Hiring Managers Are Often Their Own Worst Enemies

Being in the job-skill testing business, I see many organizations engaging in self-destructive employment behavior. There are always small groups of hiring managers who think they were born with the wisdom of Solomon. That is, they seem to reject hard evidence in favor of the half-blind eye of personal subjectivity. Here are some examples:

  • A company wanted to hire only the best sales managers, so they required each job candidate to complete a business analysis case, make a time and territory plan, negotiate an internal disagreement with a team member, and make a presentation to a customer. The company correctly reasoned if these tasks were required on the job, every candidate should be able to do them successfully pre-hire. Only one snag. One of the hiring managers decided to “skirt” the system. He hired a personal acquaintance, then sent the candidate for evaluation where she bombed the analysis case, failed to plan time and territory, infuriated the team member, and botched the presentation to the customer. What do you think will be the on-the-job result? Who should be blamed for this failure, the candidate with the bad skill-set or the hiring manager?
  • A company president wanted to hire a new plant manager to install some high-tech production equipment. Four candidates were evaluated for their ability to work in a close-knit interactive team and to think “outside the box” ó both necessary requirements for the job. All but one candidate (the president’s favorite) performed well. In spite of their performance, the president promoted his personal favorite (the least qualified) and, lo and behold, the candidate could not get along with team members and could not “think outside the box.” The project ended in disaster.
  • A department manager was hired for his obsessive planning and organizing ability. His experienced subordinates were a highly accomplished group of self-starting professionals who did not need close supervision. He micro-managed their behavior and was proud of it. Some quit. Previously successful professionals were terminated. The department manager eventually quit. Senior management did not have a clue why it happened.

Think of the Future When I ask HR, training, and recruiting people why employees fail, they often describe no opportunity, poor management, unfair treatment, no training, or the like. Staff and support people consistently envision failed employees as “victims.” When I ask the same question of line managers, they often describe people who cannot learn, make bad decisions, are not motivated, or have poor teamwork skills. Line people consistently see failed employees as skills-deficient. This is a major credibility gap. If a line manager says new employees often lack job skills, staffers and suppliers had better get a clue fast! Departments and services that fail to meet line manager expectations are on a fast track to outsourcing. What you hire today will become the management of tomorrow. If you set standards low or make hiring and promotion compromises, the only people queued for promotion will be yesterday’s marginal performers. Here are four different types of hiring and firing strategies that organizations can use:

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  1. Hire easy, fire easy. This organization is quick to hire and quick to fire. They pride themselves on fast acquisition and periodic elimination of “the bottom 10%”. People are hired on reputation, not evaluation. On the surface, firing the bottom 10% may seem an attractive idea, but it actually creates a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” environment that will eventually undermine the long-term viability of the company. Why? Personal survival encourages cut-throat internal competition, defensive politics, and putting personal success ahead of organizational success. This strategy makes attractive cocktail conversation but cannot develop a broad base of employee bench-strength. It emphasizes the wrong values.
  2. Hire easy, fire hard. This type of organization saddles itself with the baggage of unproductive people. They hire based on interviews and seldom eliminate deadwood. Employment is often a “life-term appointment” where the main requirement is for people to keep low, not make waves, avoid risk, and not expectorate on a senior officer. Working in one of these organizations is like working in a time warp. Employees often praise the benefits and security of the organization, but there is little innovation and competitive advantage. Employees often lack hard-edged skills. Many utilities and governmental agencies follow this model. Their employees are ill-equipped to compete aggressively and often punished for taking risk.
  3. Hire hard, fire easy. This is a unique kind of organization. It puts considerable time and energy into hiring and promoting people with exceptional competencies and often attracts the best and brightest workers. Unfortunately, working in this type of organization can be highly dysfunctional. On one hand, it praises and publicizes the value of its employees, while at the same time it terminates people for minor infractions. It can be identified by high employee burnout, high turnover, and a cadre of alumni who forge strong relationships that often grow into new sources of competition. You often see this in consulting organizations. Sales tend to top out because the company cannot retain an infrastructure of core-skilled people.
  4. Hire hard, fire hard. This is an ideal organizational model, and a rare one. The company has stringent employment and promotion requirements where candidates must demonstrate an ability to perform a job before being hired. These people are consistently smart, organized, interpersonally skilled, and motivated. In exchange, management treats them as valuable human assets. The company develops considerable bench strength because good people keep getting better, risk taking is rewarded, turnover is low, and loyalty is rewarded. I am sure there are some of these corporations out there.

Conclusion Every company culture has consequences that affect both growth and development. This culture is often reflected in how employees are hired and managed. Any organization that sets hiring standards low will experience highly variable employee performance. Any organization that is quick to terminate employees based on arbitrary standards or poor management practices will always create cultures where employees focus more on personal survival than organizational growth.

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1 Comment on “Hiring Managers Are Often Their Own Worst Enemies

  1. Rhetorical question: Why don’t most companies hire hard? Why is assessment and selection primarily based upon surface-level interviewing that offers protective rather than predictive validity?

    Let me answer with a story…

    Start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. Before long, an ape will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the apes with cold water.

    After a while, another ape makes an attempt with the same result – all the apes are sprayed with cold water.

    Turn off the cold water.

    If, later, another ape tries to climb the stairs, the other apes will try to prevent it even though no water sprays them.

    Now, remove one ape from the cage and replace it with a new one.

    The new ape sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs.

    To his horror, all of the other apes attack him.

    After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

    Next, remove another of the original five apes and replace it with a new one.

    The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked.

    The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

    Again, replace a third original ape with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well.

    Two of the four apes that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest ape.

    After replacing the fourth and fifth original apes, all the apes which have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced.

    Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the stairs. Why not?

    ‘Because that’s the way it’s always been around here.’

    That’s how company culture begins.

    *****

    Same goes with recruiting – so many recruiters have either been trained by recruiters whose processes, etc. are suspect or are modeling their behaviors against recruiters with whom they have had significant interactions. Perhaps they even had some rudimentary interviewing skills training offered by the HR department.

    Selection science is not voodoo nor a replacement for gut assessments. ‘Hard’ tools are necessary complements that should be employed to minimize ‘bad fits.’

    The alternative is to miss picking the ripest fruit.

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