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Hiring for Breakthrough Performance

By: Joydip Dey
Oct-19-2007
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(Joydip Dey is a Post Graduate in Human Resources Management from X.L.R.I. Jamshedpur, India having more than 16 years of complex industry experience and currently Vice President-Human Resources in a Fortune Five Hundred Company based at New Delhi. )
 


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Robin has taken charge as CEO in a very young company operating in high technology space at Bangalore one month back. For him it is a completely new environment, new culture & new team. However Robin finds that this company is struggling very hard to survive in the market within first few years of commencing its operation though company has some of the path breaking technology in its portfolio and a very good market potential. Company has also invested heavily on process automation during last few years. However as per the available data, employee productivity level has been going down at an alarming rate and on the other hand many good employees left the company during last few years. During last one month Robin also met many of the customers who happened to be the fortune five hundred clients and decided not to continue their association with this company any more. According to some of the client, company definitely has many highly innovative and path breaking technology, but there are serious issues related to the “People factor” which Robin need to diagnose very seriously in immediate future. Many clients are of the opinion that Robin should be in a position to do his job very well looking into his brilliant track record of working in various highly complex cross-functional, multi-cultural international assignments, supported by an Engineering Degree and an MBA from Harvard.

From his past several years of complex work experience in high technology industries, as well as long interaction with the stakeholders of this company, Robin understand that in this industry technological life span is reducing down very fast and therefore continuous innovation is the only password for survival. Therefore he need only the “BEST” brain of the market and he will not be able to compromise anything on this front. According to him in-depth inner competencies which finally shapes the external behaviour of an individual such as Individual Value Systems, Character, Professional ethics, Learning Ability, Problem Solving Ability, Killer instinct etc are very much important to him since these competencies are going to shape the future direction of an individual as well as the company in highly competitive marketplace.

Therefore at this junction question before Robin is whether Recruitment policies as well as practices of this company support such idea? Challenge here is to understand current practices of the company and accordingly mould them with the emerging market expectation. With this objective, Robin decided to closely observe the entire Recruitment and hiring process of the company to begin with, for some time. He also decided to collect sufficient data on the entire recruitment process from various formal as well as informal sources. At the end of few weeks Robin came out with the following observation

Lack of Ethical Business Practices:-

In his observation Robin found that the ethical business practices are seriously neglected across the company. He came across with several instances where right from the hiring manager to the senior management executives are involved in one or other ways in neglecting ethical business practices. Fire-fighting and short-term business gains are found to be the only focus of all day-to-day action and in this process professional ethics are compromised seriously, without realizing the long-term business implication of such action. In several instance, Robin found that many basic essential information are not shared with the prospective candidates either deliberately or by negligence only because these information are considered to be tough or negative in nature. In certain cases many senior executives are found to be involved in hiding many essential information during the interview process in order to get some good candidate on the board immediately without realizing that this process will lead to serious loss of companies credibility in the market besides many other serious implications such as increase in employee dissatisfaction/attrition rate etc. in some cases it was found that the hiring team is involved in covering why they are looking to hire a new person i.e. they are hiding about why the previous person left the job they are trying to fill.

Robin believes that, in order to have a long lasting relationship, a prospective candidate need to have many basic essential information (except confidential information) such as information about the organization, its policies, proposed role, reporting officer, expectation of the team member, various dimensions of the project etc in advance. That will help a candidate to arrive at a more matured decision that can prove to be the win-win proposition for both sides in the long-term future. He also believes that ethical business practices are extremely important for him and any amount of compromise will prove to be highly dangerous in the long run for the company.

Rigid and Closed Mindset :-

In his diagnosis Robin found that the company is still operating in old economy rigid mindset. According to him next generation workforce are extremely ambitious, focused on winning, low respect for authority, extremely materialistic, running for knowledge, does not looks for lifetime career with one company, impatient to rise fast, busting with ideas and energy, looks for jobs which are adventurous and can deliver a range of interesting experiences. More importantly they want to live for today. But here Robin noticed that the mindset of the hiring team as well as company’s policy does not favour the sentiment of today’s young generation. Even the current organizational structure should be much more flat and flexible in order to encourage an open, thought provoking boundary-less culture. In one such occasion, the concerned hiring manager reacted to a prospective candidate by saying “If our proposal is not acceptable to you, then we shall have to drop your profile at this stage” only because of the fact that the concerned candidate sought an alternate time slot for interview since he was highly occupied during the first occasion. In another instance, the profile of a highly prospective candidate were rejected only because he happened to be an outstation candidate though the concerned candidate was ready to appear for the interview at his own expense and also ready to bear all relocation expenses in case of selection.

