7 Obstacles to a Dream Workforce

In this article, an abridged version of one coming up in the Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership, I’ll describe how and why hiring and promoting the best people is usually undermined by seven common organizational obstacles.

Briefly, it helps to think of organizations this way: you can hire and promote 100 people whom 20% are high-quality, 20% low-quality, and the rest so-so; or, you can hire and promote 100 people, of whom 90% are top-notch. The first situation is the norm. It’s what you get when obstacles get in your way. The second option is the exception.

It’s what you get when your obstacles are controlled and minimized.

#1 Overemphasizing Past Performance

Past performance is often used as a predictor or even a gateway for hiring or promotion decisions. Of course we all expect a candidate to do well in a past job; but, if the requirements of the new job differ, we have to use an additional set of tools to measure whether the candidate has additional skills. This is almost always the case when hiring someone for a new job; screening college candidates with no prior job experience; promoting individual contributors to management; promoting managers to executives; making job reassignments; and, so forth.

You can trust past performance for skills that transfer, but you’ll need new assessments to evaluate new skills.

#2 Lacking a Common Denominator

Organizations seldom have a reference point for comparing job skills (i.e., requirements) to human skills (i.e., KSAs). Recall the problems associated with a past space shuttle mission when European engineers used the metric system and U.S. engineers used the English system? Organizations must learn how to clearly define for each job the criteria associated with business necessity and job requirements (i.e., how it is to be done). “How” data serves as a bridge to candidate skills. Without a common skills denominator (i.e., a language of how to get from point A to point B) mistakes will be the norm.

It’s bad mojo when job requirements are written in the metric system and candidate skills use the English system.

#3 Focusing on “What” Instead of “How”

Recall the Wizard of Oz. The story is not about the Oz. It’s about how the characters got there. The same is true of performance. If you measure people by performance alone, you encourage using any means to achieve the ends. Results are always affected by being at the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. This makes informed decisions a leap of faith. Good hiring and promotion depends on isolating and evaluating each candidate’s individual skills.

Performance is less about “what” was achieved and more about ”how” it was accomplished.

#4 Assuming People are Plastic

We have all seen newly hired and promoted employees turn out bad. We have also seen the difficulty of turning incompetent people into competent ones. It’s not news. People resist any and all personal change but expect others to be flexible. Organizations that try to make someone smarter, change their motivations, make them more sensitive, and so forth, will spend money but get little or no return from their investment. Can someone with a slight amount of job talent, be made better? Maybe. Can someone with no talent be transformed into a fully competent employee? Good luck with that.

If you want to climb trees, it’s easier to hire a squirrel than send a chicken to a workshop.

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#5 Management Interference

Not everyone buys into rigorous selection systems. Many managers tend to think hiring expertise is conveyed upon promotion and strongly argue in favor of gut decisions. I emphasize almost every hiring or promotion decision is gut-based; the only real question is whether your gut is informed or uninformed. Professional hiring or promotion systems feed managers’ guts with objective, trustworthy, and reliable data.

An uninformed gut feeling is indistinguishable from eating bad seafood.

#6 Underestimating Financial Impact

Every below-average employee has a cost. It might be measured in turnover, mistakes, or low productivity. Professionals estimate costs of poor performance to be about 10% of annual payroll for unskilled jobs, 20-30% for semi-skilled jobs, and 40-50% for skilled and managerial jobs. Put another way, an organization with annual payroll as small as $500,000 could be squandering $50,000 to $250,000 per year. Imagine the sales necessary to offset that number! Better yet, imagine the effect on the bottom line by doing a better job hiring and promoting skilled employees.

Hiring and promotion practices won’t get better until they have a dollar value.

#7 Ignoring the Odds

Success in hiring depends more on reducing the odds of making a bad decision than it does increasing the odds of hiring a super star. The future is filled with uncertainties such as family problems, economic factors, and so forth. We can’t ever make perfect predictions. We can, however, make very sure each candidate has the right skills for the job. This is the odds game … focus on making the fewest mistakes, and the successes will take care of themselves.

