Does Your HR Department Help or Hinder Company Change?

I love it when companies announce they are going to “reorganize.” There is plenty of hoopla and fanfare, and a bazillion dollars are spent on new logos, advertising, press releases, employee meetings, reorganization charts and the like. Imagine their disappointment when, about 18 to 24 months later, they are still reorganizing, and reorganizing, and reorganizing… Eventually, the senior executives who started the whole thing start looking for scapegoats to shoulder blame for the whole change fiasco. Why does this always happen? While organizations are willing to spend big money on consultants, training, and workshops to reorganize workflow and processes, HR is either unwilling or unable to spend anything on hiring. “What does hiring have to do with reorganization?” one so-called “OD” consultant asked me. Duh! Just about everything. Interview-Based Hiring Will Let You Down Suppose you were not feeling well, so you went to your doctor. After careful examination, he proclaimed that your physical “humours” were out of balance and that he would need to lance a vein (or two) to let out the “bad blood” so you could get better. What, you say? You’d be out of his office before you could say “quack”! But before you run, you might want to know that bloodletting was the physician’s treatment of choice for almost every illness for about 2500 years! It was still actively practiced through the early 19th century ó perhaps even your grandparents received the treatment. Think about it. Bloodletting was almost worthless, but tradition kept it alive until science finally demonstrated the cure was often as fatal as the illness. Most interviewers don’t “bleed” their applicants looking for evidence of job skills among the four bodily humours. But using interviews to accurately predict performance is almost as worthless. For one reason, a smart applicant knows how to say or do anything to get hired (i.e., skills and accomplishments are totally self-reported). For another, some interviewers tend to think of themselves as pop-psychologists and seldom, if ever, follow up on their hires to determine their accuracy (one recruiter told me he measured accuracy by whether the employee stayed on the job six months). Once you eliminate applicants who are too dull to figure out the right answers to interview questions (“Tell me, Dr. Lechter, what is your favorite food?”), predictive accuracy for the remainder is no better than chance. Need proof? Look at your last 100 hires. If you’re sure you only hired the best producers, how did all those duds get through your screen? Did you conscientiously hire a few losers just to balance out the winners? Be honest. Companies only hire people who interview well, don’t they? Doesn’t this tell you something? Variable Quality Workforce By now you should be uncomfortably aware that interviews, panel or otherwise, are not accurate enough to effectively screen for consistent employee skills. That’s where organizational systems take over. Some organizations belong to the “Mark Burnett School of Performance” (Mark Burnett is the developer of the TV program “Survivor”). That is, “Mark selects the initial contestants, but one gets voted off the island at the end of each program.” Man! Maybe I’m just sensitive, but that seems like a brutal (and expensive) way to correct bad hiring practices. Not only do you have the expense of hiring and training a new employee, the survivors would tend to either turn cutthroat against each other or against the company. Not a nice place to work. Organizations that don’t follow the Mark Burnett school of thought tend to follow the Darwinian attraction-selection-attrition (ASA) approach described by Ben Schneider at U. Maryland. ASA means that organizations tend to attract people like themselves (attraction), these people tend to get hired and stay (selection), and those who are different tend to leave (attrition). Put these two theories together and you get an organization filled with people with variable skills, yet who tend to think alike. Now, who wants to try to change that environment using workshops and re-engineering? Can you turn a process-oriented company into an entrepreneurial one? Command and control into self-directed teams? Risk averse into innovative? Sure. You’ll have just as much success convincing Tammy Faye Baker to cut back on the mascara. Selection Either Helps or Hinders Organizational redesigns have to flow downward. If you believe the press, a large technology company executive group decided the company had lost its competitive edge. There was too much process and not enough innovation. It was time to return to the “garage environment” where the founders got started in order to rekindle the spark of invention. Nice talk, but it you were put in charge of recruiting and staffing, how would you change their hiring model to accommodate the new company vision? Remember, the new company was staffed by established old-company people (remember ASA?). Would you use interviews? (“So tell me, Nancy, are you creative?”) How much creativity can the “new” culture tolerate? What new demands will be put on employees? We all know that entrepreneurial organizations are the antithesis of established ones. The two styles mix like oil and water (guess which one will survive). I’m pretty sure if their “new” HR department does the same-old, same-old, the spin-off will be almost indistinguishable from the parent within a few years. Why? Interviews are flaky, and unrelenting ASA pressure will slowly push the ship back on course. It helps to think of your present workforce as a house built by a totally color-blind builder. The house is constructed of red bricks, blue bricks, yellow bricks, and green bricks. They all looked alike to the builder a few years ago, but if your boss wants to only build houses made of red bricks, you will need to screen out all future green, yellow and blue bricks. How To Get There From Here The first step toward organizational change is to simplify the whole job description thing and think of jobs as families with similar competencies. No, I’m not talking about a C++ competency versus a Visual Basic competency (both these subjects be combined into a general competency called “Technical Knowledge”) What I’m talking about is to look at jobs that require intensive learning, complicated problem solving, extensive planning, etc. Don’t worry if this idea is too “abstract” to absorb, there very few people who know how to do this well. Next, examine each family for “pre” and “post” competency states. For example, a company moving from process-oriented employees to entrepreneurial employees will need people who generally think in abstract terms rather than concrete terms. They will also need people with better interpersonal skills to present their ideas to coworkers, like making suggestions and being dissatisfied with the status quo. There will be many key competency differences that need to be thought through. Each should be clearly identified and mapped out. This will become the fundamental blueprint for change. Can you do this without help? Tell you what. Send me a check for $19.95 plus $5.95 shipping and handling and I’ll send you a brand-new penknife, a mirror, a sewing kit and an anatomy book so you can remove your own appendix (you will be just as successful). Now, decide how much change the organization will tolerate. People don’t like change, and any competency that is too extreme will encounter serious pushback. A new employee with a head full of suggestions expects someone to listen (go figure!). If his or her manager is not ready to support and encourage innovation, the manager will quickly transform that once highly motivated employee into a highly discouraged one. A good rule of thumb is to hire for competencies that will be appreciated and rewarded 18 months to two years “ahead.” Finally, determine how best to measure the competencies you are looking for. Sometimes this will include behavioral or situational pre-screening questions. More often than not, it will require some kind of one-on-one interaction, group exercise, test or simulation. Whatever is used should be validated (no, not by someone else, validated by your organization). Think of simulations or group exercises as behavioral-style interviewing without the interview. That is, you control the situation, you observe the behavior, and you evaluate the response. Same three parts, just more control. Piece of cake, right?

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