A User’s Guide to Bob (or any other employee)

Your company has announced plans to expand. By 600 jobs. In a variety of disciplines. This means tens of thousands of resumes will be submitted. Those will likely be whittled down to at least 2,500 interviews (assuming four per slot). And that’s not counting any phone interviews done prior to the ones in person.

Bob wants one of those jobs. His resume shows a desirable skill set and a solid track record. It probably shows some embellishments, too, which you may or may not catch and/or which may or may not matter. If his resume checks out, Bob’s interview performance will weigh heavily on his chances of being hired. Maybe Bob, as the military puts it, briefs well. Maybe he is as sharp as the interview showed. But maybe there is some personal trauma going on that threw his game off that day. Is Bob eliminated?

For argument’s sake, and the sake of this piece, we’ll say Bob aced the interview and your gut says he is the right person for the job. You make an offer and he accepts, all based on a six-second review of Bob’s resume, a 40-minute conversation, and a hunch. You wouldn’t buy a used car using that formula but people get hired on the basis of just this scenario regularly. And about four and a half years later, when the typical job turns over, you get to do the whole thing all over again.

  • Company: “Well, smart guy; sounds like you have all the answers?”
  • Me: “I usually ask a lot of questions and in doing so, the answers tend to reveal themselves.”  Company: “What sort of questions?”
  • Me: “About your process – have you hired people who lived up to your expectations? How about people who didn’t? What was different about those cases? How many people are involved in the process? Do you do anything beyond the traditional resume and interview approach?”
  • Company: “Like what?”
  • Me: “Like tools that show you an applicant’s occupational DNA, so you know the total person you’re getting in terms of competence, cultural fit, and if the individual is interested in this job? Do you know what motivates this person, what sort of management style he/she responds to best, how a crisis will be handled?

Which brings us to the subject of this article – a user’s manual for your new hire. Or for existing employees, for that matter. To include empirical data that outlines why your top performers are your top performers; as a bonus, you get a benchmark standard for what makes individuals successful in a given job. To quantify how much of a fit each person is for a particular position. And, to know what makes Bob tick, what he really wants out of the job, so you can get the most out of him, and so Bob will want to stay far longer than four and a half years (bonus: you’ll want Bob to stay longer, too).

  • Company: “We can’t do that. That would take way too much time and there is no way to gather that type of data.”
  • Me: “Sure there is and the elements of that data are already on board. You know who your top performers are because you see their results each month and each year. You also know who the folks in the mid-range are and whether they can join the top rung. And you know who is struggling.”
  • Company: “I don’t know; that sounds like a lot of time and expense.”
  • Me: “This will take less time than you will spend hiring replacements for people who did not pan out, and it costs a lot less.”

Whether filling 600 jobs or six, there is risk involved; no one is always to going to hire superstars. But there is some available science to supplement the art, to improve the likelihood of finding people who know their stuff, who fit the culture, and who are suited for the position. There is no shortage of reasons for why hiring decisions do not always succeed; chances are that few of those reasons will surprise anyone yet they are repeated with some regularity. Unless you know who Bob is, who Bob really is – maybe at a level that he is not consciously aware of himself – you may unnecessarily repeat them yourself.

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Do you find what you’re looking for?

“WANTED: self-starter, highly energetic, entrepreneurial spirit.”  Set aside the reality that what this job posting wants is to fill a 100% commission sales job, does anyone really consider the wording of their ads?  Energetic employees are certainly an asset, but it seems a bit of a stretch to expect that quality simply by asking for it.  For all its seeming clarity, “self-starter” can also be ambiguous, alternately being characterized as a good thing when hidden behind a fancier euphemism like ‘spearheaded’, or treated as a rhetorical pariah in an era when the ability to get up to speed and contribute quickly has become the rule.  And it seems that entrepreneurial spirit can mean whatever the user wants it to mean.  It’s a fine attribute, to be sure.  For an entrepreneur.  Not for someone who is going to be absorbed into a corporate culture.  I realize companies talk a lot about shifting the paradigm or changing everything or trashing the proverbial box, but only a rare few actually walk that talk.

So, where does that leave you in your search for energetic, motivated, free thinkers?  In the HR version of a Vegas craps table.  Many of you are familiar with research that up to half of all resumes have some measure of creative license, usually in predictable areas.  Technology has made this creative license much easier to root out and consequences for lying can be career-ending.  Unfortunately, technology has not gotten to the point where reviews on people are as readily available as write-ups about restaurants, local businesses, and products but it there are tools that can eliminate some of the guesswork.

