people to do consistently well, it is simple math for a computer. There is really no reason, besides stroking someone’s ego, to have humans do it.

As computers continue to remove the computational portions of jobs, such as analyzing trends, making buying decisions, they will impact HR in the following ways:

• Fewer customer facing jobs to manage, but more IT related ones.

• Many of the remaining jobs will require less cognitive ability and more interpersonal skills. This is because these employees could potentially spend more time meeting specific customer needs and being the interface between end users and the algorithms.

• The key predictors of job success would potentially become conscientiousness, agreeableness, and customer service orientation rather than problem solving ability.

• Developing a validating a different set of pre-employment tests.

• Recruiters will need to source people with very specific skills (cognitive ability for programmers and willingness to get along with others for many other jobs).

The challenge to industrial psychology continues to be developing more valid measures of personality. Tests of cognitive ability predict job performance about twice as well as those of “soft” skills, even in those that already have a high personality component (such as customer service). This also means developing better measures of performance (e.g., how interpersonal skills impact business outcomes).

Or, maybe the robots will do it for us.

Ways That We Punish, Rather Than Coach, Poor Performers

During the 4th of July holiday, I was binge watching an Australian cooking competition show with my family. It was pretty mindless and entertaining stuff. The gist of each episode was that contestants competed in a theme-based challenge. One was selected as the best for the day. Two others were deemed the poorest performers and then they competed to stay on the show. What I found most interesting was that they task they were given to avoid elimination (getting fired) was harder (by design) than the original one.

Of course, there is not necessarily a straight line to be drawn between entertainment shows and the work place. But this did get me thinking about how we develop poor performers. While it seems intuitive that resources spent on improving their performance would have a significant return-on-investment, data show that high performers generally benefit more from training than low ones do.

HR needs to consider how to develop all levels of talent. With the current low unemployment rates, companies are losing some of their control over their talent levels, especially now there is more job hopping. There are a few considerations in developing low performers:

• Are you rewarding progress until the person is capable of delivering results? The key here is that improving performance requires changes in behavior. If they are reinforced, the new behaviors are more likely to be learned. Telling people “try harder” or dangling a future carrot are not good strategies for improving performance.

• Are they sufficiently skilled in the tasks you expecting them to do? Before concluding that the person is not going to be a good employee, be sure that they have the basic skills/experience to perform the job. You should not expect someone to be a pastry chef if s/he does not know how to make a cake. This is where valid pre-employment testing programs are valuable.

• Are there other areas of the business that appeal more to their interests? I have a client that staffs its own call center. They have higher than average turnover in the call center, but somewhat lower in the company overall, because after people spend 6 months there they can bid for any other open position in the company for which they are qualified. Allowing easy lateral transfers helps you keep good employees who may just be in jobs they do not find engaging.

Low unemployment rates mean that new talent is going to be more expensive. It may indicate a good return-on-investment in developing under-performing talent than usual. However, getting people in the right place and having alternate reward strategies are essential to getting the most out of their development.

Can Robots Reduce Turnover By Making Work More Interesting for People?

Lower unemployment rates mean that many industries, including hospitality, need ways to attract and retain more talent. Higher minimum wage laws in many states and cities have likely encouraged people to stay in jobs they may have previously left. But, what about using automation to get them to stay?

The typical assumption is that automation leads to fewer workers, which makes sense in many cases. The cotton gin took people out of the fields and it does not take as many people to put together a car now as it did 30 years ago. What automation also does is offload boring tasks so that people can do more interesting work. We see that in offices (no longer lots of people mindlessly typing memos all day) and now we are seeing a bit of it in the hospitality sector. Granted, most of the turnover in restaurants is due to still crappy pay and low benefits. But an employer quoted in the article thinks that it is partly due to the work itself (note, I was unable to find another dataset that confirmed this, but it makes for an interesting argument). From this perspective, a restaurant can provide more value to the employee (and, presumably the customer) by having that person deliver food instead of taking orders (which customers are doing themselves from kiosks or smart phones). Perhaps these are both minimum wage tasks and the former is more interesting for the worker than the latter.

The idea of reducing turnover by making the work more interesting goes back to the 1970’s. It is pretty simple: Most people do not want to do boring and repetitive tasks and they will be more satisfied and engaged with their work (e.g., more likely to stay) if it is not mundane. This is not rocket science. However, giving people more tasks and more autonomy may also require a different skill set. Where employers who choose this approach (either through job redesign or automation) miss the boat is when they implement these changes without considering whether employees have the skills sets necessary.

Most organizational change efforts I have observed save the planning for new selection systems or training until the end (if they are thought of at all). For instance, if I have always asked workers to follow one single process but now I am giving them the autonomy to override it, I need to understand that these are two different sets of performance expectations. If you asking for new behaviors from those in a job title, you need to be sure you are hiring people with those abilities using validated tests and/or provide them with proper training.

Even in Business, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

We are in an era where many businesses feel that they must project an image of social responsibility. This may be driven by management’s true desire to be a force of good, a competitive advantage, or as a way to attract millennial job candidates. Being perceived as being on the “wrong” side of an issue can have significant effects on consumer oriented businesses (see Chick-fil-A or Facebook). But is the impact of this corporate behavior?

There many consequences of a firm demonstrating social responsibility. These include:

1. Being socially conscious doesn’t really help sales. This is probably because just about every company promotes social responsibility in some way, so there is not much variance.

2. Companies that promote how socially conscious they are get more job applicants, particularly women. This makes sense since millennials are drawn to companies that share their values.

3. Those who apply for work at companies that promote socially responsibility are more productive than those who apply at companies who do not advertise that they are socially responsible.

