A New Paradigm for Hiring:

Change Your Thinking to Significantly Improve the Impact of Selection

Michael Couch
Michael Couch and Associates Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

A client recently complained to me that they had spent months going through 27 candidates to find a single engineer that ended up being just an average performer. A curse of today’s labor market? Maybe. My experience indicates that the culprit is more likely a poorly designed and administered selection process. The projections on the availability of critical talent do not look good; all the more reason for companies to significantly upgrade their approach to selection.

Screen-In rather than Screen-Out Candidates

Most hiring processes I’ve encountered try to narrow down the field of candidates as quickly as possible. One of the easiest ways to improve the return on hiring investment is to do the opposite and focus on increasing the selection ratio – the number of candidates that you consider versus the number that you hire. Though it seems counterintuitive, the number of likely candidates should be kept as large as possible, as far down the decision process as possible. Research by folks at Michigan State has shown that an improvement in this ratio can significantly increase your hiring payback, particularly if your interview process is not the best at identifying top talent.

Many hiring managers set too stringent knockout factors at the start of the process – factors that often have little relationship to future performance and potential. One of the biggest culprits is over-emphasizing technical knowledge that can be learned in a short period of time in the new job. The first steps in the screening process (i.e., on-line screening questions, resume reviews, or telephone screens) should screen-in on broad capabilities such as the ability to learn, ability to achieve results, experience on teams, or experience managing others. Eschew narrow technical skills and GPA.

Google is a great example of this approach. They have moved away from screening based on GPA, brand name schools and other typical screening credentials. Instead they focus on learning ability and how candidates handled a particularly challenging problem in the past – learning on the fly and the ability to process on the fly. They don’t limit their search for people who only have college degrees but also look for people who have successfully navigated through life without a degree. They look for people who have failed gracefully and learned from that failure. For Google, the ability to learn is more important than IQ.

Focus on Potential Not Just Performance

Maybe it’s the result of poor workforce planning but many hiring managers want someone who exactly matches the narrow technical knowledge requirements they have established so that the person “can hit the ground running.” Besides the impact on selection ROI mentioned above, this mindset is very shortsighted and can spell disaster down the road.

There is a big payoff for companies that promote from within. This opportunity is lost if you ignore a new hire’s future potential and only select with a focus on immediate job performance. The result is a pipeline of internal talent that is limited in its ability to adjust to change and to take on broader and higher-level responsibilities. Most companies make the situation worse by then promoting their best technical talent into management roles further reducing the overall capability of the organization (and frustrating good technical talent!).

Hiring for potential is not as tough as it sounds. Research has shown that the best predictor of potential is learning agility – the capability of a person to effectively handle new and challenging situations. Learning agile people not only handle first-time challenges well, they actually relish the opportunity, inspire others to step up, and apply what they learned from the challenge in other situations. As with Google’s experience mentioned previously, they are not afraid to fail and learn from failure.

The interview process should include behavior-based questions that explore learning agility – ask about past challenges, how they handled them, what they learned from the situation and how they applied the learning later on. If you’ve also focused on improving your selection ratio (see above) you will see a clear difference in how candidates describe their behavior in these areas.

Selection is a Project

Just like other projects that occur in process stages (i.e., product development), selection tasks should be planned concurrently, should have clear milestones with reviews and measures, and require coordinating the work of multiple contributors. Recruiters or HR Business Partners must be effective project managers, able to manage multiple projects simultaneously. Speed-to-hire is a critical selection process performance measure since many of the best candidates get multiple opportunities and are placed quickly.

Start the selection process with a detailed project plan. Use project and collaboration software. Have clear expectations on timeframes and results. Hold kick-off communications sessions to get stakeholder’s commitment, plan their schedules, and clarify expectations. If the process cannot be a priority for key players, then negotiate with resource providers to change priorities, move out timeframes, or add resources to meet commitments.

Having a plan with committed resources allows timeframes to be compressed . . . Potential candidate resumes will be compiled for review on X date. Reviewers will meet on Y date and make the first screen-in decisions. Interview dates and times are known when telephone discussions with candidates occur. Telephone screeners know the capabilities, are empowered to make screen-in decisions, and can schedule interviews on the call. No more “I’ll get back to you.” Interview dates are scheduled in advance and Behavior-Based Interview Training occurs while the rest of the process moves forward.

For cost reasons, many HR departments wait until late in the process (when many candidates have been “screened out”) before drug screens and background checks are scheduled. This is like putting prototyping at the end of product development. Forget the cost, it’s minor. Do these steps earlier in the process so that offers can be made immediately following interviews – no delay.

Now for a big change. Schedule all the interviews on the same day. Have candidates show up at the same time, one group in the morning, another in the afternoon if necessary. The candidates hear a pitch about the company and the job as a group then go through a series of individual interviews. Each interview focuses on a unique set of competencies (selected in advance), assessed through behavior-based interviewing techniques. Interviewers meet at the end of the day, review their results and make their screen-in decisions, in a priority order.

I’ve seen the group interview approach work very effectively in a number of settings. It comes across to the candidates as being very professional and organized. (One of the biggest interviewee complaints is that different interviewers asked them the same questions.) You can also get back to them immediately with a decision. Interviewers like it because it uses their time wisely and gives them a tool that makes the process cleaner. It also avoids the “context effect” that occurs when interviews are scheduled over days, weeks or months. This effect, discovered in interview research, showed that interviewers will adjust their internal scale based on the capability of the last candidate reviewed.

Know Success When You See It

The success profile that drives hiring decisions should not describe the typical performer that meets minimum requirements. Average performers describe their jobs differently and view results differently than do top performers. Research has shown that the productivity differences between average and top performers is significant, sometimes 100 to 200% higher. Effective hiring can have a significant payoff, if productivity improvements in the role have a benefit to the company.

You should know your top performers and model the hiring success profiles after them. Top performers should be part of the selection decision, especially interviewing. Do not relegate this task to just anyone.

No matter who does the interviewing, they must be trained in behavior-based interviewing techniques. Interviews should be structured so they gather as much relevant data as possible and come across as very professional to the candidates. The way the interview data is combined into a decision should also be structured and objective, focusing on actual behaviors and observations, not impressions and inferences.

Don’t Hesitate

Screen-in to improve the selection ratio. Assess potential. Manage hiring like a project. Know what success looks like and make efforts to improve the reliability and validity of interviews. I’ve seen these recommendations make a difference in all kinds of labor markets. The continuing and growing war for talent makes this change in thinking all the more critical.