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Gut feeling

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Aldous Huxley would probably have called them social engineers, but human resources (HR) specialists is probably the term more appropriately given to those organisations that play a key role in helping businesses find the right people for their operations. And while a small business operator may not be looking for a high flyer who commands a big ticket salary, there is a lot to learn from organisations whose speciality it is to find key employees, or to help shape a firm’s current employees into better players.

I spoke to Peter Neil, a director of SHL Australia, about ways to minimise the risk of hiring the wrong person. With work placement reports suggesting that most employers form a lasting judgment about applicants in the first ten minutes of an interview, Peter has views on the many risks associated with relying solely on a gut feeling during a recruitment process.

SHL is an international company that works with organisations to help them define what’s important in the role, to help measure those characteristics and then help develop people once they’re in those roles.

Employers seek SHL services for many reasons: firstly, if they’re looking to make a high stakes hire into a senior position or a high-risk position; secondly when they have a group of people they think could be performing more effectively; and thirdly, when they’re creating a role or a group of jobs and need help on how to define and measure success.

“The reality is that people in business do need someone to engineer the right outcome because the recruitment process is very difficult,” says Neil. But is there truth in the claim that the first 10 minutes of an interview has a long-lasting effect? Neil thinks there is.

“People are hardwired and also conditioned to make quick judgments, it’s the way people operate. It saves time for later.

It’s part of the way human beings process information. There’s so much information around that you have to act quickly, and you’re almost trained to make quick judgments about all sorts of things.

“The best way to think about it is that you need to use that intuition, skill and natural ability, but temper that with a knowledge of the kind of things that can go wrong and the biases that you might bring to a situation. So, for example, if someone in a recruitment situation comes to see you for an interview, and they’re maybe ten minutes late — they’re flustered, disorganised and dishevelled. The natural first inclination is to think that this person is not prepared, not planned and not a good hire.”

But Neil says that there could be a number of good reasons that are completely out of character of why this person has appeared in this way. “There are some biases. The halo effect is the opposite of that – someone who’s very well presented, very smooth and has all the right answers. There are risks either way.”

How does someone overcome this natural bias to be unfair, to be subjective rather than objective? “You need to be aware of the potential biases. So, from an employer’s point of view, it’s natural in some cases to want to hire someone who’s like you, who’s similar to you. That maybe a little different to what the requirements of the role actually are. So the first point would be having a very clear understanding of what the requirements of the role are, and that applies in a very small business or in a big corporation.

“Have a good handle on what those capabilities or competencies are and then formulate your questions in a way that’s going to give you the maximum information in the time you’ve got,” he says.

While Neil recommends having a checklist of all the key qualities you want in a new recruit or someone you’re going to promote, there could be a case for having a more informal approach to the interview.

“There’s evidence suggesting that informal relaxed interviews tend to get the best out of people. At SHL, we’ve got a few issues with that belief, but we would acknowledge that helping people relax and overcome their initial nerves — interviews can be stressful situations — we’d recommend that you do that, that you build rapport and you give a person a chance to settle in. Combining that with a structured approach where you’re trying to be as objective as possible is important,” he says.

I asked Neil if the doctrine of being slow to hire but quick to fire is worth following. “There is a clear connection between conducting a thorough rigorous objective assessment and the results of that person once they’re in the job. Intuition can be a powerful thing and if there are niggling doubts or nagging feelings that maybe this person isn’t right, I’d encourage those people, when they’re doing these interviews in the future, to really dwell on what those niggling doubts might have been because invariably they’ll be picking up cues that relate to something that’s important in the role.

“I’d encourage them to explore those doubts in the interview situation and to be as thorough as possible. Small business surveys conducted by organisations like Sensis often indicate that the number one concern was the difficulty of finding good people or finding the right skills.”

Neil maintains that such reports can encourage people to almost rush to hire people.

“Because once they think they’ve got the right person, they’ll be very keen to grab them. It’s a trap. The risks of doing that are certainly out-weighed by the benefits. The risks of the wrong person in the role are significant,” he says.
“Once you’ve established these competencies that are important, you don’t just throw those away once you’ve hired the person. They need to guide you right through — we refer to it as the employment cycle. So in that first three to six months, whether there’s a formal probation period or not, I think you have to apply a measured objective approach to assessing someone’s performance against the same criteria as you’ve hired them against. So, we’d advise you to use those competencies as a guide point right through the person’s employment once you’ve got them on board,” he says.

Lots of people are developing very successful small operations nowadays and they’re going to recruiters. They often try newspapers, receive 80 responses and find the whole process too hard — so they end up with recruiters.

I came across a story recently where an employer hired someone, paid them over the award and really looked after them. After about three or four months they came along and said “I want to work an eight-day fortnight now”, and when they were asked why, they said they wanted to develop their own business on the side. They wanted to use the other small business to develop their business, as a safety net.

I asked Neil how an employer would deal with something like that.

“Regardless of how good your process is, occasionally you will have left-field things like that coming at you. How do you deal with that? I’m not sure that your recruitment process will necessarily always pick that type of thing up because you’ll have some people who have the best of intentions and, as an employer, if you’re interested in bringing them on you’ll give them all sorts of advantages. But maybe those things just get missed from time to time,” he says.

And that’s the reality of being an employer!

Published on: Thursday, September 17, 2009

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