4. Those who work for work for socially conscious companies are more likely to steal from them.

Wait—what’s that with #4? People who are generally more willing to work for a socially conscious company are more dishonest (steal, slack off, etc.) than other employees? Not quite, but when people do good things they sometimes feel as if that gives them a license to get away with stuff. Keep that in mind next time a leader of an organization that thinks it has a high value to society (religion, journalism, etc.) gets caught engaging in some pretty awful behavior.

So, if you are a company that wants to promote social responsibility to attract more productive workers, but you don’t want the bad stuff that comes with it, what should you do?

1) Reduce the amount of social responsibility messages after people have been hired. Once people are onboard, you don’t need to keep talking about how much good the company does—they get it. The continued presence of these messages makes moral licensing more prevalent.

2) I would assume that there are individual differences when it comes to moral licensing (most likely related to conscientiousness). And it so happens that conscientiousness is one of the personality variables that generally predicts job performance. So, it would be valuable for socially conscious companies not to take it for granted that their candidates are all good people. Rather, a validated test would likely help them select those who are less likely to look for an excuse to slack off.

Many business choices have unintended consequences. Being overtly socially conscious apparently does as well. However, companies can mitigate those consequences with some good planning and employee selection practices.

Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

Should Employers Embrace the Push for GEDs?

The U.S. has a lot of people who do not get a high school diploma. This can lead to significant barriers in employment and future opportunities in college. As a result, in 2013, over 500,000 people took and passed a high school equivalency exam (GED). This was a 20% increase over 2012. The Bureau of Labor Statistics accepts a diploma and GED as being the same. But, should employers?

The idea behind the GED is that some people are unable to complete high school for a variety of reasons and by passing the test they show that they have acquired the same amount of knowledge. That may be true, but there is little high school knowledge, except perhaps some math, that employers find valuable. What is valuable is the skill of being able to navigate something for 4 years. But, you don’t have to take my word for it. This report outlines in detail that the career and economic trajectories for those with a GED more closely resemble high school dropouts without a GED than those who complete high school. From a public policy perspective, this leads me to believe that that the proponents of the test are selling snake oil.

Employers should strongly consider this in their applications. Why? Because there may be economic consequences of treating a GED and a high school diploma the same way. In working with a client to validate ways to help them reduce turnover, we looked at the retention rates by education level for entry level positions. What we found was that after 12 months, the retention rate of those with a high school diploma compared to those with a GED 80% vs 65%. After 24 months the retention rates were 68% vs 50%. At a hiring rate of about 1000 per year and a cost of hire a bit more than $5k per person, these are significant differences. After checking with some colleagues, these results are not unusual.

The overall picture shows that employers should not be treating those with GEDs like those with high school diplomas. Rather, you should validate the impact of education level against turnover or performance as evaluate it accordingly in your application, biodata, or training and experience scoring process.

What Do Grades Tell Us When Hiring?

Welcome to 2018! This first link actually highlights a look at valid personality testing on a largely read website. This makes me think that the year is off to a good start in the field.

Along those same lines of predicting behavior, a line of thought has always been that school grades are indicative of future success. The logic behind this makes sense. If a student applies him/herself and does well in school, then it is likely that he or she will do the same at work. Critics will say that grades measure something very specific that does not really translate to work and there are biases in how grades are given (which is why universities use standardized tests).

As always, what makes a good predictor really depends on the outcomes you are looking for. If your goal is to hire people who are good at following rules and doing lots of things pretty well, then this article suggests that school grades should be part of your evaluation process. But, if you want to hire very creative and novel thinkers, then GPA probably is not your best answer.

What also grabbed me about the article was the definition of success. The research article cited indicated that those who did very well in high school, nearly all of them were doing well in work and leading good lives. But, for the authors, this apparently is not enough. Why? Because none of them have “impressed the world,” whatever that means. And because there are lots of millionaires with relatively low GPAs (here is a suggestion: how about controlling for parents’ wealth before making that calculation?).

From an employment perspective, we need to be clear what valuable performance looks like when validating and part of the selection process. If your goal is to select people into positions that require developing unique solutions, then GPA may not be a useful predictor. However, if you expect people to follow processes and execute procedures, then GPA is likely to be a useful tool which should be used with other valid predictors.

And, if you are looking to hire people who are going to “impress the world,” good luck to you.

Eliminating Subtle Age Bias

Since age bias is something that could affect nearly all HR professionals, I am surprised that it does not get more attention. But, with the average age of employees in the U.S. going up (see here) and companies likely to recruit more older workers due to the unemployment rate being near recent lows, we are likely to see more attention paid to it, particularly in the technology field.

As with most bias, it can be introduced in a subtle way. For example, the term “digital native” describes those born roughly after 1990 that have had current technology (internet, smart phones, etc) pretty much their whole lives. A quick Indeed.com search shows many jobs where “digital native” is part of the description. Put another way, those older than 35ish should think twice before applying. Similarly, there is a whole literature (this article is an example) on how gender loaded terms in job postings affect who will respond to them.

Now, I get that you are advertising for tech jobs you are looking for employees who are completely comfortable in a digital environment and communicating with others who are. But, those are behaviors that can be assessed for with valid pre-employment tests without having to make assumptions about a person’s age.

And that is really the point about implicit bias—we make assumptions about groups without understanding people as individuals. We face a challenge in employee selection of creating processes that treat everyone fairly, but at the same time learn about them as individuals. It is a challenging needle to thread, but one that our businesses depend on us to do well. Using a combination of unbiased language and valid pre-employment tools can help us get there.

Or, if you would rather beat them than join them, you can open an art gallery that only focuses on artists ages 60 and older.

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