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All Skill, No Finesse

June 1, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
Atthe May 2000 Human Resources Forum, aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise liner, JimCollins, author of Built to Last (HarperBusiness, 1994), wisely said, “Peopleare your most important asset. Actually, the right people are your most important assetand you can’t get the right behavior [performance] from the wrong people. Therefore,how do you measure the right behavior?”

Selectingan awesome employee can be more difficult than finding the perfect mate. At least datingdisasters occur in a matter of hours; bad hires are not as immediately evident. If couplescomplain about not really knowing their mates even after years of marriage, how canfront-line hiring managers truly know a job applicant after a 30- to 45-minute interview?They can’t. It’s virtually impossible to really know someone in such a shorttime.

Traditionally,potential hires are assessed on experience, skills, and appearance. But that’s aminuscule part of the big picture. The paradox is that 50 to 70 percent of most jobqualifications may be more inherent in personality than skill. For example, consider thequalities you would seek out in the interview process. If you’re looking for asalesperson, you might want an individual who is assertive, convincing, self-confident, anexcellent communicator, pressure oriented, competitive, independent, resourceful, andgoal-oriented.

Butwhat about a bookkeeper? You would probably seek an individual who is detail-oriented,patient, methodical, analytical, a problem solver, accommodating, agreeable, a teamplayer, and a follower.

Now,ask which of these adjectives are skills -- things you go to school for or take classes tolearn -- and which are more naturally determined by our personality. The answer is most ofthese qualities are personality traits, not skills, that may be learned for the short termbut aren’t usually sustainable characteristics.

Unfortunately,without objective assessment, appropriate behavioral traits are the least-known assets inthe decision-maker’s arsenal. Traditional hiring practices focus the interviewer ondemeanor, personal appearance, and what applicants have done, not who they actually are.Ultimately, job performance -- good or bad -- hinges on how well the individual’spersonality meshes with the job. Behavioral assessments, when accurately implemented, arequintessential tools for managing and motivating individuals and matching the right personto the right position.

What’syour picture of the perfect employee?

“Ifwe take job fit into account when making selection decisions, we have a much better chanceof matching the right person into the job, and that’s better for everybody,”says Maureen Townson, vice president and marketing director of The McQuaig Institute.McQuaig, a Toronto-based company, produces software tools for assessing behavioralattributes in the workplace. “We spend an inordinate amount of time at work and Ithink it is absolutely critical there be a good fit,” she says.

TheMcQuaig System measures the behavior that’s required by a given job, and then itcompares that measurement to the behavioral attributes of the applicant or incumbent.Measuring the required job behaviors is done through a process called benchmarking.Looking at the personalities of several high performers in a given position, who have beenon the job at least six months to one year, helps to spell out the behavioral requisitesassociated with the position.

Typically,this is conducted by the HR department, in concert with the management team that willultimately be responsible for the position. No one knows the culture of a givencorporation better than those who are in the human resources department. Yet anotherapproach is to have a manager indicate his or her impression of the best personality forthe position. The manager’s profile is then compared to the feedback that’scollected from the top performers. The end result is a composite about what the jobrequires from a person behaviorally.

Justas every job has a set of ideal characteristics, every individual has strong personalityattributes that determine fitness for a specific job, promotion, or company culture. Forexample, most executives assume everyone wants to be a leader. But according to statisticsfrom a 12-year study conducted by Hagberg & Associates, 36 percent of engineerspromoted from line positions had problems in a position of leadership. Even though theypossessed the skills, many did not have the personality for the promotion; thus, the PeterPrinciple.

RossWeinberg, president of Line One Teleservices in New Rochelle, New York, a telemarketingcompany for the financial industry, knew his company’s employee turnover rate was toohigh. Three years ago, for every 10 new employees, seven were performing poorly on the jobduring the first three weeks. “New hires were initially enthusiastic, but they didnot know what they were getting into, and they ultimately hated it,” he says.

Today,seven of 10 new hires are performing well in that same time frame. The turning point forLine One Teleservices was when personality testing was implemented in order to standardizehiring practices.

“Beforethat, we did not have an understanding of the behavioral profiles necessary fortelemarketers. The assessments gave structure and framework to our hiring process,”Weinberg says. “I would never run a business without them now. It hits me every day,especially when hiring telemarketing salespeople.” Anytime a company is hiringsalespeople, the evaluation of behavior becomes more critical because so much of theirsuccess is behaviorally driven. On the other hand, when a surgeon is being hired, skillsfar outweigh the promise of a pleasant personality. So personality testing is particularlyhelpful in determining candidates for positions in which person-to-person contact is apriority.

Whilebehavioral testing can make the difference for a company, the effectiveness of thistesting depends on a few factors:

  • The type of survey for which people are being promoted or selected.

  • The type of test being used. Personality, IQ, and skill-based surveys range widely. Pricesrange from the Wonderlic Survey ($8 per survey) to the Caliper Survey which may costseveral hundreds of dollars.

  • The insight and knowledge of the people doing the testing. What type of person  should conduct the survey depends largely uponwhether the company uses the surveys for tactical or strategic purposes. If testing isconducted on an annual basis, typically the user provides an individual fully trained inimplementation and follow-up.

    On the contrary, the strategic application of personalitytests gives any executive team a better overall understanding of the people side of thebusiness. Other benefits: fewer levels of management can manage greater numbers ofemployees, companies will be able to maintain higher levels of alignment among their staffmembers, and turnover, absenteeism, and accidents will go down while profits surge.

  • The factoring of test results in the overall evaluation process. In other words, what isthe ease of administration? Are the tests scored in-house or elsewhere? Has the companybeen trained in how to interpret the test results or will an outside source provideobjective interpretation?

