Overcoming Selection Buzzwords

When doing a job analysis or writing job descriptions, one of the terms that comes up that makes my hair stand on end is “multi-tasking.”  While our bodies can perform automated functions simultaneously (e.g., driving and talking), our brains cannot consciously do two things at once.  Rather, when I’m “multi-tasking” (like checking my phone and looking up data), what I am really doing is switching quickly (hopefully) between two tasks.  Oh, and recent research shows that men and woman are equally bad at it.

When seeking to understand what managers really want people to do, it is important that we challenge them on vague terms like “multi-task” and “empower.”  When we really get to the meaning of these terms, multi-tasking is being able to handle several projects at once and empower is delegating effectively.  Those are behaviors selection specialists can work with in designing assessments and interviews.

As buzzwords find their way into our conversations about what employees do, our job is to determine the behaviors behind them.  Doing so assigns meaning to the words and starts us on the path of objectively measuring them as part of validated selection systems.

What are your least favorite job description buzzwords?

Is Age Discrimination a Result of Change?

A class-action age discrimination lawsuit has been filed against IBM.  Much of the complaints in the action come from a report that purports to outline how the company has systematically replaced older workers with newer ones.  IBM is denying the allegations.

There are a couple of compelling issues here.  One is whether IBM is using sly methods to rid itself of older (read: more expensive) workers.  The other is whether workers who are in mid-career are technologically behind their younger counterparts in a meaningful way.  I’ll leave the former to the courts.  I’m much more interested in the latter.

There are some national studies that indicate that openness to new experiences does decrease with age.  However, the ability to learn does not. So, we can assume that older employees who are open to learning new technologies can certainly do so.

Whether it is how we get to a friend’s house or how we use technology, most of us like to stick to what we know and adapt to change in ways that keep our patterns of behavior.  To keep up-to-date on new technology or techniques not only requires a desire to learn, but also the willingness to give up what we have been good at.

There probably is not data to support the idea, but I am guessing that the hiring strategy at many companies is that they would rather select people who know the new stuff rather than try to train for it. If companies decide that they want to bring on those who have experience with newer technology, their layoff/hiring practices will likely show adverse impact against those 40 and older.

A person’s background is instructive in this area.  For people who have stayed up to date on technology throughout their careers, it is foolish to assume that they will not pick up (or haven’t already picked up) on the next new thing.  As such, I don’t believe that they are behind younger workers.  Senior management would have reason to be concerned about older workers who have not shown a willingness to update their skills.

Are older workers less likely to adapt to new technologies?  On the whole, probably.  However, painting them with a broad brush is likely a mistake.  Companies should do a thorough evaluation of the experienced talent before making decisions that can land them in court.

Reducing Bias Through Structure

Finding examples of racial or gender bias in hiring or job evaluations is not hard.  The latest comes from a survey of lawyers.  My sense is that the results did not come from a random sample of attorneys, so I would not quote the group differences as gospel.  The authors recommended some specific ways that law firms and companies that hire lawyers can correct the bias in their HR processes.  There were two things I took from the study:

  • Many, but not all, of the recommendations came from a solid research base. It was good to see that their hiring suggestions included behaviorally based interviews, skills based assessments, and using behavioral definitions of culture.  Each of these suggestions introduces objectively and structure into the hiring process.
  • Given that attorneys have either brought employment lawsuits or have had to defend companies against them since 1964, did it really take this long to come up with some hiring process recommendations?

My consulting experience tells me that people who hire for professional jobs seem to think there is more magic and intuition in selection than those who staff for other types of positions.  This is especially true when hiring for a job they used to have.  They could not be more wrong.  Every job has a set of critical skills and abilities required to do it well.  It is possible to objectively measure these in candidates.  Doing so will likely reduce bias.

Who Should Identify and Develop the Non-College Workforce?

On some occasions I have mentioned that companies that need blue-collar workers are in a tough spot. Their jobs are not very sexy to the millennial or Gen Z workforces who prefer tech jobs.  Also, because lifetime wages are significantly higher for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, parents and high school students tend to have a much more favorable attitude towards going to college than training in a vocation, which is reflected in college application statistics.  We are currently in the midst of low unemployment which makes recruitment for blue collar jobs even more difficult.

Companies should think about this as a long-term, rather than an immediate, issue.  This article talks about how some firms are dipping into high schools to begin identifying students who might not desire (or be qualified for) 4 additional years of school and providing them with what used to be called vocational training.

Of course, if a specific company or industry designs the career education programs (read: vocational), there is a danger of the training being too narrow.  However, no public school in its right mind would ever turn down private money that helps kids get jobs.  And we don’t seem to have a problem with it at the college level where business schools take money (and input) from big employers and provide the students with internships.

The economy goes in cycles and it is not a matter of if, but when, the economy slows and there won’t be the same worker shortage.  However, the trend towards more interest in college and tech jobs will continue for the foreseeable future.  This means that employers of skilled, but not college educated, workers will have to find more ways to create a larger labor pool to find the talent they need.  They can do this by:

  • Aligning with local high schools and community colleges to create curriculum that is broad enough that provides students with career options, but specific enough to allow for an easy transfer from school to the employer.
  • Gauge the interests of students as they enter the program. Interest inventories are an under-utilized selection tool.  This is especially true for entry level employees.  If I’m not interested in social activities, I probably should not be on the wait staff at a restaurant, even if I need the money.  But, if I’d rather work with things than people, then becoming a welder might be up my alley. Validating these types of tests can be a good way to predict potential success by placing students in areas where they are more likely to do well.
  • Provide lifetime learning programs. One thing we know about millennials and Gen Z is that rewarding them for learning is a powerful incentive. Companies should show new recruits all of the opportunities they could potentially have, not just the ones in their trade.

Companies that need skilled blue-collar workers can no longer passively expect a deep talent pool to be available.  Rather, they should take action to identify and develop potential employees.  This will require partnerships, better pre-employment screening, and having developmental programs.  It may not solve the immediate problem, but it will ensure that they have the necessary talent in the future.

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.

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.

People–Can’t Profit With Them, Can’t Profit Without Them

So, in the same week that Tesla says that lack of people is a problem in their business (too many robots!), Starbucks comes to the conclusion that people are biased and are hurting its business, everyone gets training. So, which one is right?

Let’s start with Tesla. Their statement is not as much about how wonderful people are as it is that they haven’t quite (yet) gotten the engineering down for their new cars to be built completely by robots. So, it is not exactly an “Up with people” moment as a “Well, we guess we have to put up with them for a bit longer” one.

The Starbucks situation is a bit stickier. On one hand, they clearly felt as if they had to do something after a horrible incident involving African-American customers to maintain their brand image. But, I think they are setting themselves up for failure. Implicit bias training is well meaning, but correcting a lifetime of assumptions about people in a ½ day seminar is a pretty tall order. What will they do next time a racially tinged incident occurs? Do a full day of training? Validate a test that predicts levels of implicit bias?

Where I think the training will have the most impact is on their new hires. It sets a cultural norm of what is and is not OK. Yes, this will require management support and some way of recognizing employees for being decent human beings. But, in reading the comments on their social media pages after the announcement that may not matter as a lot of people were pretty bent out of shape of having to go one whole afternoon without their Starbucks. Ah, the downsides of selling a legal, but addicting, product.

Service sector organizations will always face the challenge of directing the activities of people in a way that is consistent with their values. Manufacturers are always challenged with introducing technology (which improves efficiency), but also understanding its limits (for now). We are not quite at a point where people can be engineered out of business. So, we still need to lead them in productive ways.

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.

But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

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