The Only Way to Accurately Screen Applicants is to Watch Them

I have been hiring people, writing about hiring people and teaching people how to hire people for more than 30 years. Every year, I become more convinced that the only way to accurately screen people is to watch them in action. In other words, create simulations and run your most promising applicants through them before making the final decision.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. Here are three that come to mind:

First, Southwest airlines used to conduct group interviews with prospective flight attendants. (I’m not sure if they still do this.) They would sit everyone in a circle and ask each person to stand up and talk about themselves and their background for a minute or two. What the applicants did not realize was that the evaluators were not judging each person on their speaking skills. They were watching to see how well the others in the circle attended to the speaker.

What they would observe would be everything from the applicant who demonstrated genuine interest in whomever was speaking to the applicant who spent all their time preening and perhaps showing impatience about having to go through this. Their reasoning for this exercise was simple. Which would you rather have on your flights; The attendants who were paying attention to customers or those who were self-absorbed when not serving meals or performing safety demonstrations?

Second, prior to the age of factory robotics, Toyota Motors would gather groups of applicants into a room. The evaluators would explain that in the corner were large boxes containing the components for 500 flashlights. The group’s job would be to assemble all the flashlights as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then they would simply say, “Go,” and watch what happened.

By observing individual and group dynamics, the evaluators could gain insights into the natural leaders, those with organizational skills, those with a detail orientation and so on. They could also ascertain those who lacked patience, those who followed others, those who talked more than they worked, and a host of other insights you would not pick up in an interview.

As a result, the evaluators could accomplish two tasks at the same time. First, they could determine who they wished to hire. Second, they could use these insights to determine which applicants would best fit which roles in the assembly process.

Third, the owner of a machine shop in Denver once showed me an aluminum puzzle he had designed. It consisted of about a dozen pieces. It wasn’t too hard to assemble, but it wasn’t too easy either. He would place the puzzle in front of applicants and ask them to assemble it while he watched.

What he was looking for, he told me, were several factors: How was their hand/eye coordination? How well could they see spatial relationships? How perseverant were they when they got stuck? How much patience did they display? How did they approach the exercise in general? Did they look at it with curiosity or as more of a chore? (This would indicate how they might approach projects day in and day out?) Time invested to create this simulation? Just what it took to design and machine the puzzle parts.

You may not own a machine shop, work for an airline, or oversee auto assembly. But the principles behind each of these exercises is adaptable. Including simulations in your screening process, even when there are few applicants to be had, is still a heck of a lot more accurate than three interviews and a resume review.

Will Bo Be Ready When He Gets to You?

My daughter works for a university. This summer, she hired a student intern named Bo. Bo is a rising senior and graphic design major. He will be working twenty hours per week, creating video promotions and brochures for this year’s student events.

Erin is looking forward to seeing what he produces. But she’s concerned that he seems afraid to act without explicit instructions. Since she will be in and out of the office quite a bit this summer, she’s relying on him to take the topics and concepts they agree on and turn them into promotions that students will find engaging.

The day before Erin left for a few days of vacation last week, Bo was in her office five times in four hours. Each time, it was for a question he should really have been able to deal with himself. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, Erin told him to use his best judgment. “Okay,” he said, “If I need you, I’ll just text you while you’re traveling.”

Now Erin faces a dilemma. If she responds to his texts, will she be encouraging his behavior? If she does not, will Bo get the work done or wait until she responds to each question? What would you do? After all, Bo could be working for you when he graduates next year.

I sometimes face pushback from young people when I mention this kind of behavior. But Erin’s dilemma another real-life example of the challenge so many managers face. So, what’s a supervisor to do to manage this issue successfully? Here are the three strategies I recommend:

Employ the use of simulations during selection – Let’s face it, interviews do not reveal the decision skills of most applicants. You need to observe them in action. These exercises do not have to be elaborate, but should be based on typical situations made in your workplace daily.

Take a few minutes to jot down five or so of these decisions. Then create a simulation that compels applicants to demonstrate their skills and confidence at handling those dilemmas. You shouldn’t be looking for correct answers. You should be watching to see how they think through each challenge. (In my next post, I’ll provide five illustrations that I’ve seen work.)

Meet new employees where they are – In these times of tight labor supply, I have managers saying to me, “I’m hiring every warm body I can find.” I get that. You can still hire people lacking decision skills. But if you do, you need to be prepared to coach them on decision making from day one.

One manager I know has a simple strategy. When hiring someone who’s lacking in certain skills, he says, “I’d like to bring you on. But I do have some concerns about how well you think on your feet. So, I’m going to put you through some decision skills training first thing. If we can have that agreement, I’d like to have you as a part of our team.” In this way, he establishes a bit of buy-in before the person starts. If the person responds negatively to this condition, he doesn’t want that person on the team, no matter how tight the labor market.

