Is Color-Blind Hiring Enough?

I have written previously about blind auditions and interviews.  These are ideas that are now gaining a bit more traction as companies look to reduce potential racial discrimination in their hiring practices.  Others look at these measures as misguided and that taking race into account is the only way to diversify hiring.  I understand that the author is an arts critic trying to make a point about the industry he covers, so being a provocateur is an important part of the article.  However, he proposes ideas that I think should be evaluated.

First is that, basically, all applicants for playing positions at top tier orchestras are all pretty much the same.  I am sure that all of those people in the suburbs who pay top dollar to go into the city to listen to an orchestra would be thrilled to know that they can really stay closer to home and hear essentially the same thing for a lot less money.  But, the author then goes on to say that there are (potentially, as he does not manage an orchestra) other aspects of being an orchestra member that should be considered (e.g., being a good educator and openness to new musical experiences).  The implication here is that these are job duties where there are meaningful differences and can be used to screen applicants.  His point is a good one—we can do a better job of hiring when we consider how job duties have changed when creating selection systems.  And, some of these changes may lead to more diverse selections.

He brings up a good point when he says that the problem with diverse hires occurs well before the audition stage in that few Black or Latino kids get interested in symphonic music.  In the case of those who enjoy the music, they don’t have the same access to training as white kids who also want to make a career out of it.  Whether it is for jobs that have traditionally discriminated based on sex or race, developing interest via training or mentoring programs is one of the long-term solutions to hiring a more diverse workforce. 

The last point addressed is representation—the idea that the racial diversity of an orchestra should reflect…well, what should it reflect?  The people who listen to the music?  The orchestra’s ticket buyers? The city/town where the orchestra is located?  The pool of applicants?  This is where people get queasy about hiring diversity.  We start wading into the murky waters of quotas, tokenism, and how finely we define representation.  The goals may be noble, but it is the process that counts.

I would argue that representation should reflect the diversity of the qualified applicants rather than some pipe dream about how popular a white European art form is to modern day American youth (see this article for a somewhat divergent opinion).  In the near term, that means creating and maintaining unbiased selection systems that reflect what the job truly requires.  In the longer term, it means developing pipelines to all students who are interested in careers where there is and/or has been systematic discrimination. 

Some companies may feel that in the current climate they have to do something now to improve their diversity and they should.  Additionally, they should address systemic hiring discrimination, which requires more foundational changes.  These can include programs that make their industry welcoming to all (e.g., providing classroom experiences) and training/mentoring programs for those who are interested in careers who have come from groups that traditionally were excluded from jobs with them.

Adjusting Your HR Strategy When Your Company Decides to Train For Basic Job Skills

There is a presumption that the US education system will provide employers with workers that possess requisite job skills.  Companies are then responsible for providing more advanced ones through apprenticeships, job training, and leadership development.  But, what if job seekers do not possess the skills for tech jobs?

This article describes what lengths some employers are going to get people in their talent pipeline.  In many ways, there is nothing new here.  It comes down to searching for talent where they previously hadn’t and providing training rather than expecting people to come with skills.  It’s the latter that I find most interesting.

When designing selection programs, particularly for entry level positions, we tend to focus on what knowledge or skills the candidates needs on the first day.  Those expectations are higher if we expect someone to come with experience than if we are going to be providing a lot of training.  This has important impacts on how we select candidates, including:

  1. Use of aptitude tests rather than knowledge tests.  Aptitude tests are terrific measures of basic skills and are quite valid.  However, speeded ones can lead to adverse impact, so they require good validation studies, meaningful passing scores, and adverse impact analyses.
  2. Alter interview questions so that a wide variety of experiences can be used to answer them.  If you are hiring people who don’t have experiences in your industry, you should be asking valid questions that people with little or no job experience can answer.  For instance, instead of, “Tell me about a time when you led a team project at work and…” use “Tell me about a time when you had to influence a group of friends and…”
  3. Focus on reducing turnover.  Training is EXPENSIVE, so hiring mistakes in a boot camp environment are very costly.  Take special care in developing realistic job previews and other ways that allow candidates to decide if they are not a good fit.  Collect information (previous experiences, referral sources, school majors, etc.) that may be indicative of future turnover and validate them.  These can be part of very useful pre-employment processes.

What this approach really presents is a change in HR strategy from one that relies on people to be able to start on day one to taking time to get them up to speed.  By having recruitment, selection, and development leaders involved in the execution, organizations can adapt their tactics for identifying and selecting talent and have a smoother transition.

