Step Out From Behind the Curtain

A few years back, experimental psychologists were trying to learn the effects of feedback on performance. They designed an experiment that involved two sets of pigeons, a miniature bowling alley, and some corn. The more bowling pins the pigeons knocked down, the more corn they received (just like some of the corporate incentive programs in which we all have participated). Group 1 pigeons could not see the pins because their view was blocked with a curtain (the experimenters tried tying little blindfolds over their eyes, but the pigeons kept peeking). Group 2 pigeons were allowed to see how many pins they knocked down. Guess which group improved? Correct, Group 2. Even animals with pigeon-sized brains improved their performance when they could associate actions with consequences. The same goes for organizations: no feedback, no improvement. Behind-the-Curtain Recruiting Curtains also block our “view of the pins” when measuring recruiting effectiveness. That is why the wrong applicant is hired about half the time. Nothing can be done about the recruiter who doesn’t care about doing a good job. If his or her only goals for recruiting are to avoid paying guarantees, minimize the number of people screened, fill open slots, or reduce time-to-fill, then hiring accuracy is incidental. These folks actually work very hard to maintain their feedback curtains. They do nothing to differentiate themselves or add value to their service. I ask, What do you think will eventually happen to non-value-added, but expensive, services? Maybe you have heard this mantra before, “We only hire the best. We hire the smartest. We never make mistakes. We are never wrong. Even our average people are above average.” Right. That will happen just as soon as that spammer from Nigeria deposits a million bucks into your bank account. Intentional stupidity is a self-imposed, forehead-mounted curtain rod. But even responsible recruiters have a very hard time seeing the consequences of hiring decisions. After all, no one knowingly hires or promotes someone into a position in which they will fail. Improving processes requires that recruiters systematically follow up with placements to evaluate the four critical performance areas they were supposed to measure (i.e., mental ability; planning ability; interpersonal skills; and attitudes, interests and motivations). How can you do a better job if you do not know whether you were right or not? Behind-the-Curtain Management Hiring managers also have plenty of incentive to hide behind curtains. Many astute leaders probe each candidate’s background, asking sage questions like, “What’s your golf handicap?” “You aren’t going to get pregnant while you’re here, are you?” or “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” They continue this process until they are outsmarted by the first applicant who has the ability to second-guess all the answers. Then they publicly proclaim, “Yea, verily, this is The Chosen One!” Now, what politically savvy manager is going to admit being outsmarted by the company dud? Behind-the-Curtain HR What happens when something goes wrong in the production department? Managers carefully isolate and define the problem. They search through historical quality records, examine production reports, look for cause and effect, and gather experts to discuss ways to permanently resolve the issue. What happens when HR is faced with employee turnover or productivity issues? They do a wage and benefits survey. I have yet to see many HR departments, large or small, look inward to examine the effectiveness of their hiring processes (that is, what’s working for them and what’s not). Instead of taking the lead in human performance, they tend to virtually isolate themselves from anything except advertising, screening, and paperwork. Imagine a production department that takes no responsibility for manufacturing quality, an auditing department that takes no responsibility for accurate reporting, or an engineering department that takes no responsibility for product durability. Now, tell me again why HR gets no respect from line managers? Can you imagine how different things would be if HR…

  • actually did a job analysis on each critical job family to determine “how to” competencies?
  • kept accurate records of hiring scores?
  • used a combination of hiring tools depending on whether they wanted to measure attitudes, mental ability, planning ability, or interpersonal skills?
  • measured the effectiveness of each hiring tool by comparing application performance with job performance?
  • studied the relationship between biographical data and turnover?
  • made ongoing improvements and corrections as necessary?

Fun With Numbers If an organization is unwilling to step out from behind the curtain, other solutions can at least make a few curtains more transparent. Let’s take, for example, using analytical techniques to conduct post-mortem analyses. This requires the organization to compare hiring data on each applicant (such as education, prior experience, average job tenure, interview scores, and so forth) with productivity data such as turnover, service, attendance and so forth. HR doesn’t even have to know how to spell “competency.” Just capture data and let someone else analyze it. Once we have data, we can use different analytical techniques to find cause and effect relationships (e.g., correlation coefficients to explore straightforward relationships, regression analysis to find combined correlations, or AI to evaluate complex interactions). The math and specific analytical technology is unimportant. The point is there are a variety of tools that can find hidden relationships between applicant data and job performance. Job Types Analytical methods work best with large numbers of employees and straightforward jobs such as retailing, warehousing, food services, customer service, or other basic positions ó that is, jobs that are fairly easy to learn or do not require special knowledge or training. In this type of position, if we can find relationships between a few hiring variables and production variables (and we most always can), we can use that information to evaluate how applicants will perform. Think of it as predicting performance reviews. In effect, we can build a predictive system that gets “smarter” without threatening any egos. The Early Bird Gets the Job You might be asking yourself, “Self, what is this egghead trying to tell me?” And I will reply:

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  • It takes systematic feedback to get better.
  • The only people who cannot benefit from feedback are the dead.
  • Curtains can only be pulled down by people who want to see daylight.
  • An HR department with a paperwork-interview mentality should call itself “Human Resource-less”
  • Analytical techniques can be used to reduce turnover and increase productivity.

The moral of the story: Watch out for pigeons wearing little bowling shirts. They could become the next HR!

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