What Are Your Company’s Selection Myths?

For North American sports fans, there is not a more public selection process than that National Football League (NFL) preparing for the annual talent draft.  This is the process for allocating new players (rookies) who have finished their college careers to the teams.  Players cannot sign a contract with any team they choose until after they complete their rookie contract with the team that drafts them.  Players not chosen in the draft can sign with any team.

Besides evaluating players based on their college games, the NFL teams also invite the top players to be evaluated at what they call a combine.  At the combine, players get interviewed by teams and are put through a variety of physical and medical tests.  Teams use all of this information to compare players against each other (by position) so they can make the best choices during the draft.

Of course, in reality, the top draft choices are made mostly based on the players performance in college.  Players at the best schools compete with and against other players who are likely to be drafted, so watching them perform in a game tells teams pretty much what they need to know.  And, as I wrote about last week, there is a big bias towards players who went to the “best” schools.  But, the teams do use information at the combine to inform them about players who they don’t feel they have good data on.  For instance, those who are recovering from injuries or played at schools that don’t compete against the top schools.

There’s only one problem:  There is very little data that supports that the “tests” given at the combine of predictive of success in the NFL.  This article about the problems in measuring hand size in quarterbacks provides just one example of that.

One can see how this all got started.  Quarterbacks need to be able to throw a ball well (with a lot of speed and accuracy) and to be able to hold on to it under pressure and having a large hand (as measured from the tip of the thumb to tip of the pinkie) would seemingly be related to both of those.  But, it’s not.  All quarterbacks grip the ball a little bit differently, regardless of hand size, to get the best results.  The article suggests that hand strength is the better predictor of quarterback performance and that it is unrelated to size.  But, those who evaluate quarterbacks just cannot let the size measurement go.

I am guessing that most of your organizations have an unproven selection myth, such as, “Our best managers have gotten their MBAs from one of 10 schools” or “Good supervisors are those who have worked their way up in our industry” or “Our most successful programmers had previous experience at specific companies.”  I used to hear, “Our best call center agents have previous experience before coming here” all of the time.  But, when I conducted validation studies in contact centers, it was rare that previous experience was a good predictor of future performance. These myths are easy to evaluate, but changing HR practices is harder.  It often requires good data and a shift in culture to change thinking.  However, moving on from myths is often required to make better talent decisions.

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.

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.

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.

How Far Will You Go to Emphasize a Culture of Customer Service?

I am a regular listener to the podcast of This American Life.  Recently, they had a segment on customer satisfaction and L.L. Bean’s extreme version interpreting it (“Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory.”).  You can read the transcript here (go down to “Act Two. Bean Counter”) or download to podcast (I recommend the latter).  Some of the stories are stunning.

The first issue is who gets to define customer satisfaction?  The company?  The customer?  Of course, only the customer knows if s/he is truly satisfied with a product or service and the satisfaction is generally derived from whether or not they got exactly what they wanted out of the transaction. So, the question really is what will a company do when the customer is not satisfied?

In non-competitive marketplaces (think government services or other monopolies), don’t hold your breath.  To them, customer satisfaction is a cost, not an investment.  There is no incentive for them to make you happy (though, one could argue that working in a customer service oriented environment would lead to a better culture, which leads to better word of mouth when it comes to recruiting).   Lucky Patcher app The same goes for pseudo-competitive marketplaces (like cable/satellite TV) where you have some limited choices but making a switch is really a pain in the ass.

However, in competitive marketplaces, like apparel, delivering superior customer service is a differentiator.  All of us can think of how different retailers interpret customer satisfaction and the investment they put into it.

What I found most interesting during the podcast was the training that went into ensuring that LL Bean’s return policy was carried out.  It’s one thing to say, “OK, we’ll take back anything that you bring back for store credit” and another to do it in a way that provides for a satisfying experience for the customer.  Note that they trained people who work in returns to execute the letter and the spirit of the policy.  LL Bean also selects people who work in that department who have the personality and skills to carry it out.

What this tells us is that customer service does not just happen.  Rather, it is a combination of strategy, culture, and the right people to treat customers the way the company wants to treat them.  What is your plan to align all of these?

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