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HR Magazine: Train for Smarter Hiring

By Kathryn Tyler  5/1/2005

HR Magazine, May 2005

 Vol. 50, No. 5

Train hiring managers to communicate their needs to HR as well as to ask candidates probing questions.

Hiring a new employee can be like making a high-stakes gamble: Will your newest worker turn out to be a fantastic addition or a fantastic failure?

Some companies, however, unwilling to gamble with their future productivity, are taking steps to train hiring managers and otherwise improve the hiring process.

“Our industry—public accounting—is extremely competitive for talent,” says Juli Hicks, SPHR, HR manager at Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., an accounting firm in Akron, Ohio. “We needed to have more depth in our interviewing and a better ability to identify and attract talent that fits into our culture. We identified seven core competencies every employee should possess to be successful. Then, we designed training to fit around interviewing for those competencies.”

HR professionals and recruiting experts say that Hicks’ approach is spot on, and that employers should move proactively to improve their hiring processes—often by helping recruiters and hiring managers work together more effectively, and by helping hiring managers perfect their interviewing techniques.

Building a Better Relationship

Although HR professionals know how to select good candidates, hiring managers typically have a close-up understanding of precisely which skills and attributes a candidate must possess to succeed in a particular job day after day. Such insights can be especially helpful for recruiters in sharpening the details of a job description. And the selection training can help hiring managers better assess an applicant’s suitability for the job.

“Recruiters need to be partners with the hiring managers,” says Tom Tomasula, a consultant and trainer for Employers Resource Council, an association for employers doing business in Northeast Ohio. Each side needs to understand the other’s needs, expectations and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, “few organizations train managers about what they should communicate to recruiters” to ensure the best hire, says Scott Erker, senior vice president of selection solutions at Development Dimensions International (DDI), a recruitment system consultancy headquartered in Pittsburgh. “Hiring managers need to know how to articulate the qualities of desirable candidates and use specific language. If you say [you need] ‘good leadership skills,’ I need to know your definition isn’t different from mine.”

Moreover, Erker adds, “hiring managers need to be trained to give feedback. Why didn’t they like a candidate you put forward? Why did they like a new hire after 90 days? Train hiring managers to be articulate about what they need.”

To ensure a solid hire, hiring managers and recruiters must work together to develop job competencies. Which qualities are important for success in this job? “What behaviors differentiate the top person from the average person? What personality traits will be disastrous in this position? Where does the position go in terms of career development?” says Duane Lakin, consulting psychologist at Lakin Associates in Wheaton, Ill.

Making It Official

A good partnership includes formal facilitation between HR recruiters and hiring managers, Tomasula says.

He recommends a “service-level agreement,” which outlines both sides’ roles and responsibilities in the hiring process and sets forth an agreed-upon timetable. The agreement, which both sides must approve, Tomasula says, could contain terms such as: “The hiring manager will interview candidates presented within three days and let the recruiter know a decision the next day.”

Cleveland Clinic Health System– East Region, a group of acute care hospitals in Ohio with 6,000 employees, recently implemented a service-level agreement between recruiters and hiring managers. “The agreement came from the desire to decrease the length of time to fill open positions. Health care is a competitive market. There is a shortage of licensed professionals in nursing, and we don’t want to delay the hiring process,” explains Charla Henningsen, director of recruitment services.

“Great talent doesn’t sit around,” says Tomasula, and managers must be educated about the importance of a quick turnaround.

Lynda Ford, SPHR, president of The Ford Group, an HR consultancy in Rome, N.Y., agrees that turnaround time should be cut when possible. Recalling her days as a director of HR, she offers the following advice: “Every HR department should flowchart out the interview process, discover what the holdups are and eliminate them. We did, and got our process down from 30 days to 10.”

The agreement might also specify how often recruiters and hiring managers will meet to ensure that they are on the same page. Tomasula recommends meeting every other week with critical departments. Ask, “ ‘What will the department be looking for in six months?’ ” he says. “Then you become a strategic partner.”

Behavioral Interviewing

Once hiring managers articulate which competencies they seek, they must be taught to uncover them during the job interview. “Most people are not very good at interviewing because it is not their primary job,” Lakin says. “They feel it takes away time from their ‘real’ job.”

Hiring managers need training to interview effectively. “They might say, ‘I don’t need this. I’ve been interviewing for 10 years.’ But maybe all they have been doing is repeating the ineffective methodology for years,” says Jim Kennedy, president of Management Team Consultants Inc., an interview consulting firm in San Rafael, Calif.

In behavioral interviewing—a popular technique that experts recommend—the interviewer asks questions related to past performance regarding specific competencies, such as teamwork.

