The goal of an organizational selection process is to add people to the organization (fill positions) who will benefit the organization. Likewise, a secondary goal must be to keep out any people who will harm the organization. Another component of this involves assessing and differentiating applicants based on how much they can help (assessing qualifications and future potential). Any selection process also needs to be reliable and fair.
When you select an employee, you are simply offering a prediction that this person selected will be successful as an employee and they will help your company. Furthermore, in any case where we need to identify current employees that are not helping the organization, there must be a valid mechanism in place for identifying and then removing these employees. So, why do we get this wrong so often?
One of the main problems is that people are really poor judges of future potential. Another problem is that people are not very good at measuring human production. This is obvious from all sorts of human events such as housing markets, sports betting, marriage failure rates, book best sellers, movie box office results, stock market performance, social media apps, probes launched to Mars, and even TV shows. The more complex the system or environment, the more difficult it is to accurately estimate true value, production, and future performance and the more likely we all are to overestimate our own powers of prediction and forecasting. Somehow, corporate gatekeepers are not as good at being gatekeepers as we would all like to believe they are.
Can any of us be really sure of what the outcome will be in Afghanistan in 10 years or even of what college football team will win the National Championship this year or even who will be the Republican frontrunner on the ticket for 2016? Do you have any idea of what creature in an ecosystem is the most vital to that system? Do you have any idea of how complicated it is to predict the next pandemic outbreak? Do you know what actor is worth the biggest bang for the buck in Hollywood? No, you don’t.
Mostly we take a guess and if we are honest, in the end we will admit that we did not know as much as we thought we knew. Translation: we are not as smart as we think we are or as smart as we like to tell people we are.
Look at football. Football organizations select their coaches and players using all sorts of predictive measures from sports money-ball systems, freakanomics, and psychological profiles to Wonderlic tests. By the way, Wonderlic also says it will help you select employees. But mainly decision-makers rightfully like to look at a candidate’s previous work history. How did Ryan Leaf, Vince Young, and Eric Crouch do in college? So, what happened? Past performance does not accurately and reliably predict future performance. What happened to Johnny Football?!? Did you guess right and pick the New England Patriots to win the 2015 NFL Super Bowl? I didn’t. I selected the Dallas Cowboys; I mean they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1995 and they are my favorite team and come on…they’re overdue! Why do I keep predicting wrong about this? My prediction is unreliable, biased, tainted, contaminated with my own internal desires and not at all based on external realities.
A football team is an incredibly complex organization. Coaches and players are added to produce success. Once new personnel are added, you need some way of knowing the value of the new additions. What amount of success or failure can be attributed to these new personnel?
Some coaches and quarterbacks are known for winning only if you give them a winning team. Some coaches and quarterbacks always seem to find a way to lose even if you give them a winning team. Some coaches and quarterbacks always seem to take the worst teams and make them into winners. We can be careful to place the right people in the right places for success. Perhaps successful performance in some candidates is easy to see. The team was ranked #135 before the coach or player arrived and now it is ranked #23 after two years. It is critically important to know what amount of the organizational successes or failures were due to the selections the organization made.
Look at CEOs, executives, and other work settings. People are innately programmed to focus on what they have in common with applicants because people basically like to feel connected somehow with the people around them. It’s easy to pick this person over that person because you both share the same background, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, politics, went to the same school, or maybe the person is really pretty or tall and dreamy. It is incredibly difficult to pick the person who is an exact opposite in contrast to yourself, especially if you think that you are all that with cheese on it.
These connected feelings, the desire to hire similar people to one’s self, creep into almost every selection process, every performance measure, and every other personnel decision from whom to lay off and who to give a raise to, and this drive for connectedness routinely has almost nothing at all to do with future business success. After all, we are trying to run a winning business, not a social club, a Bible study, or a fancy tea party.
My own graduate research on executives and CEOs showed that the highest correlated factors with being selected as a CEO or executive were in this order: previous CEO or executive, white, male, and between six feet and six feet and four inches. None of these factors were highly correlated with business success. Does that surprise anyone? Under no circumstance would we expect success in outcomes when we make frivolous, unreliable decisions such as basing the whole matter on looks or astrological signs or the university from which the person graduated. We might actually have better results predicting future potential if we based it on the applicant’s choice of car they drive (Hummer versus minivan), the way their home is organized (neat or sloppy), their ability or skill at playing poker, a flip of a coin, a dart thrown at a spinning wheel, or even based on their ability to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. One randomly controlled guesstimate of future potential is probably not any more accurate than most others.
And what is the best way to predict and account for the drive and determination of the underdog? We all know that down-on-her-luck applicant that comes in with a chip on her shoulder, ready to show the world what she can do, who out performs people with significantly more talent and gifts than she had. We all know those exceptional sleepers. We also know plenty of college superstars who turned out to be flaming failures outside of college. How can any corporate system account for sleepers and flaming failures waiting to happen?
Let’s look at fish enthusiasts. In their pursuit of the best fish, they take the time to pick the right boat, rod and reel, time of day, researching moon cycles, hunting for the right fishing location; they invest in a professional grade Fish-Finder 3000, they get the right bait and lures, they study the target fish, they watch the fishing channel, they dream about fish, they talk to other fishers, they listen to fishing radio talk shows, some of them seek the help of sports psychologist and fish whisperers, and they even have to get a fishing license on top of all that. Then they go out and get that fish and they always reject inferior fishes if they happen to catch them by accident. No one catches a small puny little fish and shouts out, “That’s it! Mission accomplished!” Instead, they go at it with everything they’ve got at their disposal. This is the way to do it. Anything less is uncivilized.
Can you think of any flaming corporate failures? Enron? Yes, of course. Enron had a wildly popular way of selecting employees based on word of mouth and school associations, gauging employee performance based on 360-degree peer reviews, and firing people who were in the bottom 15% based on production measures. Where did it all go wrong? For Enron it went wrong in more places than just how they managed to keep the gate.
What works best? Let’s go back to fishing. The fisher pulls in a fish and places it in the fish tank and keeps fishing. This expert fisher casts a wide net. Many fish are allowed to come on board, while only a select few fish get to stay all the way through to the end. Lesser fish are thrown back and not counted. Likewise, the best personnel selection system casts a wide net.
A well-designed probationary program is the best system. A company could test its newbies in a probationary program; which is in essence a six-month to 12-month job interview. What would you think works best, a 30-minute job interview, or a one-year job interview?
You say to the new hire, “You have one year to prove you can help improve this company. Furthermore, I have one year to evaluate your value. Don’t give me any reason to fire you and regret the decision to bring you on-board.”
The ultimate goal is to capture the person who will produce the most to help the company. You also have to be fair and inclusive and legal. People and companies are mighty complex systems. To be successful, you will need some tools, some wickedly effective and reliable human resources systems, some professional and possibly legal advice, and some insider knowledge of human psychology and business administration, combined with a whole lot of luck. Because even when you do everything you can to predict the future, you will often find that the only way to know for certain is to give people a fair chance and see what they can do. Is your company doing this?
Marine Corps boot camp is a great example. NFL and college tryout camps are a great example. Several dating services do the same thing. Open the doors and let them try to make it in your company. Just make sure you understand what it honestly takes to add value to your company and produce. Hint: It should take more than just smooth-talking your way through a job interview. And if you don’t have time to do it right and create a selection process that enhances success, bringing in value, while getting rid of low performers, well, just like fishing and football and dating, in the final outcome you will usually get what you put into it. You’ll find that the success of almost any organization is highly correlated with the efficiency and effectiveness of its selection and retention processes.