Turnovercost takes its toll

Althoughthe true cost of employee turnover is difficult to calculate, and rarely seen on a profitand loss statement, few disagree that bad hiring decisions affect the bottom line.

Assessingtangible and non-tangible (or soft) costs can be an eye-opener for most managers. Sincetime is money, personnel costs -- the number of hours multiplied by wages -- plus burdencosts mount up when one considers staff’s time to interview, check references, reviewrésumés, and place employment ads.

Hardcosts also include advertising, employment agency fees, professional assessment,relocation expenses, start-up costs (business cards and incidentals), training, salariesand benefits, staff changes, termination, and outplacement fees. Meanwhile, the intangiblecosts, those that cannot be weighed accurately, are business losses resulting fromcustomer relations problems and lost sales, ebbing employee morale, lost productivity, andmissed opportunities.

EricMcDonald, vice president of operations for Dallas-based, a fee-less,international mutual fund investment company, started using personality surveys as aninitial screening tool, via the Internet, about two and a half years ago. “We arelooking for very select people here. We only hire two employees for every 80 applicants,”McDonald says. In the case of, their turnover rate dropped by as much as 70percent, but they had to screen more applicants in the process.

UsingInternet job lines, the company throws a wide net and receives a high volume of queries.Interested parties are then linked to the company’s Web site, and an onlineintelligence test and personality survey are given.

Thequestions are prioritized into 11 groupings of four words each. Typically, it can becompleted in 10 to 20 minutes. This process eliminates about 50 percent of the applicantsbefore the first in-person interview, says McDonald, who believes his 25-employee companysaved more than $50,000 last year alone. “No one has quit since we began doing this,”he says.

“Personalityprofiling is very helpful in hiring and retaining the right people,” says MaryGeving, HR manager for Netcom Systems, a Calabasas, California-based company that producestesting equipment for Internet systems and employs 270 people. “We had a need forbetter retention, and this was a tool for making better decisions in hiring and keepingthe right people. We use assessments prior to the first interview. These assessmentsgenerate questions based on personalities. After the hiring decision is made, we use theinformation as a guide to the do’s and don’ts on how to manage people,”Geving says.


Awesomeperformance takes place naturally when key behavioral requirements of the job, and acandidate’s personality attributes, are well matched for the position. Coaching andmotivating people are far more successful when employers treat employees as individuals.Many managers have one style of management, which works best with employees with similarpersonalities. For employees with a different type of personality, it’s important formanagers to modify their approach in order to get peak performance. Generally, behavioraltesting helps managers understand their employees’ needs, which creates morealignment up and down the organization.

AnthonyFolan is manager of employee relations for Russell Metals Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario,which employs 2,000 people. They initially used the McQuaig System as a recruitment andassessment tool. The feedback reports have since become an integral part of supervisionand management strategies at Russell.

“Wetry to hire people with the ideal profile, combined with their experience and academicbackground. Personality testing is a check-and-balance system. We also provide in-housetraining on conducting behavioral-based interviews. It is both a competency andbehaviorally based interview,” Folan says.

Thetemplate of success for salespeople is a dominant, independent, driven, competitive,results-oriented personality, not compliant and accepting, he explains. “We focus onthose behavioral traits,” says Folan. Clearly, this approach allows management tobetter understand an individual’s motivation for doing a good job. In turn, it allowsfor management and motivation based on each individual’s personal needs.

McDonaldfrom adds, “A personality profile is only as useful as you make it. Youhave to understand the tool and use it to successfully integrate it into the culture ofthe company. Management has to make a commitment. It’s an excellent tool if you useit right.”

Abouta year ago, when he presented the largest check ever to his highest sales producer, thesalesman replied, “I want a plaque. I produce more than anyone else here.”McDonald was surprised. “If I had understood this salesman’s personality inadvance, I would have known that he likes accolades and public recognition in front ofothers, and I may not have had to pay him as much,” says McDonald, tongue in cheek.

Don’trely on skills alone

RonKrueger II, chief operations officer of Wehrenberg Theatres Inc. of St. Louis, knows thatsome turnover is unavoidable. “We went through the highest level of transient people,”says Krueger, who owns and operates movie theaters, traditionally the first workenvironment for many teens. “Now we make better hiring decisions for teens. We use itfor everybody in the organization, from executives to new hires.” Wehrenberg adoptedpersonality profiling 15 months ago, and Krueger is a self-proclaimed champion of thesystem.

Thenature of the tool, as with any personnel process, dictates the need for caution. Forexample, behavioral assessments are created to measure people for their specific fit witha job and shouldn’t be used for any abstract measurements. Ethically, the informationmust be treated with confidentiality. Also, it’s required that any behavioral toolsused in an organization be validated and pass EEOC guidelines.

Otherareas of caution to consider when conducting personality tests include measuring peoplestrictly for their ability to perform their jobs and not just for abstract profiles. Inaddition, testing helps uncover cases in which, for instance, people performing job “A”would be better off performing job “B.” As long as companies remember that thesetest devices are to be used as tools, not weapons, they’ll provide the benefits thatare intended.

Traditionalmethods of judging applicants on experience or how they present themselves in an interviewcan’t accurately measure a candidate’s true fit for the job. Though people areusually hired based on the basis of qualifications, most people are fired fornon-performance. People rarely succeed or fail through skills or intelligence alone.

Successor failure is usually the result of personal characteristics, such as attitude,motivation, and especially, temperament. Regardless of the industry or the nature of thebusiness, periodically it’s important for CEOs and human resource professionals tostand back and determine who is winning the war for talent. If your company isn’t,remember there are viable options, and surrender is not one of them.

Workforce,June 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, pp. 108-116 -- Subscribe now!

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