It’s easier to win more often if you concentrate on making fewer mistakes.


12 Comments on “7 Obstacles to a Dream Workforce

  1. I started reading this article expecting to debate it vigorously…I was really impressed. Great job!

    A few points I want to mention:

    In regard to your #4…while there is something to be said for your comments I’d certainly argue the biggest gap in most organizations human resources practices is a lack of training. In other words, far be it from being concerned that you can’t train someone I’d be much more focused on training them, which very few companies do to a substantial degree, especially where mid and high skill levels are involved. In my experience focusing more on the system and less on the individual tends to work better. Train them on the system, incentivize the system (far too often we blame the person on not being trainable rather than focusing on our training itself, as well as our incentives), put metrics in place to measure both so you understand the organizational value of the individual and individuals relative to the system and go from there.

  2. I appreciate your comments…Both Bloom and Kirkpatrick have a taxonomy that rates training effectiveness from basic awareness to measurable ROI…I have yet to see, as a consultant, manager of two major training departments, line manager, or staff manager, a training program transform an incompetent person into a competent one. Make someone a little better, maybe.

    As far as systems go, I think of them as removing the barriers that allow/encourage skilled people to reach their personal potential (hopefully, that potential is sufficient for solid job performance).

  3. How do you define “competent”? When people aren’t performing there are essentially four things that can be going wrong:

    1. Lack of skills – ie. lack of training/conditioning

    2. Lack of motivation – you can train an unmotivated person all you want but if they aren’t motivated you won’t get results out of them…note there’s a big difference between being unmotivated and incompetent

    3. Lack of resources – this can be broad it could be the resources to execute or it could be the resources to take distracting pressures off elsewhere or resources to learn, etc.

    4. Lack of Organization – clarity of goals and objectives, accessibility of resources, flow of people and process, etc.

    I’ve seen a number of things be true when it comes to training:

    – Lack of understanding the basic skill sets involved (there’s a tendency to try to teach higher level concepts that rely on foundational competencies, this is often where differences in learning arise, for example teaching algebra to someone who hasn’t learned addition and subtraction)

    – Failure to break processes and skills down to behaviors

    – A process that doesn’t include thorough gap analysis

    – Lack of persistence with the process (not that it necessarily makes economic sense to persist, that’s a decision that needs to be made, how much are you willing to invest to get your result?)

    Here’s an example of the effectiveness of training…grade school. You can take people from all different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, etc. and they will all learn mathematics. Some might take longer, some might be faster, but given time and following the process with proper instruction they’ll all learn it. That to me is proof that you can develop those skills if the motivation, system, and persistence are applied. (Obviously the exception is people who are mentally handicapped, etc. but those cases aren’t practical for our purposes here).

    The big question this leaves then is if the companies are using effective training systems, then are they lacking the persistence or is there a lack of motivation? This is why the attitude vs. aptitude conversation is so important, because motivated people can achieve great things and those without motivation never will. Hence my comments above about the importance of including incentives.

  4. Let’s expand your point #1 where you cite “Lack of Skills” (i.e., training/conditioning) …People in our society are led to believe they can become anything they choose…That is incredibly damaging to the psyche. For one thing, it sets people up for failure if they fall short; for another, it encourages them to blame all personal failures on the “system”.

    I once argued the same training benefits with a line manager(of course I was a training VP at the time)…It took a few years, but I eventually learned I was dead wrong…However, I don’t want to discourage you from trying to turn every incompetent employee into a competent one. I wish you well…Of course, if you don’t succeed, you can always blame the “system”.

    Good luck!

  5. Nice stuff, really true. I’d like to add two things I’ve seen in my own surroundings a lot. Don’t know how that is in the USA, but in the Netherlands (and I think in Europe in general) we have two major issues that help you not get their too.

    1) Someone is better then nobody.
    Usually we start hiring when someone leaves, so we need to speed up the process. More then once not the best person is hired because he’s availible. Even though sometimes recruitment already knows it’s not really going to work out.

