Screening for Character
post # 183 — September 6, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post
I’m of the belief that the overwhelming majority of recruiting interviewing is a complete waste of time. It’s not science and almost nobody has the practiced craft or art to be good at it. We like to pretend that we can find out important things in a one-hour interview, but we really can’t.
Everyone’s heard the phrase “Hire for attitude and train for skill” and I believe it fully. In fact, I’d go further and say that once you have checked out credentials and qualifications, character, not just attitude, explains the vast majority of someone’s long-term performance and whether or not they will fit into your company. And if the goal of an interview is to judge someone’s attitudes, personality and / or character then its going to take a LOT more training than most interviewers are given to detrmine those things. I don’t know too many people, even with etensive training, who could get a smart person to reveal his or her true character in such a format.
The best firms, in my view find a way to ask the people who already know the candidates to pass judgement. For examples, when hiring on campus, smart recruiters ask faculty members to give them the real low-down truth about the different students. Or they ask this year’s hires to tell them about the students in the year below them or that they met in other on-campus activities. It’s usually well – known on campus which individuals have personality, ambition, integrity. Ask three or four faculty or fellow students and their lists will be close to identical – they have been working with them in close quarters for a year or more and their judgments will be accurate.
In our book First Among Equals, Patrick McKenna and I gave a couple of examples of this:
Two firms in our experience were creative about their interviewing process. The first, a law firm asked all candidates at their final interview to say which had been their favourite course in law school. They then called in a secretary and (with a half-hour to think about it) asked the candidate to explain the content of the course to the secretary. The secretary, in essence, had the final say on whether the person was hired. It was not enough, this firm believed, to know your stuff. Before you were hired, you had to demonstrate the ability to explain it to an intelligent layperson.
The second firm, of accountants, brought all their final candidates together, and put them in a room with a two-way mirror. The candidates were told they would be observed, and were asked to do a joint exercise (equivalent to building a house out of playing cards). The resulting behavior was fascinating to watch. Thinking that they were suppose to be demonstrating leadership, many candidates competed to “take charge” of their group. In fact, the accounting firm was looking for people who felt comfortable being part of a team without the ego need to be its leader, and made offers only to those who did not try to dominate.
I’d be interested in hearing about other creative ways that organizations determine whether potential recruits really have desired character traits. How do you really tell if someone is good with people? Is a team player? Is honourable, has integrity and is trustworthy? Is the type of person who can maintain their composure in a crisis? Has the “good kind”of ambition and detrmination without too much of the “bad kind?”
There’s got to be something better than an interview to uncover the truth about these important things.
Duncan Bucknell said:
I guess we’ve all heard of other group exercises, even retreats in addition to the methods you mentioned, David.
Internships or clerkships are another way to get to know the most likely candidates over several weeks. Firms that handle this well are able to meaningfully analyse these critical attitudinal characteristics because they have set out to test them from the start.
Also, I wonder whether it is possible to make the process more effective. Perhaps by using the firm’s network (including clients, alumni, suppliers, etc), it might be possible to target selection around people who come with a recommendation from a trusted source? A perhaps trite answer to this would be that this would not generate enough hiring opportunities to satisfy a firm’s requirements. This may be so, but perhaps one needs to think more broadly and creatively about the network (and mutual benefit within it).
posted on September 6, 2006