Who’s Next?

My process improvement friends like to say, “Improving the work is the work.”  There is some truth to that in HR as well.  But, I think that it is also fair to say that “Keeping the talent pipeline full is the work.”  I’ll admit that it’s less catchy.

Succession planning is a topic as old as business, so I will cut to the chase:  This may be an area where companies are getting better.  The data is interesting as well in that it shows (at least in this sample) that public companies are better at it than private ones.  I would be curious as to whether there is an additional split between family owned and other types of ownership among the private companies.

I think that transparency (welcomed or not) has a lot to do with boards (and, hopefully, HR) being more concerned about high level succession planning.  Part of what big investors are buying is the leadership team and the more focus there is on CEOs and their impact, the more concern investors will have in the less-than-famous leaders.

Good succession planning does not stop at the C-Suite.  It should be considered part of talent development for every position in the company.  Whether it is at the entry (where are we going to find new employees?) or management (how can we identify leadership potential?) levels, the work is ensuring that there is a strategy for identifying talent.

This process involves both valid assessment (who is interested and capable of doing what we need?) and development (what are the experiences that a person needs to be prepared for the next move?).  Keeping the pipeline full means focusing on both so that when a position comes open the question, “Who’s next?” can be answered quickly and reliably.

Shaping Skills to Your Work

It is important to use valid selection tools to hire people for the work you have for them.  But, what happens when technology changes the tasks or the jobs get replaced by automation?  You can let people go as their work becomes obsolete and hire new staff.  However, in times with low unemployment, this strategy will be difficult to execute.  Or, you can train people to acquire the new skills.  This has big implications in industries where tech is changing the nature of work, such as mining and warehousing, just to name two.  However, trying to train lots of people in new skills assumes that they have the interest and aptitude for learning them.  Remember, people chose to pursue their given job/career for a reason.

Amazon and Walmart provide an example of this type of investment.  Their programs include technical and college training.  What is telling about their plans is that neither company considers it a “nice to have.”  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the skills it takes to run their businesses are changing and they don’t think they can find enough talent to meet future needs in the labor pool.  This may be because so many young people want a career that requires as little work as possible.

The situation also makes one think about selecting people for industries where the skills required change rapidly.  Instead of using tests or interviews that focus on specific abilities, perhaps addressing broader ones, such as openness to new experiences and general aptitude, will serve companies better.

Trying to Stop the Tides

It seems very old-school, but sea ports are still very big business.  The twin ports in southern California (LA and Long Beach) are a huge economic driver (they are the primary sender/receiver of goods between North America and Asia) and employer.  But, they are also one of the biggest polluters in the region.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been a balancing act to keep the ports humming and making the area healthier.

A bit more under the radar has been the creep of automation. While car companies fought this battle with their unions a generation ago, the idea that automation can be stopped is still alive and well among the longshoremen.  This article gets into some of the specifics regarding the plan and it potential impacts.

From an HR perspective, the bigger story here is not the automation (it is going to happen as it makes the port more eco-friendly and efficient), but the lack of planning regarding the retraining of workers.  It is somewhat surprising that this is occurring at the ports because most of the labor disputes over the last 20 or so years have not been over wages but over the number of jobs.  The port and the union are now in negotiations about retraining and head count for different positions, but this is time and goodwill being spent now on solutions that could have been anticipated.

A better approach would be:

  1. Analyze the skills required for current jobs and for those created by the automation. Yes, new equipment needs to be programmed, maintained, etc.  Metrics of productivity and cost need up to updated, tracked, etc.
  2. Where the skills map directly, there no problem and this should be communicated to those employees.
  3. Where the skills don’t completely map, determine how the skills can be acquired.
  4. Communicate the path to skill acquisition clearly to those whose positions are going to be eliminated or changed. It should be presented as an opportunity rather than a threat.
  5. Provide adequate resources (tuition reimbursement, time away from work, etc.) to allow for the retraining.
  6. Develop and/or promote an internal posting system for those who cannot be placed in the new positions.

Automation has always been a part of business and that is not changing any time soon.  Trying to prevent is as useless a stopping the tides.  However, planning for it allows companies to keep valuable employees and for employees who are willing to upgrade their skills to stay employed.

Are Organizations Becoming Less Biased?

I’ve written quite a bit about bias in this blog. It is an important topic to me because I believe that people in HR and industrial psychology can be gatekeepers to a more fair society while improving organizational performance. Of course, bias in employment is merely an extension of what happens in the greater society. One of the assumptions about bias is that it is fairly stable so we have to almost trick people into being fair.

