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.

Escape Room Selection

Over the weekend I had a chance to go through an escape room (not as scary as it sounds). An escape room is a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles and riddles using clues, hints, and strategy to complete the objectives. This one was setup so that the team (there were 9 of us) had to solve a variety of number, word, and logic problems related to a theme in order to find clues and “escape” the room. This required a great deal of team work as some problems required information from a variety of sources and there were a good number to be solved in 50 minutes. We were able to escape within the given time (yay us!).

The process reminded me in some ways of an Assessment Center (AC). An AC is a process of evaluating complex skills and abilities in a variety of methods. Normally, a majority of the assessments are in realistic situations, as opposed to only paper-and-pencil, ones. You can see how the escape room experience reminded me of this.

Even though the eventual success of the group relied on teamwork, there were many opportunities to observe individual performance. For instance:

1) Leadership. Who spent time organizing the task (Where should we start? Should we break into small teams?) and who spent his/her time following?

2) Facilitation. Was there someone who kept time, tracked which puzzles still needed solving, and helped the group communicate?

3) Problem Solving. Who actually solved the puzzles?

4) Communication. It was easy to observe who was sharing information with others and who the good listeners were.

It would have been possible to video record, or otherwise gather behaviors, and score them for selection purposed. Or, provide the team and individuals with feedback for development purposes.

If I sound confident about using something like this, which in the case of my puzzle was not anywhere close to a work environment, it’s because I am. The AC method has consistently been found to predict performance and not have adverse impact. Effective ones have participants interact in a business situation other than their own so that job knowledge/experience does not play a big role. This creates an equal footing for all participants and gives a clearer assessment of their skills and abilities.

The escape room added elements of gamification from the facilitator, which is different than most live ACs. Of course, many online assessments have added gamification to their design (though with mixed results).
It was good to see this type of creativity in allowing people to show their skills. Particularly since so many innovations in assessments are focused so much on technology.

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 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.

Flexibility, Bench Strength, and Leadership

An attribute associated with leadership is determination. The idea that once a goal has been established and a plan laid out, effective leadership involves sticking to it and absorbing the inevitable bumps that come along the way. This may involve coaching or training, but requires confidence in the team.

But, what if things get really bad? Should the leader have faith in the plan and work harder on execution? Or, does effectiveness require that things get “blown up” and change on the fly?

There was an interesting example of this in the college football national championship game earlier this week. The University of Alabama (Bama) was playing the University of Georgia (UGA). Bama’s coach had won 5 national championships (6 was the most) going into the matchup, so he knows something about winning big games. While renowned for his success, he is also thought of as being a bit humorless and someone who has extraordinary attention to detail, the latter being a trait shared with other successful coaches, regardless of the sport. This is a person who meticulously plans practices and expects nearly flawless execution.

So, in the championship game, UGA took a large lead into halftime. Bama’s coach was faced with a choice: Conclude that his team was executing poorly and stick with the plan (with some adjustments) or decide that the plan was not working and implement a different one. The coach chose the second option, including replacing many of his star performers, and they won the game in dramatic fashion. What can we learn from this?

1) A plan is not destiny. If leaders view them as the ONLY path, then they will be blind to other opportunities to succeed.

2) Changing approaches requires bench strength (which is literally true in this case). When Bama changed their game plan they also replaced some key players. This was only possible because they had a reservoir of talent with a variety of skills. If they had recruited (the college athletics equivalent of employee selection) players with the same skills, they would only be able to execute one type of plan. Since they had more variety, it gave the coach more flexibility. Think about that when someone says, “We need to hire more people like so-and-so.

3) Effective leaders establish criteria for success and failure. We often here about measuring when we have achieved goals. Less frequently talked about is when it is time to rethink our approach. While perhaps not explicit before the game, Bama’s coach knew when it was time to change to Plan B and made the decision.

Do effective leaders need determination? Of course they do. No plan is ever going to be executed perfectly and without adjustments. But, they also need the humility to know when their plans are failing and the talent available to them to change directions.

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.

While I am Likely to be Wrong, Allow me to Continue

Interviews are worse predictors of job success than you think.  And I do not care if you don’t think very highly of them as you read this, it’s still lower.  Yet, there is an insistence that they are better than they are and no company I know of is willing to give them up.  Why is this?

Of course, it’s because doing them is ingrained in our corporate cultures.  Thomas Edison (supposedly) conducted the first one.  However, note in the example that it was a test and not an interview, which ensured that it could not be less valid, even with the ridiculous questions cited.  Obviously, if a guy as smart as Thomas Edison was doing it, it must be right.  Then again, he was not trained in understanding human behavior.

The problem with interviews (besides just these) is that they are fraught with noise.  As I’ve written about before, interviewers (which are all of us) are loaded with biases which skew a good deal of information that we get from the person being interviewed.  Of course, the person being interviewed is likely to have prepared for the questions.  In fact some millennial job seekers I know informed me about how they are rarely asked a question they haven’t seen online and when they do get one they post it immediately.  From all of this pre-work, the interviewer is getting canned answers that may not reflect the person.  Of course, this may be a fine attribute if hiring someone who is not supposed to give his/her opinion on anything.  However, it does hurt the validity of even the best structured interviews.  As an aside, if you MUST interview, please make it highly structured and use it as a lever to find out about the person’s job related skills.