    Now there is a counter argument on this, since in many cases the process is broken so much the ‘perfect hire’ would probably fail too, but I still argue that it usually better to wait.

    Second issue: great people love gret people. Mediocre prople love mediocre people (really, mediocre people don’t like great people, since they can’t admit they are no tgreat themselves, hence they surround themselves with other mediocre people).

    This has to do with retention as much as with hiring. I just read a great interview with the founder of Patagonia. I think a beauty of a company that has their workforce exactly where it needs to be. For the important positions, the founder still goes either surfing or rock climbing with them as part of the selection. If you’re not an outdoorsman… you’re not fit for the company. That keeps the talent working for them. I’ve seen it too many times that the really good people leave because they can’t stand to work with the just a little less good/passionate/driven workers.

  6. Thank you, that helps. Training won’t solve unwillingness. Skills can be trained if the will is there but it takes time and often it’s not worth the investment.

    The biggest question then is “how do you screen for willingness?”

  7. A couple things…you over-estimate the power of training…some jobs require very high levels of intelligence in order to learn, apply knowledge, and solve complicated problems (impossibly difficult to make someone more inteligent) …Others require levels of personal organization skills (scope and breadth) that are execpetionally difficult to train (time management and keeping notes might help, but disorganized people tend to stay that way). Other jobs require behaviors that people are just flat unwilling to change. Finally, motivation is something that seldom changes and can come and go with job conditions. It goes back to my comments that someone attending a training program has the “potential” for improvement, but only slightly. Motivation can be measured using self-reported descriptors(they’re sorta accurate, but not perfect).

  8. “some jobs require very high levels of intelligence in order to learn, apply knowledge, and solve complicated problems (impossibly difficult to make someone more inteligent)”

    The “intelligence” you refer to is a learned skill. Research into people who are at the top of their fields across the board indicate that no special memory, IQ, etc. are required in fields as diverse as sports, science, art, and business. The notion of born intelligence or talent is largely a myth that’s perpetuated itself since the bronze age or before and serves as a convenient excuse for a lack of effectiveness.

    “Others require levels of personal organization skills (scope and breadth) that are execpetionally difficult to train (time management and keeping notes might help, but disorganized people tend to stay that way).”

    Failing to understand the micro-behaviors involved in organization is not the equivalent of those skills being untrainable. Here is the fact, no one is born a great organizer or a great designer or great at anything for that matter. All of those skills are learned and honed. Yes, they are learned over years and years (a lot of research suggests 10-20 years in some cases depending on how expedited and focused their learning is) but that doesn’t mean it’s not learned.

    “Other jobs require behaviors that people are just flat unwilling to change.”

    Perhaps you should take some time to read my comments before replying, I’ve stated consistently that a lack of motivation, that is to say an unwillingness or lack of desire to change makes training virtually impossible (there are ways to motivate but not effectively and consistently within the confines of a business environment. Bottom line, it’s impractical.

    “Motivation can be measured using self-reported descriptors(they’re sorta accurate, but not perfect).”

    In theory I could see some merit to your suggestion here…except when it comes to screening someone for a job there’s another motivator that throws self-reported indicators into question…they want the job. When someone wants the job you have to immediately exercise a high degree of caution around the truth of any statement they make. I’ve seen plenty of cases where someone will be given opportunities to state “I’m not motivated to do this” “I have a problem with that”, etc. but because of the context relying on their honesty is a recipe for disappointment, the only way it really shows up is in their behaviors but in my experience the only time that becomes evident is once they’re put into the necessary context, which typically means going ahead and hiring them (actually the premise of hiring many people and keeping the ones who work out has some merit for low end positions where you can hire a lot, doesn’t work for high end positions though). The other problem is like you said, there are a lot of varying motivational factors (such as who they are working with, the organizational structure, compensation structure, decision making structure, physical environment, tasks, etc.) Find a way to find people who are exceptionally motivated and committed and you’ve got a strong system.

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