Place parameters around your access – In today’s digital environment, there has emerged an expectation that everyone needs to be available at all times for all questions. This is simply not necessary, but you need to set and enforce practical parameters.

Early in my career, I worked for a director named Don. Don had a tremendous amount on his plate. When I waltzed into his office to ask a question I could have resolved myself, it did not go well. After a few weeks of this, Don said to me, “Why don’t you wait until you’ve got a few of these questions you really need my help on. Then we’ll spend a few minutes resolving them all at once. This compelled me to re-prioritize what I was doing, solve the problems I could, and be well organized when I did approach him.

Over time, we got so in synch that he would hold up his index finger and say “one” when he saw me in his doorway. After we had resolved the first issue, he would hold up two fingers and say, “two,” and so on. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but you get the idea. What will work for you?

So, those are my three recommendations. What are yours? I’d love to know. Respond to this post or shoot me an email at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Smile ‘em In and Smile ‘em Out

I was reminded the other day of a story of an elderly woman who would stand at the entrance to her church on Sunday mornings before and after the worship service. She was there every single week simply smiling at everyone who entered. When the pastor asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m smiling them in and smiling them out. Doesn’t everybody need that?”

This story has stuck with me is because it illustrates one of the universal principles for determining whether anyone is going to be a good match for a job. The people who work most productively with others are those seek to work collaboratively. Therefore, it is essential that you screen for this attribute during the selection process, regardless of the position.

The sentiment, “Don’t hire people and teach them to smile. Hire People who smile,” has been attributed to a number of people. But regardless who first said it, embracing this principle is critical to ensuring productive, long-term hires, especially in customer care positions.

One airline with which I am familiar, used to use to an interesting strategy for screening flight attendants. They would gather groups of applicants into a circle. Then they would say, “Before we get started, let’s have everyone get up a take a minute to tell us about yourself. You can talk about anything you would like to share.”

This, of course, would unsettle some of the applicants. Few people like to be put on the spot like that. But what the applicants didn’t know was that the evaluators in the room weren’t watching the presentations. They were watching the audience. Predictably, some applicants would smile, pay attention and encourage those who were speaking. Others would glance at their smart phones, check their appearance, or generally grow bored with the process.

Which applicants would you want as flight attendants serving your customers? The airline felt the same way. Those with the “others-focused” demeanor were the ones to be hired. How can you adapt this strategy for use in your screening process?

Applicants can have all the qualifications in the world. But if they are not others-focused, they can be an energy drain on those around them and the firm in general. Look around. What can you do in your environment to promote this practice?

Three Legal Tactics for Detecting How Applicants will Really Behave on the Job

I had been standing in the pharmacy line for almost ten minutes and was the next one to be served. Just as I approached the counter, a middle-aged woman slipped in front of me and said to the pharmacist, “I just need to drop this off,” while handing him a prescription.

“This person is next in line,” said the pharmacist.

“Yes,” said the woman, “but I just need to drop this off.”

“But I have to check to see if you’re in the system,” explained the pharmacist.

“I know,” insisted the woman, “but I’m in a hurry and I just need to drop this off.”

The pharmacist gave me that look that said, “Would you mind if I dealt with this rude woman?”

I shrugged and he checked her in.  “Thank you,” he said after she had left. “That happens two or three times a day.”

Outside of wanting to rant about this kind of inconsiderate behavior, this incident reminded me of something I’ve taught managers for years: How applicants behave and what they do once they’re hired can be vastly different things. All the interviews and tests in the world won’t reveal this. When the person’s in a rush, how is he going to treat those around him? When he’s feeling pressured, how will he treat the customer? When he’s in the last ten minutes of a shift, what will he say to the customer who’s going to delay his departure?

So, what can you do to elicit the “real” behavior from applicants? Try these three ideas:

First, have applicants come in contact with strangers. This could something as simple as asking the receptionist to chat them up. Does the person respond with understanding? Does he empathize? Perhaps instead he treats the receptionist with a dismissive, “I don’t need to talk to you,” attitude. Would you want this person on your team?

Second, keep the applicant waiting for a few minutes. No one likes to be kept waiting. But some of us are more patient than others. Does this person grow impatient? How does he deal with the delay? Does he chat with the receptionist? Does he find something to read? Does he review his notes about the company? Does he sit there and stew or ask what’s going on every five minutes. Who would you rather have on your team?