Robin believes that the value system of today’s young generation has changed dramatically. While the previous generation placed family and matters of the spirit above all else, youth of today are entirely different. Companies must be in a position to consider this changing trend as an opportunity, match core value systems of the company with the changing value system of young generation and create a win-win proposition for both sides. To do that, at the operational level we shall have to clarify, explain, persuade, offer right perspective as well as interpretation of our company policies and practices much more vigorously than the old generation and at last aggressively weed out all such practices which does not favour the mindset of next generation youngsters. In a nutshell policies and practices of the company must be flexible enough to create energy and excitement among next generation youth.

Low focus on Job/Role specification:

in his diagnosis Robin found that though company has invested heavily in employee self-service technology but the hiring team and senior management executives are not at all utilizing this facility effectively. As a result, Today Company does not have well documented Roles and responsibilities, KRA’s, KPI’s, Key Competencies, and Reporting Relations etc which is a must for building a good hiring and recruitment process. Moreover hiring team as well as senior executives of the company does not feel the necessity of such documentation since most of them are extremely busy in so called business related activities and therefore all other activities are considered to be a non-value added one though everybody considers People as the most important asset of their organization. Hence unless a candidate appears for interview, a prospective candidate does not get any idea about the future role, reporting relationships, expectation of the company from the candidate etc in absence of well-documented processes.

Same Industry Syndrome:

In many cases it was found that despite having cutting edge competencies many profiles of very good candidates are rejected only because they are happened to be from different industries. In one such instance while short-listing, company has rejected a candidate who has demonstrated breakthrough performance in the area of customer support in his past with many international clients. In another case, a finance professional with brilliant track record has been rejected only because the person is currently working in a financial services company, not in high technology sector. Another senior level candidate having some breakthrough achievement could not make it to the interview level only because he happened to be from different industries.

Robin believes that the same industry background is definitely a plus point, but breakthrough achiever from other industry can also inject fresh ideas into the system which is extremely critical in a fast changing technological market. He also knows how difficult it is to find good ideas. For him competitive advantage lies in the ability to create an economy driven not by cost efficiencies but by ideas and intellectual know-how. In practice this means that we have to create environment in which what we call “Smart People” can thrive. These people are the handful of employees whose ideas, knowledge, and skills give them the potential to produce disproportionate value from the resources we make available to them.

Lack of Uniform Selection System:

During the process of diagnosis, it was also found that company does not have a uniform selection and employee benchmark system in place. As a result different standards of benchmarking are maintained at different projects. Moreover none of those standards are defined objectively. Hence in many project, highly inferior candidates are absorbed very easily but on the other hand in some other project relatively superior candidates are finding very difficulty in overcoming even the preliminary round of interview. This creates serious imbalance on the selection system across the company. Robin believes that this is happening because company is hiring people only on the basis of micro level competencies of specific individual project. However generic competencies based on companies business objective, core value systems and strategic priorities are either not defined or it is not followed at the operational level. Robin believes that in order to have a balance of talent framework across the company, it is very much important to hire people on the basis of both strategic as well as operational level competencies.

Exploratory Meeting:-

While diagnosing, Robin found that the junior level employees of the organization carry out the first round of interview for all positions including senior management positions. In many cases he found that even candidates for the position of Vice President level are interviewed by relatively junior level Managers. In case candidates are found suitable in the preliminary round of interview, they are approved for next level of interview. In many cases, candidates are interviewed even before profiles are sent to the concerned reporting officer or line manager for his/her review. In some other cases concerned reporting officer/line manager has delegated the job of interview to the relatively junior level employees only because they believes that, this practice will save their valuable time without realizing that manpower selection is a duty of a line manager, not responsibility and therefore that cannot be delegated.

