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Author ‘appalled’ by ignorance about hiring, retention, work conditions
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Here’s the first thing one wants to ask Jane Sunley:
“What on earth inspired the title of your new book,
It’s Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer?”
Turns out a graduate student approached Sunley after her lecture at a London business school and asked, “If the interviewer is a lady, it’s OK to give her a kiss, yes?”
“I said ‘Absolutely not,’ ” recalled Sunley, founder of Purple Cubed, a London-based company that helps employers attract, engage and retain workers. “I was appalled that someone at that level of education would think that was OK. Then I thought, ‘If they don’t know that, what else don’t they know?’ ”
Hence, Sunley wrote her book (LID Publishing, January 2014), which not only helps employees grasp the “secrets to surviving, thriving and high fiving at work”—which is the book’s subtitle—but also shows companies what they can do to ensure they make great hires, and keep them.
(One hint: No kissing in interviews.)
While the book is aimed at job applicants, it holds truths for HR professionals, too: Figure out if the candidate’s values are in line with the company’s; make sure the applicant’s skills, attitude and work style are a good fit for the job; and find ways to make the new hire’s transition into the organization relatively seamless.
Question of values
The author moves beyond these HR adages, giving concrete, down-to-earth specifics. For instance, although most reputable companies have “values” statements, they mean zilch, Sunley said in an interview, if companies “stick them on a wall and expect everyone to” adhere.
“This is where people go wrong,” she said, adding that it’s a mistake for managers to adopt a value and then “assume everyone knows what it means. It’s not just about trite words like ‘integrity’ and ‘honesty’ and blah, blah, blah … it’s about what those words mean to the person.”
So if a company values “customer service,” then it must define what that means in everyday practice—and ask a job candidate to state her own definition.
“It might look different to different people,” Sunley noted. “Everyone’s going to say things like, ‘The customer is always right,’ and ‘Make sure the customer is happy.’ But I’d say, ‘What about when the customer is wrong? What did you do? Because the customer isn’t always right, is he?’ Did [the applicant] tell the customer he was wrong in the right way? What was the outcome?”
A Snug Fit
As for ensuring the candidate and the job are well matched, Sunley suggested having the applicant address hypothetical scenarios, which can reveal how she handles stress or difficult people.
“I might say, ‘The computer breaks today and you have a deadline, so what do you do?’ Some people say, ‘I’d pop down the road to a friend’s and use their PC.’ Another would be dumbfounded. You’re looking for practical examples of what they’ve done. You’re looking for a level of common sense, for potential. Does this person know how to deal with setbacks?”
Ask about the last time the applicant worked on a team: What role did the person play? What were the personality dynamics? What were the challenges? What was accomplished?
Sunley is also a big proponent of personality tests. The last time she regretted hiring someone was when the applicant’s personality assessment revealed she could be a maverick, but the candidate convinced Sunley in her interview that she could comply with workplace rules.
“The few times I’ve ignored the results because I really liked the person, it’s always gone wrong,” she said. “We look for compliance not because we want pushovers but because we want people to live our values. [The applicant] managed to convince us that she would toe the company line. She was great for six weeks, and then she went absolutely nuts—we’d agree on a course of action with her and she’d do completely the opposite, or she’d be moaning and groaning about why we had to do things this way or that way, which was hard because in a small business, one person can cause quite a tornado.”
Tests aren’t a “deciding factor, but it’s very, very interesting how accurate some of these tests are,” Sunley observed. “You’d think people would all say they’re goal-focused, but it’s interesting how the test can reveal those who aren’t goal-focused at all.”
Monitor the Culture
Sometimes, ensuring a good fit between the worker and the job has more to do with the employer than the employee.
In her book, Sunley tells the story of “Craig,” a partner at a large London law firm who complained constantly because his massive workload meant he rarely saw his family, “holidays were cut short, weekends often consisted of working in the study,” she wrote. “He was bored, exhausted, unfulfilled and stressed out.”
“If someone’s moaning and groaning about his job, shouldn’t somebody be doing something about that?” Sunley asked in a phone interview, adding that the misery that Craig experienced tends to be widespread at London’s law firms.
“Employers sometimes complain about the way their employees behave, but I have to tell you that when we question the employer, the conclusion is usually that this has to do with the way they treat their people,” Sunley wrote in her bio.
She said the changes that London’s hospitality industry made to working conditions, about a decade ago, illustrate how employers—even in the most demanding of professions—can transform a miserable environment and keep good people.
“London’s restaurants and hotels used to do all these split shifts, with three hours between shifts, which meant people couldn’t do much, like go home, in those three hours, so they ended up staying for 14 hours,” she explained. Moreover, restaurant and hotel kitchens were once notorious for profanity and violence. The result was working conditions “that were pretty awful.”
But after notable chefs took a stand against vulgarity and aggression in their kitchens—and several organizations banned split shifts—conditions became far more tolerable, and workers became happier.
“Generation Y isn’t going to put up with what Boomers put up with,” she said. “Employers know that if they want the best talent, they need to make the conditions good. If you can take an inherently stressful industry like hospitality, where it’s about working nights and weekends and long hours, and start being nice to people, you can completely change things. Why can’t a law firm do that, as opposed to everyone saying, ‘Well, this is the culture and that’s the way it is’?”
Hit the Ground Running
Part of ensuring a healthy worker-job fit comes after the hiring, Sunley said. Rather than wait for the employee to step into the office, let him get a feel for his new job weeks or even months before his start date.
“The employer can give the new employee little tasks—research the competition, research the company website, look up clients—and [new hires] actually like to do that. I’d give them some kind of project. Say, ‘We’ve got a new product launching next month; what ideas do you have around that?’ There will always be in every business someone who needs extra help. So ask around to see who can use help with legwork or groundwork.”
Including yet-to-start employees on company communications is also helpful.
“There are all sorts of things you can do—sending out an organizational chart, to see where people fit; getting colleagues to write and welcome them and offer to answer questions; giving them access to the intranet or the company newsletter.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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