Third, place applicants in an environment where they have to perform. This strategy requires more time and effort. It is also the most effective. Ask applicants go on a “scavenger hunt” by collecting documents or information from several people within the company. This will force them to establish a brief rapport with each one. Then you can ask those individuals for first impressions. Place applicants in an office with an in-basket exercise and have people call and interrupt them with questions and requests that range from the informative to the weird. After an hour of this, you’ll get a feel for how they handle unexpected distractions, interruptions, confusion and the like.

All of these strategies deal with nuance. But it’s the nuanced behaviors of others that can get under our skin and can cost us money.  Is all this worth the investment? You decide. You’re making a thirty- to fifty-thousand-dollar decision by hiring someone.

Are these strategies fool-proof? No. But they will reveal the potential behaviors of people upon whom you will rely once on the job. Most people don’t get fired for a lack of competence. They are released because of the attitudes and behaviors that those around them consider unacceptable.

Should Employers Waste Their Time Recruiting Teens?

For what seems like forever, employers have recruited teens to fill front-line positions. These jobs typically pay little more than minimum wage and many times involve the work no one else wants to do. At the same time, they provide spending money and help young people assimilate to the world of work. Unfortunately, however, teen employment in the US during the summer has dropped to a fifty-year low.

This work-for-cheap-but-get-experience relationship has changed for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of these traditional roles have either been automated or eliminated. Secondly, an increasing number are being assumed by older individuals, including a burgeoning immigrant population, who offer more experience and more flexible hours. Thirdly, mandatory increases in minimum wages are compelling employers to seek applicants with more work smarts who can become productive faster.

Finally, teens are choosing summer classes and other coursework to enhance resumes and college applications. Studies show that this dearth of teen interest in working is not about laziness, parental allowances, or being married to their smart phones. It’s more practical than that. The emerging generation is more focused on what they can learn to get a good job upon graduation. As one student said to me, “I want to be an accountant. How is mowing lawns during the summer going to help me with that?” While some may deride this attitude as ignorant or ill informed, it is widely shared by the present cohort of high school and college students. Today’s teens are not the teens of the past.

So what should employers do? Here are a few suggestions:

Take a hard look at your employment cycles. Chances are you, like most employers, have developed a rhythm in how you hire. But in today’s environment of low unemployment and a dearth of teen applicants, you need to make a closer examination of where your applicants are coming from. Who else, besides teens, is applying? Who is the easiest to retain? Who comes up to speed the fastest? Who is the most productive overall? As much as hiring teens might be an engrained practice, it might be hurting your bottom line unless to verify your assumptions about their true contributions to your business.

Consider the costs and benefits to hiring teens. Let me state an uncomfortable truth – About the only thing teenagers have going for them is that they’re relatively cheap to employ. But with rising base wages, even that is less of an advantage. Yes, we all feel the desire to give kids a chance to learn. But many of today’s teens have a distinctly different motivation for working. Take a step back from your sympathies for giving them a chance and ask yourself whether they really demonstrate a reasonable contribution to your bottom line. As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” But they can also be very expensive.

If you choose to hire teens, brush up on your connection strategies. Teens are not just an internet generation. They are a mobile internet generation. This means that unless you’re one of the large retailers or fast-food chains that blanket the nation, they will not apply in person. They expect to apply on-line. That’s how they will find you as well. How? Via social media. Some may Google part-time jobs in their city or zip code, but most connect with their friends on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Snapchat. You will need a presence on all of these sites. As sign in the window will work for some if they happen to drive past. But banners that read Now Hiring, Accepting Applications or $11 Per Hour put you in the category of “just another boring job.” Remember, this generation is looking to leverage their experience into something better, in addition to getting paid. Otherwise, they should probably just take another class or two.

It might be tempting to lament the demise of the cheap, hardworking teen workforce who learned about life on the job and earned movie money for the weekends. But in their place you will need to recruit the kind of worker whose motivations contributes to your bottom line in today’s ultra competitive world.

Be Careful Hiring Top Graduates

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I shared this advice with the leaders of a Wall Street investment bank who complained that all their young analysts have been jumping ship within 18 months. I asked who they hire. “Only the best from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.”

I asked why. “Because we only want the best working here.”

“Where did you all graduate from?”

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.”

“Can a B student from a good finance program in the Midwest do well here?”

“If he or she works hard enough.”

“Well, there’s a much better chance that someone like that is going to stay for five years than the Ivy League hotshot who looks at your job as a stepping stone.”

They protested that someone from the Midwest would have trouble thriving in the culture.

“Whose issue is that?” I asked. “You can have the hotshots for 18 months or some hardworking B Students from the Midwest for five or more years.”

Sadly, they couldn’t seem to get their heads around that. So we parted company.