On further diagnosis Robin found that, ideally hiring managers are suppose to short-list candidates at his/her end on the basis of profile received from the open market. The concerned hiring manager is suppose to go through the entire profile in detail and read between the lines in order to match the profile with the respective vacant position. This job s/he is supposed to perform under very high work pressure and tough deadline. Therefore the process demands very high level of intellectual and emotional maturity besides several other competencies. However in reality the hiring manager who does not have adequate competency seriously suffers from “fear of failure” syndrome. In many cases they are seriously exposed when they forward an irrelevant profile to the line manager. Under similar circumstances, they lose confidence of line manager and eventually suffer from the fear of losing the job.

In order to safeguard themselves from such in-competency syndrome, hiring manager moves ahead with many “Short-cut” approaches such as interview the candidate with a subordinate employee. This is done before forwarding the profile to the concerned reporting officer or line manager which primarily revalidates the assumption of hiring manager about the prospective candidate. But while asked, hiring managers are of the opinion that these meetings are purely exploratory in nature/or an introductory meeting in order to give an idea about the company, its role, responsibilities, etc to the prospective employee, or to know the future career plan of the candidate.

But question is, is there any valid scientific study conducted at the industry level in order to evaluate the effectiveness of such interview by relatively junior level employees? If yes, who has conducted such study? Where it was conducted and what are the observations? However if no such valid scientific studies were conducted and companies are adopting certain practices without having any valid scientific foundation, it could be highly dangerous not only for the prospective employees, but also for the long term interest of the company.

Robin believes that this process has serious negative implication since all of us have a frame of reference that is a product of our past experiences, assumptions, values and beliefs. These factors influences the way in which information is gathered, distilled and what conclusions are made. Similarly how the executive receives information, what information is noticed, how it is interpreted and how it is then acted on are subject to a range of internal distortions. Moreover perceptual filtering process enables all of us to deal with the complexity of our environment. Our “Perceptual schemas”, affect how we interact with the environment, what we notice, how we interpret data and how we retain information. Therefore in an interview, a manager or senior manager who is yet to occupy the position of Vice President, in every possibility might undergo a range of internal distortions while interviewing and receiving information from a Vice President level candidate. However an executive already occupying the same position or who has already occupied the same position long back might not undergo similar distortions.

Moreover in an interview forum, it becomes extremely difficult to differentiate presentation and communication skill from other essential competencies. In many circumstances one specific competency dominates others or overlaps with each other. Under the circumstances even very good intention of evaluating presentation and communication skill might not achieve its ultimate objective and in turn distort the entire process. According to many human psychologist, an individual often exhibit their best behaviour in an interview forum and therefore while interviewing a person one might be influenced by one of their attributes and ignore their other weaknesses. An attractive looking candidate may be judged as having a more desirable personality and more skills than someone of average appearance. In this process, many a times the best available candidate might be rejected at the initial stage itself and inferior candidate might get preference.

In addition accountability factor is a very big issue here. A subordinate/ peer group executive will not be accountable finally for the ultimate day-to-day operation level performance of the proposed employee. At best s/he can be made responsible for short-listing a good candidate. Hence a subordinate or peer group executive might not be very much keen to prefer “Merit” in the so-called exploratory meeting. Instead s/he may focus on his/her hidden interest, such as identifying and preferring a candidate who can take care of the vested political interest of his/her colleague, and if that happens, “Mediocrity” syndrome will get top priority instead of “Merit” factor. It is a well known fact that more the accountability for ultimate performance, more preference goes to “Merit” factor and vis-versa. Therefore a reporting officer is most likely to prefer “Merit” factor in an interview since s/he is ultimately answerable for the operational level performance of the individual.

Focus on Superficial Competencies:

In his diagnosis, Robin also noticed that, typical interview processes in the company across all levels are primarily dominated by the evaluation of superficial competencies only. Senior management executives are found to be extremely busy in many so called business related transactions and therefore they have very little time to be devoted for an interview. In addition, many senior executives are found to be busy in attending cell phone call most of the time during the interview or having conversation with fellow interviewer on other topic instead of focusing on the topics devoted for interview. Hence competency required to perform the job in the immediate short-term duration remains the only focus of the entire interview process. In case a candidate is found to be focused on short-term job competencies, s/he is immediately selected without any further evaluation. There were many instances where very good candidates were rejected only because they were focused on long-term business perspective.