Some companies love assessments and use them for both pre-hire decision-making as well as for coaching current employees and assessing future leaders.  Other firms see them as one more expense.  But when articles on how to reduce turnover are as common as cat videos, that is solid evidence that the hiring process is not perfect.  Assessments are particularly useful in determining job fit.  By nature, they will provide you with more information about candidates than resumes and interviews can provide; they can reveal things about current employees that are difficult to detect in the typical workplace.  Imagine being able to understand what gets people going each day, what truly motivates them, how they like to be managed, and so forth.

People use two criteria in making decisions:  screening and evaluation.  Screening criteria is the broad brush – I need people with X number of years experience in Y industry, preferably with Z level of education.  Evaluation criteria gets into the nuts and bolts, and weighs the strengths and weaknesses of candidates against one another.  Almost any hiring system already does that.  Unless someone lies on a resume and it takes a while to catch it.  Or they strike all the right notes in the interviews but are tone deaf after hiring.

Assessments fill a third category, the behaviors and traits you are likely to see from each individual and their interests.  It’s not enough to know if someone can do the job and how that person will do it; a good assessment will answer if the individual wants to do the job.  How many of you thought you had the perfect candidate and six months later one of you is saying “this isn’t working out.”  In a relationship, you’ll lost some time and maybe a little heartache; in business, those setbacks cost money.  Imagine the hiring process as a cost-saver; your CFO will notice and chances are, others will hear about it, too.

If you prefer simply tweaking the process without assessments, you can do that but do you really want to be a copywriter and how often do you expect to strike gold?  If you want snappier job ads, eliminating jargon and buzzwords seems like a good start.  I doubt many lasting relationships were founded on cheesy lines and the problem with being unique is that when everyone is doing it or trying to do it, the purpose is defeated.  And there is still no guarantee that you will find someone who is a fit for the job or for the company’s culture, and you’re still stuck rolling the dice on a resume, interviews, and whatever can be learned from references.  But that’s me.

The New Entrepreneurs

One of my new neighbors is an attorney. Who is bent on doing something else for a living. Sooner rather than later. Her sentiment has a lot of company with one distinct exception – those who own their business. A big part of the reason is the autonomy; people like having ownership of the decisions that impact their lives, even if those decisions involve the periodic stereotype of the business owner of someone who is never truly off the clock. Opportunity, control, and freedom are also on the list.

The growth in entrepreneurship is at its highest level in 15 years.   A still-sluggish economy is part of the reason; for a large chunk of the workforce, spinning one’s wheels has become the new norm. The average anticipated pay raise for employees this year is about 3%. Weigh that against the increase in your cost of living; for the most part, it’s a wash. That sameness is the impetus for wondering what else is out there, particularly among more seasoned workers.

And that’s just the population still in the workforce; the labor participation rate is at its lowest since the late 70’s. Think about that for a second. Millions of people who are no longer counted in unemployment figures. It defies reason to believe that each of those individuals has simply given up.

My attorney friend couldn’t help but notice that her previous firm had a definite preference for people barely removed from law school. My own experience as I was finishing graduate school was not much different. There are few things more unusual than being interviewed by someone who, literally, is the same age as your children. In an earlier time, experience carried an implied value. Today, the primary implication seems to be “he’s going to want a lot of money” even if he doesn’t. The secondary one is “he’s after my job” even when he is not.

You have not truly lived until you have actually said to an interviewer “I’m not here for your job; I’m here for the one being advertised. I’ve had your job and it has headaches I do not particularly want again. On the other hand, I can help you in coping with those headaches and I will not add to them.” That, evidently, is not convincing.

A cursory Google search of why people become entrepreneurs yields more than 24-million responses, many of them like this. None of this is to say that the process is all rainbows and unicorns. Small business owners face a lot of worries that the typical employee does not – making payroll, coping with new government mandates and their costs, and the day-to-day of keeping a business humming. But it seems those worries are the fuel that drives the decision in the first place – determining how to conquer uncertainty, controlling the calendar, and being accountable to that person looking at you in the mirror.

Do Numbers Have Arms and Legs?

So much economic news is wrapped in numbers that it is easy to forget that behind the parade of figures – percentage rates of this, new filings of that, sales of the other – are individuals. Each datum is someone’s life at the moment, for better or worse. This was the stark reality at a job fair in Charlotte earlier this week as a few hundred people trudged into a hotel ballroom built for dozens. By the way, employment figures may not be all that they appear to be, to the point that the jobless rate itself is arguably less credible than the typical five-day weather forecast. 

