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The Three Rules for Hiring A Players
It is very hard for people to admit that they are not good judges of character. In fact, just about every one I know thinks they are superb judges of people. But is this true? Are people generally good at assessing the qualities and evaluating the talents of others? The good news is that the research on this question consistently points to the same answer. The bad news is the answer is a resounding no—people are not particularly good judges of character. This is especially true when people spend a limited amount of time with an individual, such as in an interview. Interviews usually last 30-60 minutes, but more often than not interviewers make hiring decisions within the first five minutes of the session. What is ironic is that most interviewers believe they are good judges of talent and feel comfortable making hiring decisions in less than five minutes, yet virtually all of them have been through a divorce or a break up with a significant other. If a person cannot successfully pick a life partner after what is usually an extended courtship, then how can they be expected to make good hiring decisions based on five minutes of conversation with an applicant?

Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant, once wrote that only a third of all hiring decisions are successful. Drucker’s breakdown of results fits with my experience working with first-line supervisors through CEOs across corporate America. Most managers are lousy judges of talent, but you would never know this by talking to them. Part of the problem here is selective memory. Many managers vividly remember the handful of hiring decisions they got right, but somehow overlook all those times they got it wrong.

Another part of the problem is time. Many managers feel they are so busy that they don’t have time to breathe, much less interview properly. But those managers who can’t find two hours to prepare for and conduct a proper interview always seem able to find the 80+ hours they need to rectify hiring mistakes. In many ways a hiring decision is the biggest decision any manager makes, as each one has the potential to be a $1,000,000 decision (i.e., the wages and benefits of a long-term employee). If managers spent the same amount of time hiring as they do making $1,000,000 equipment or software decisions, then they may be more likely to hire A players.

Selective memory and time are important but not the only issues. What managers do to prepare and conduct hiring interviews is equally important. Hiring managers need to abide by three critical rules in order improve the odds of hiring top talent:

Rule 1: If you don’t know what you are looking for, you are not likely to find it
The likelihood of getting lost when you don’t know the final destination is pretty high. This also holds true for managers--many have only vague ideas on what they want out of prospective employees. They usually resort to a sort of general wish list of qualities, such as a “team player” or “self-starter.” Managers are much better off if they spend 30-60 minutes clearly defining what they want in terms of specific knowledge, skills, and other attributes. A more specific example for a sales representative might include “five years of consultative selling experience with senior executives in the restaurant industry”.

Rule 2: If you don’t know how to find it, then you are not likely to find it
Even if you know the final destination, the likelihood of getting lost is pretty high if you don’t have a map, compass, or GPS. Industrial psychologists employ a variety of well-researched selection techniques, such as biographical forms, personality inventories, values assessments, mental abilities tests, work simulations, and structured interviews in order to determine how well different candidates stack up against clearly defined job requirements. Unfortunately, most hiring managers are not qualified to use most of these techniques. But they can learn how to properly review and rate applications or resumes and create structured interview protocols for evaluating candidates. These two techniques alone can significantly increase the odds of hiring A players.

Rule 3: The best predictor of past behavior is previous behavior in similar circumstances
The figure skating events at the winter Olympics included both technical and artistic components. The technical components included a set list of jumps, spins, and footwork that every competitor had to perform. The same holds true when it comes to interviewing. The only way you can really make apples to apples comparisons between candidates is to ask them the same set of questions. These questions need to focus on the candidate’s past experiences that are relevant to the position in question. For example, in our sales representative example described earlier, one question that could be asked of all candidates might be, “Describe the most complex sale you ever made. Who were the players, what made the sale so complicated, what you specifically did to win the deal, and what happened as a result of your efforts?” Notice that these questions get the candidate to describe the Situation, their Behavior, and the Impact of their behavior on others or the organization. The most effective interviewers are those that create a set of Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) questions related to the demands of the position, and then ask all candidates to answer the same set of questions.

In conclusion, hiring managers can greatly improve the odds of hiring A players by using people professional trained in validated selection techniques, such as industrial psychologists, to help screen potential applicants. In most cases the benefits of using an industrial psychologist in the selection process far outweighs the additional cost of this service. Companies not having access to or wanting to use industrial psychologists must abide by the three rules if they want to improve the chances of hiring A players. But it is important to remember that no selection process yields perfectly accurate results--all a hiring manager can ever do is improve the odds of hiring a winner.

Gordy Curphy, Ph.D.
President, Curphy Consulting Corporation
1978 Graduate of the USAF Academy
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