Instant Interview:

As per his observation, Robin found that the in-depth knowledge on a specific topic are not tested and evaluated sincerely in many cases. It is because this process demands more time to be devoted in the interview by the interviewer. Questions are asked on a random basis jumping from one topic to the other at the superficial level. Interviewers are forming views about a candidate within a minute. Many then focus attention on looking for evidence to justify first impressions. In many cases a small amount of unfavourable evidence (especially early in the interview) might have been given increased weight. Subsequently even though substantial favourable information is then received from the candidate – the unfavourable picture remained as usual. Initial opinions arising from the application form and applicant appearance are given highest priorities. However Robin believes that in the high technology business it is extremely essential to focus on complex technical issues in order to understand the real depth of the individual. Hence in order arrive at a fair evaluation high level of attention must be paid to the complex issues.

Low focus on Personality Profile: - In his observation Robin found that very little concern were shown by any interviewer to know and understand the Personality Profile of a prospective candidate. According to many senior managers personality of an individual can be shaped in workplace without having much issue and therefore on the basis of technical competencies a person can be selected. In due course of time HR department can take care of personality factor through various initiatives.

However Robin is of the opinion that Personality factors are more difficult to change or improve in comparison to the technical competencies since it is related to the heredity of the individual. Therefore any amount of negligence in evaluating personality profile could be proved to very dangerous for the organization in the long-run. In due course of time this negligent syndrome will create serious problem in understanding how best an employee support his/her team that clearly value effective team relationships, while also fulfilling strong needs related to objectivity, individual contribution, and independence? Moreover this syndrome will create problem in receiving useful insights in building a team that closely connected to its stakeholders. In addition, any amount of resistance in evaluating Personality Profile will definitely create serious issue in identifying team strengths, potential blind spots, and potential interaction dynamics. Robin finds that though all senior management executive talks a lot on team processes, its need, and its benefits in all possible forums including top management meetings, but in reality very little are getting reflected at the operational level.

Interview by Generalist: -

Robin in his observation identified that many highly specialist senior level candidates are interviewed at the advance level by the peer group executive who does not have much specialist knowledge as well as field level complex experience in the specific domain. According to Robin it is quite similar to the recently held Reality Show of Indian Television such as “Voice of India”, “Sa-Re-Ga-Ma”, or “Indian Idol” where all organizers worked very hard to identify the best emerging music talent of the country. However according to many judges of that Reality Show, many superior talents were thrown out of the competition even before the penultimate stages and inferior talent received priority. This is happened due to the format of the competition which gives decision making power to the general population of the country instead of experts available on the stages. The underlying principle is a generalist might not be aware of the highly complex technical dimensions of music like a specialist. But in order to evaluate the competency level of music at the advance stage, a candidate need to be evaluated on the highly complex technical dimensions which can only be done by a specialist having extensive complex experience, not by a generalist. Otherwise it will be difficult to differentiate a breakthrough performer from an average, which might become fractional in many circumstances. Therefore despite having the best intention from all sections, perhaps superior talent could not be given top priority. The same concept applies in case of corporate sector, while interviewing a specialist professional. In the high technology industries, this syndrome might prove to be highly expensive.

From his past complex experience, Robin understands that in everyday terms the interview is a decision-centred, social activity demanding incredible concentration and balancing of many items of incomplete data about the job and the candidate. None of us are free of biases. Nevertheless how can the balance be shifted towards objectivity and weighing up favourable evidence carefully rather than reaction to the unfavourable? In the selection situation, interviewers need self-discipline to avoid evaluating too quickly on the basis of subjective judgments and stereotypes. For interviewers to be more objective than subjective, they need to be aware of their own preferences and reactions. Information coloured by a personal bias is easier to recall after the interview experience than information that is not consistent with a bias. If this is so then interview note taking and more systematic forms of information gathering and evaluation might obviously be recommended. This is the scientific, prescriptive view of employee selection.

He realized that he has a massive task ahead. He has to change the entire culture of the company, a culture that is flexible enough to work in tune with the mindset of the best young brain of the market, a culture that is far more competitive than his best competitor. But that will not be an easy job. In order to have successful change initiative, at first he will have to change the core value system of the company, he has to nurture a set of value system that can be appreciated and well accepted by all stakeholders including young job aspirants, because that is the only way he can attract and retain “best” talent in his company and drive the company towards long-term sustainable development by fulfilling the aspirations of all stakeholders of the company.


Joydip Dey

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