Incorporating Organizational Competencies Into Hiring, Part 2

In my last article, we focused on why professionals can seldom use home-grown competency lists. In this article, we’ll focus on fixing chronic performance problems. Chronic performance problems are expensive. As mentioned in earlier articles, the cost of replacement and recruiting is chicken feed compared with the on-the-job cost of ill-qualified employees limping along at marginal performance levels. Think of poor performance costing somewhere between 10% to 50% of annual payroll. Low performance can often be traced to one or more of four areas. You can determine which weak area to address by asking ó in order ó the following questions:

  1. Do employees have job skills? If yes, are they willing to apply them?
  2. Does management guide, direct, and support subordinates?
  3. Does training provide the necessary assistance? (Training develops people; it seldom changes their behavior.)
  4. Do senior management roadblocks interfere with employee performance?

“Screen Door” Hiring Weak job skills are the norm among almost all organizations. The majority of in-house hiring systems I have seen ó big or small ó tend to invite an excessive number of unqualified people to join the payroll. Think of it as installing a screen door with 1″ holes and expecting it to keep the house free of insects. What affects the size of the holes in an organizational hiring and placement system?

  • The clarity, comprehensiveness, and measurability of job competencies
  • The validity of tools used to measure each applicant competency
  • Skills of the recruiters
  • Local labor market
  • Management tinkering

It is a sad situation when recruiters think it’s a good idea to “get a better understanding of job descriptions” before starting a search, or that “getting to know what makes an applicant ‘tick'” is a good measure of job skills, or, that there is one “best question” interviewing technique. After all, isn’t the primary job of a recruiter to clearly understand requirements before starting a search? To thoroughly evaluate each applicant to determine job skills? To use highly accurate hiring tools to ensure the right person is chosen? These are not “better recruiting ideas”; they are as basic to the profession and as air, fire, and water are to living. Consider how much confidence a patient would have in a physician who emailed colleagues asking about the importance of anatomy? In the majority of cases, poor employee performance can be traced to unprofessional hiring and promotion practices. Unless an organization starts with the “front door” and reduces the variability of incoming employees, there is no reason to go any further. Think of it as your company softball team (a nice, fun-loving bunch of amateurs) playing in the nationals (serious, highly-skilled teams selected by tryouts). That goes for selecting good managers as well. Management Misdirection Both personal experience and professional studies show the greatest source of job dissatisfaction reported by employees is their immediate manager. After all, managers are primarily promoted based on their performance as job holders, not on their ability to manage people. Management promotions are an excellent example of when past performance seldom predicts future performance. Why? Past performance as a job holder often has little or nothing to do with management skills. Is it any surprise that newly appointed managers micro-manage subordinates or continue to act like job holders? It’s all they ever knew. The professional estimate (i.e., what people are willing to study, admit, and publish) of managerial incompetence ranges from 80% to 90%. That is, only about 10% to 20% of people holding managerial positions demonstrate the competency to plan, coach, solve problems, help subordinates grow and develop, clarify job expectations, give active support to their work group, give a clear sense of direction, and so forth. (This should come as no surprise to anyone). If the employee screen door is wide open, bad management will probably not make much difference. Coaching the mediocre produces improved mediocrity; coaching fully-skilled employees yields exceptional performance. Training to the Rescue: A Definite Maybe Most trainers I have met are nice, well-meaning folks. But give them a beer and they are among the first to admit how hard it is to “grow fruit” on bare ground, turn a sows-ear into a silken purse. But what is often the first choice of management? Send “broken” employees to “fix ’em up” workshops. That’s like trying to grow hair on a watermelon. Training is only effective when people in the workshop have the skills, willingness, and abilities to learn and use the material being taught. Anything less leads to a waste of time and money. Just try to find a body of independent studies (not published by training vendors) that prove otherwise. Training might let employees know what management expects, but it seldom changes behavior, makes people smarter, or changes their value systems. That’s what drugs and neurosurgery are for. Performance Interruptus This generally means putting obstacles in the way of achieving an objective (sort of like having flatulence on a first date). Imagine a company that refuses to give employees the equipment and resources they need to do their job. I once worked for a company that thought everyone should share the same computer, rolling it around as needed on a cart from one person to the next. Another company refused to give headphones to employees who spent hours on the phone every day. A third forbid employees from making their own purchasing decisions because that was the responsibility of another department. It happens all the time. Organizations expect employees to perform while at the same time putting obstacles in their path ó then criticize them for not achieving their goals. Give me a break! Conclusion There is no single solution for fixing organizational performance problems, only a step-by-step, methodological approach that:

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  • Starts with making sure employees have the right job skills and are willing to apply them
  • Progresses to promoting and retaining only managers who can guide, direct, and support subordinates
  • Setting realistic expectations about what training can and cannot do
  • Eliminating obstacles that interfere with performance

In Part 1, I said I would suggest a few strategies to use when senior managers reach the inevitable conclusion that home-grown competencies are not the golden key to solving chronic performance problems. You know, the time when they start looking for scapegoats (experience shows this to be about three years after rollout). Here are some suggestions:

  • Full-retreat strategy. Spill some yogurt on the cafeteria floor, slip and fall, then feign retroactive amnesia. (Sample script: “Grandma, is that you? My back hurts. Everything is going dark. Ohhh…”). Proceed to file workers’ comp and wait until the problem either blows over or someone else gets reprimanded.
  • Deflection strategy. First, select an unpopular terminated executive (preferably one who is currently suing the company for unfair employment practices). Second, place the blame squarely on him or her. Finally, offer a self-effacing solution. (Sample script: “Thank goodness you acted when you did! I often argued with Mr. Smith and was severely remanded for speaking my mind. However, I kept secret notes and am pretty sure we can salvage the project.”)

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to balance the investment against the benefit of fixing chronic performance problems.

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