I Thought I Heard It All

I thought I had heard it all ó that is, until my wife showed me an article in the Saturday, June 8, 2003, Atlanta Journal Constitution entitled, “Adventures in Job Hunting: Some companies use role-playing techniques to see if a potential hire has personality that’s a good fit.” Interesting, I thought, apparently skills are less important than personality. I began reading. The author seemed very enthusiastic about his subject and cited several examples to illustrate his point:

  • A small ice cream chain gives a person a paper bag and asks them to do something creative with it. The author was impressed by this ingenious hiring technique and enthusiastically suggested “a great many [companies] could learn from the ice cream shop.” (Learn what, I wonder.)
  • At an airline carrier, the author reported that participants dropped their trousers during a group interview to relieve tension. (I thought you only did that with consenting adults in intimate surroundings.)
  • The author describes a food market that only hires people who can “make a statement with arts and crafts” and recall their favorite food experience.
  • He ends his article by citing a story about a guy who was hired because he photographed himself in front an ice cream store wearing nothing but a paper bag over his privates. (He either took the meaning of “casual Friday” too liberally or else got confused while dressing.)

Without breaking stride, the author went on to quote a local consultant as saying, “In the early 1990s, companies got stung with pre-assessment tools that discriminated against minorities. But there is a new improved generation of tools.” Wow, what an improvement! I’m sure that no reasonable person could mistake the job-relatedness and the predictive validity of candidates dropping their pants when interviewing for an airline job, using a paper bag as a substitute for underwear, or being creative with food. Yes, I can tell from this article that we are “light years” ahead of where we were ó especially if we’re hiring exhibitionists and nudists. Come on! Hiring is not a fun-time training exercise or a poor-taste fraternity prank. It is a serious effort to get the right people with the right skills in the right jobs ó and to do it professionally. What makes it so hard to:

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  • Conduct professional job analysis?
  • Choose job-related hiring tools?
  • Validate each hiring tool against performance?
  • Treat applicants professionally?

Is it that so tough? The author even got his basic facts wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, it is NOT illegal to discriminate against anyone who does not have job skills. I could never pass the test to be an astronaut, but does that mean I can claim I was discriminated against because I am over 40? Of course not! If the job requires the body and stamina of a young athlete, then I will never qualify. Period. End of sentence. Amen. The purpose of federal law is to ensure that people get a fair and equal opportunity to compete for jobs for which they are qualified. If you’re not qualified as a candidate, then either become qualified or stop whining! Hiring Has Unimagined Consequences Not only in my opinion did this article demean the entire HR profession, the HR “wizards” quoted in it are doing some real damage to their company. For example, several years ago a well-meaning yet clueless HR manager was given the chance to hire a totally new workforce for a start-up truck assembly plant in Canada. He asked each applicant questions about his or her teamwork, administered a teamwork test, and had candidates participate in two teamwork exercises. Applicants who passed were hired. He meant no harm. Fast-forward three years. The 350 people he hired were so team-oriented they would not hold a meeting unless everyone attended. They would not make a business decision unless everyone agreed. They would not confront a problem employee for fear of hurting his or her feelings. You won’t be surprised to learn that “Mr. Clueless” does not work there any more, and his successors spent years trying to use a pencil-and-paper adjective checklist to “re-balance” the workforce (unfortunately, that won’t work either). Now, let’s use that example and predict the culture created by the so-called “out-of-the-bag” hiring practices cited above. People hired by the ice cream company are likely to be extreme extraverts. Extreme extraverts are highly social, tend to be impulsive and rash, seldom think through consequences of their actions, tend to avoid details, seek fun in everything they do, and get energized from being the life of the party. No surprise there, right? Now imagine an entire company populated with extraverts. Any bets concerning the incidences of on-the-job-sexual harassment, the ability of employees to manage the basics of a retail operation, the attention to detail required by health departments, and so forth? How about the cultural, gender and age differences associated with extreme extraversion? Do you think an extravert-based hiring system will avoid adverse impact among ethnic cultures that are more socially sensitive? In your dreams. Have fun with the ice cream company now, but watch for a day when the ice-cream hits the fan. How about the airline company whose emphasis is on fun? They hire people who drop their pants in interviews. Just the kind of people we want staffing our planes, right? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the utmost confidence in any organization that emphasizes creative trouser-dropping over business professionalism. In my mind at least, this kind of reaction to stressful situations fills me with confidence that employees would know precisely what to do in an emergency ó moon the terrorist dogs! Just think, the Feds are wasting all that time debating stun guns and firearms in the cockpit when the solution was right “behind” them all the time. Professional Practices Want to attract the attention of high-level EEOC officials? Want to walk with the Feds? Get your name in the paper? Want to lose what little professional credibility HR has left? Enjoy being derided by line managers as unprofessional bumpkins? Just continue to perpetuate, encourage, and tolerate this kind of selection silliness. The Feds seldom get involved in legitimate hiring practices. They just expect organizations to professionally conduct job analyses based on job requirements and business necessity, choose validated hiring tools that have the least averse impact, and monitor the results. Now, where is my paper bag? I have a hearing to attend and I need to first explain the job-relatedness of appearing nude in front of an ice-cream shop wearing only a brown paper fig-leaf, then explain why my flight attendants consider mooning to be an effective deterrent to the terrorist threat.

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