However, this study has some better news. Their analysis indicates that over a 20 year period bias against skin color and sexual orientation have been reduced. However, bias against weight has increased. Attitudes towards age and disability have stayed the same. Strangely, gender bias is not addressed.

The study raises many interesting questions about whether these changes are being experienced across demographic groups or only primarily within specific ones. However, it does provide some questions for HR practices, such as:

  • What steps can we take to reduce bias in hiring based on weight? Phone interviews instead of live ones?
  • Do we need to change our anti-discrimination training to focus more on weight and less on other issues?

The data does seem to point to those characteristics that we perceive as choices (being overweight) as having stronger biases than those that we have always perceived as innate (skin color) and those that the culture is now thinking of as such (sexual orientation).

Each organization can see where its implicit bias “blind spots” are by analyzing its hiring and promotional data. I understand that this can lead to some unkind truths. But, it will also allow for focus on areas where bias can be reduced.

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.

Higher Minimum Wages and Success in the Hospitality Industry

The state of California and several of its cities have been on the forefront of raising the minimum wage.  The arguments for (people cannot live on the current minimum wage) and against (it will cost jobs because business will need to lay people off) it are familiar.  But now there is some data that makes a very interesting link between quality and the impact of raising wages.

This study looks at the impact of raises in the minimum wage and restaurant employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Don’t be fooled by the academic nature of the paper—the authors do a good job of explaining things in English before digging into the math (though you can get another explanation here with an eye towards the political).  The main takeaway from the article is that well run restaurants (in this case, defined by high Yelp ratings) are not impacted by minimum wage hikes.  Crappy restaurants (based on quality, not menu price) saw their already higher closure rate go up with the increases.  So, what does this mean for HR?

  • Well run businesses can absorb higher wages when their competitors cannot. This may mean higher prices (in some instances people will pay for quality) or that these businesses can survive on lower profit margins.  HR can contribute to this through good hiring (brining in people who can deliver high levels of customer service) and training (developing a learning culture) practices.
  • Use data to improve quality. The study shows that online feedback (in this case, Yelp reviews) is strongly correlated with business success.  This customer input should be used to improve service and quality.
  • If we presume that the vast majority of the workers at the restaurants are at minimum wage (as the paper does), this research tells us that paying more is not an indicator of quality or success. If restaurant A is getting a rating of 5 and restaurant B is getting a rating of 3, it is not due to wage differentials.  Rather, it is likely based on the quality of the product and the level of service.  HR may not have much impact on the former, but it certainly does on the latter.

What the paper really tells is that that business can succeed without necessarily being the one that pays the highest wages.  When wages are held constant, hiring the best people from the available labor pool may lead to higher service delivery.  This, in addition to a good product, can keep a business successful, even if wages are forced to go up.

When Even Tech Job Training Lags Behind Need

In any employment market there are going to be jobs in high demand and those that go unfilled.  In our tech driven economy, the jobs that are hard to recruit for range from utility lineman (long hours, hard work, and fabulous pay) and, strangely enough, cyber security.  With all of the hype and news around hacking, I was surprised to learn that these $80k/year jobs are readily available.  But why?

From a selection standpoint, good cyber security engineers need an odd combination of skills.  Of course they need to be great programmers with high levels of critical thinking.  However, they often need to have a criminal’s mindset (“How would I get into this system without someone knowing?”), which makes them a risky hire given their access to sensitive data.  And makes them attractive on the black market.

The incentives for prevention jobs are also difficult.  After all, they are performing well when nothing goes wrong.  But, when someone breaks into the system…

This is an opportunity for industry and universities to work together.  College students want tech jobs (sorry to those of you who recruit linemen), but they tend to want to work in the sexier product/app development area. Tech companies can show higher education how to make the field more “fun,” perhaps through gamification and appealing to the cat-and-mouse aspect of the work.

My sense is that they pay for these jobs will also need to rise to fill them.  If it is true that good cyber security engineers have good hacking skills, there needs to be a sense of doing the right thing pays at least almost as well as breaking into systems.

What we see is that even tech companies need to be thinking about how to get future workers trained and recruited for jobs that are not that appealing.  As our economy constantly evolves, companies will still need “legacy” employees (yes, some day, app development will be boring compared to what is hot then).  And it is possible that the cycle of job obsolescence will become shorter.  This makes the challenge for schools to provide the skills to future employees even greater.  Industry and education will both benefit if they work together in that venture.  I just hope in the meantime no one has hacked my blog.

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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