“Eliminate the hypothetical questions. Ask people what they’ve already done, not what they might do,” Ford says. “How often have interviewers wasted time with questions like, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ These questions do little to give an accurate assessment as to the person’s ability to do the job.”

When asking questions about specific behaviors, organization is important. “Remember that candidates organize their memory by their experiences, not competencies,” Kennedy says. He suggests that interviewers ask about competencies within the framework of the candidate’s experience. For example: “ ‘When you were working at XYZ Co., how did you go about dealing with all of the details?’ Get examples from the candidate and follow up on what they said by asking a string of questions.”

Some people argue that behavioral interviewing is no longer a useful technique because applicants are prepared for it. Erker disagrees: “A good interviewer asks follow-up questions to pin down a candidate about what he did. It’s hard to fake a good behavioral interview.”

One Company’s Experience

Behavioral interviewing became a company directive last summer at automaker DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. division, which has more than 80,000 employees and is headquartered in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The company wanted “to ensure quality hiring decisions and prepare for a turnaround in the economy when we might be hiring more,” explains Sandy Fiaschetti, assessment, selection and onboarding manager for Talent Acquisition, an HR department within DaimlerChrysler. “Managers whose daytime job is not full-time interviewing wanted a tool they could use quickly, confidently and easily to make the best hiring decisions,” Fiaschetti says.

To that end, the company offered talent selection training, which has two parts. The first part is mandatory for all hiring managers and can be taken online or as a full-day class. It teaches managers to determine the competencies desired, to conduct behavioral interviewing and to calculate candidates’ scores.

The second part of the program is an optional skill practice. “Participants can be trained in a classroom setting where they interview mock candidates while an instructor listens and offers feedback,” Fiaschetti says. “Or they can make an appointment, call up and interview a mock candidate. That person intentionally avoids some questions and answers others vaguely.” When the hiring manager hangs up, the candidate—actually a trained assessor—calls back and gives feedback and coaching on how the hiring manager did.

“So far, managers are overwhelmingly positive [about the program]. Some managers who thought they knew which candidate they wanted going into the interviews used the tool and reached different conclusions,” Fiaschetti says. “[Now] they’re using the interview to gather data, not reach conclusions. They’re taking a step back from first reactions.”

Other Training Experiences

Hiring training is also conducted at Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, a faith-based social services agency with 175 employees. All supervisors receive individual coaching on the interviewing and hiring process, and also attend a workshop. “We do a combination of lecture and role-play, with plenty of flexibility for conversation and processing,” says Elaine Thomas, PHR, assistant director of HR. Conducting such training at the proper time is vital for ensuring good hires, says Thomas.

“Ideally, the training should be done before the supervisor ever gets into the interview. Unfortunately, that has not been our practice, and some bad hires might have been avoided if we had this program in place sooner,” Thomas says.

Experts say that hiring training must be mandatory for anyone who interviews candidates. Such training should be offered not only initially but also as a refresher course. Mandatory training “is a must, not only from a skill acquisition perspective but also to ensure consistency and a legally defensible interview process,” Ford says. Many companies conduct initial training through an outside vendor and provide the refresher courses online or internally.

Training can be stand-alone or part of a managerial training program. At the University of Texas at Austin, interview training is one module in a larger managerial training program. The HR department also offers several stand-alone classes on unusual hiring situations, such as hiring international applicants.

Internal vs. External Candidates

A portion of any training should cover the difference between interviewing internal and external candidates. Although all interviews should be conducted in the same manner and with the same degree of professionalism, the communication surrounding an internal interview is different. Internal applicants should most likely receive additional attention, personalization and diplomacy.

HR professionals need to educate managers about the need to give internal candidates priority, Tomasula says. Internal candidates represent a valuable resource that should be preserved. For example, they already understand the company’s culture and know its mission, goals and priorities. For this reason, hiring managers should be taught to treat internal candidates properly so they won’t be discouraged or prompted to leave if they fail to land the job.

“Invest the time to teach [hiring managers] the necessary skills because it is easier to retain an employee than it is to hire a new one,” Tomasula says.

Although talent-selection training isn’t necessarily cheap—training by an outside vendor can cost $2,000 to $8,000 per day, depending on the amount of customization—it can be justified by its return on investment. In fact, it can be quite a cost-effective outlay compared to the expenses of turnover and lost productivity when a hire doesn’t pan out because the selection process was off track.

Ultimately, a company is only as good as the people who work for it. “Selection of people into your organization is one of the key predictors of your success,” Erker says. “This is one of the most critical responsibilities you have.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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