So, what is a company to do?  Go on a blind date with candidates?

I would suggest making your hiring decision BEFORE you interview.  Let the interview be the last bit of data that might break ties.  For instance, be sure that someone you are hiring for a customer facing position can actually make eye contact and put a few sentences together.  Or, use it to double-check the person’s availability for your work hours, give them a tour/realistic job preview, etc.  This allows HR or the hiring manager the last look without adding unpredictive noise to the process.  And think about how much time you will save!

It is not your fault that interviews do not predict performance.  The question is what are you going to do to prevent them from messing up your hiring process?

Is Seeing Really Believing?

Something I hear frequently from clients is, “I wish I had a day/week/month to see my candidates do the job.  Then I would make fewer hiring mistakes.”  It is, of course, an intriguing idea.  We test drive cars before we buy them.  Why not try out people before we hire them?

There is a long history of sampling work behavior in selection systems, whether it be using Assessment Centers to hire/promote managers and executives or having people make things for craft positions.  The accuracy of these types of assessments is good, falling somewhere between cognitive ability tests and interviews.  For candidates, the appeal is that they feel that they can really show what they can do rather than have their job related skills or personality inferred from a multiple choice test.

The issues in using a job tryout would include:

  • Paying the person for their time. There is an ethical, in some cases legal, issue in having a person work for free.  So, be prepared for your cost per hire to go up significantly.
  • Candidates would either need flexible schedules or plenty of PTO to participate in such a program.
  • Having meaningful work for the candidates to do. If you are going to narrow the gap between what the assessment and the job look like, then you would have to have projects that impact process, customers, etc that you would be willing to have a short-term contractor do.  Or, that you already have them doing.
  • Determining how to score the job tryout. Most organizations do a pretty poor job of measuring job performance over a full year, let a lone a couple of days.  Developing scoring criteria would be key for making good decisions and avoiding bias.
  • Having someone who is not your employee perform work that could affect your customers or the safety of others will make your attorney break out in a cold sweat.  This is should convince you not to do job tryouts, but you will have to sell that person on the idea.

What got me thinking about job tryouts was this article.  I was impressed that the company had thought through the problems in their selection process and came up with a creative way to address them. They certainly handle the pay issue well and they currently have the growth and profitability to make the program worthwhile. What is left unsaid, but communicated through some derisive comments about multiple-choice tests, is that they feel that using tests would not fit their culture well.

My concerns were that they are more worried about “fit” than skills.  This also translates into not having an objective way to evaluate how well a person did.  This leads me to believe that they would run into the problem of only hiring people who are just like them.

Lastly, they have a pretty high pass rate that “feels right.”  If I worked for them, I would be concerned that a lot of time and effort is being spent confirming what was seen in the less valid interview.  This is particularly true in a company where metrics are important for everything else.  Having people work for you for a few days and not having an objective way to measure how well they did is not going to lead to better candidates than a series of interviews.

Advances in selection tools will likely come from start-up companies who are not bound by tradition when it comes to hiring.  The tech sector presents a lot of opportunities to improve valid selection systems by their nature:  They are setup to disrupt and they gather a lot of data.  This presents a great platform for seeing what people do before you hire them to do it.

Learning to Manage

I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with a client who has told me some sort of story about how they promote from within, but have a problem with the supervisors and/or managers not being able to let go of wanting to do the technical work instead of managing the technical work.  It is not hard to understand.  People get into a field because of their interests or passion, rarely for their desire to manage others.

An organization’s challenge is to either create technical career opportunities or help those who are technically proficient to successfully move into management.  But how?  Here are some tips:

  • Clearly identify the skill sets required of managers and note how different they are from those required of technical workers. One of the places I would start is with Delegation and Holding People Accountable.
  • Make the management skill sets part of your internal recruitment AND learning and development process.
  • Require internal candidates to demonstrate management skills before being promoted through an assessment center or other valid selection process.
  • Start people at an appropriate management level, regardless of how technically proficient they are.

While I’m not one to think that sports are necessarily a good analogy for the business world, I found this article to be an exception.  It describes how John Elway,

a multiple Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Denver Broncos, learned management skills from the ground up.  He wasn’t made a Vice President of the team after he retired.  Rather, he honed his business skills in another field and then transferred them to a low level of football.  It wasn’t until he demonstrated success there that he was giving the big opportunity.  The time spent out of the spotlight clearly led to many learning experiences.

What makes the story powerful is the understanding that while there were some technical skills which would translate for him from the field to the front office, Elway (and his bosses) understood that others would have to be learned.  The organization was willing to let him take the time to learn how to manage and lead in a non-technical role.

The lessons for the rest of us are that:

  • Management skills are different from technical ones (e.g., the best sales person is not necessarily the best sales manager). We can use valid tools to identify which of our technical experts possess them.
  • Management development is a journey, as is the acquisition of any skill set.

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