Attendees ranged from those not working to part-timers to fully-employed (though presumably unsatisfied) people. Happy people do not go looking for jobs, right, at least not at this sort of event. The crowd included people barely out of school alongside others whose own children have likely graduated; a collection of wingtips and loafers, mules and stilettos, even a few flip-flops (apparently, some were more motivated than others). One entrepreneurial woman walked the waiting line hawking an Internet travel business – get great discounts on trips by having others book vacations through your website.

First impression: pent-up demand for meaningful work is pegging the needle. Second impression: women under a certain age do not look comfortable walking in four-inch heels. I’m guessing too much time in flip-flops but that’s another matter. The point is, an economy is not a compilation of dry statistics; it a living organism fueled by the productive efforts of individuals, each on some rung of Maslow’s hierarchy.

It was impossible to ask everyone what he/she was looking for and some were not entirely sure. A handful of colleges had booths to help the undecided. A few businesses, mostly in sales and almost all of those 100% commission-based, hoped to add clarity. One regional GM was looking for “two or three money-motivated” people who he is sure can earn six figures with modest effort. (If it is that easy, I wondered why those two to three people were ever needed.) Another sales manager is trying to grow a territory for a product whose name you would recognize. And a home-health agency is battling with persistent turnover.

Meanwhile, a flier in the lobby touted driving jobs. Lots of driving jobs. Page after page of driving jobs. Enough of them to lead you to believe that a CDL is the new BA. Class A licensees are apparently at a premium; Class B holders less so. Husband-wife teams or solo, HazMat or no HazMat endorsement, over the road, tankers, dump trucks, from home every day to home most weekends, immediate hiring, sign-on bonuses available. Curiously, no trucking companies were actually represented in the fair itself.

I couldn’t tell you if anyone got hired or not as a result of attending. I suspect a few people got or will get callbacks. It’s impossible to know how many of those will be hired, how many will stay hired, and how many will enjoy what they do. What is certain is that another job fair is scheduled for next week and many of the same people are likely to show up again. And there will be more numbers: another percentage rate of this, more or fewer new filings of that, increased or decreased sales of the other.  How reliable those numbers will be is anyone’s guess; the reality of individual situations less so. 

Square pegs, round holes

Job fit is an obvious concern for any organization but what does it mean, to both the company and the individual?  Let’s start with the latter.  For employees, a bit of backward engineering might be in order.  What was wrong with your last job?  How about the one before that?  What was right about it?  How much of the problem was the job(s) and how much of it was you?

The typical person will hold multiple jobs in his/her lifetime but, usually, they will encompass just a few careers.  It’s not a semantic difference.  Too often, however, the terms are used interchangeably as people switch one company address for another, usually but not always for a bigger paycheck, and just as usually, running into the same frustration.  If only there was a word for doing the same thing repeatedly but looking for different results.

People leave jobs for any number of reasons and they leave regardless of the economy.  Even in the wake of the recession, nearly two-million people per month quit their jobs voluntarily.  Since then, the figure has climbed even higher and, again, these are people choosing to leave jobs.  Money is seldom the reason why.  The most common reason is dissatisfaction with management; people don’t leave organizations and paychecks, they leave people.  Think about the upheaval that causes all around.

Think about job fit from a couple of vantage points, both governed by a rule of three.  Organizations want 1)to find people who can do the job, 2) to have a sense of how they will job, and 3), to be relatively certain those people will enjoy their jobs.  That last part – enjoying the job – can be the toughest hurdle, for both the individual and the company.  No one applies for a job they expect to hate and no company hires someone who is expected to fail.  This provides an overview of meshing the key points of ability, behaviors, and interests.

Everyone has certain innate behavioral traits and varying degrees of ability to adapt those traits to the job.    The ideal setting, for both employer and employee, is one in which people can be who they are most of the time.  Most of the time is important; everyone has to modify certain personality traits based on the setting.  A highly sociable person will probably not like working in an isolated environment and a self-starter is not likely to thrive under micromanagement.  However, can the sociable person find enough outlets for workplace interaction to suit that component of his/her personality?  And can the self-starter adjust to a certain degree of scrutiny?  Just as important, can the organization take these aspects of their people’s personalities into account and manage them accordingly?

This post is full of questions but the figures about job-hopping and workplace satisfaction highlight the need for answers.  We spend a good deal of our lives at work or thinking about work, so the questions are worth pondering.  Put it this way – how long would you stay in a relationship where you felt smothered or alienated or unappreciated?  Probably not long.  My guess is you would either raise the issue with your partner and seek a resolution or end the relationship.  No reason the employer/employee relationship should not get the same level of consideration.