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Gimme Attitude

July 2, 2003
Related Topics: Featured Article, Recruitment, Staffing Management
Inside the pediatric conference room on the first floor of Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, Karen Schoch is firing off a volley of questions to a 40-something physician who has applied for a position at the medical center. Sitting under comfortably dimmed recessed lights and surrounded by soothing terra-cotta walls, the director for organizational development and learning is scrutinizing the man’s every word and body movement. "Could you describe a situation where you tried to solve a problem and it didn’t work the first time?" she asks. He launches into a lengthy response, relating an anecdote about a previous job. "Please tell me about a conflict you had with a coworker and how you tried to resolve it," she asks. He offers a detailed example.

The process plays out for the better part of an hour. Schoch, who has conducted hundreds of interviews for Women & Infants Hospital, has learned that while degrees, experience and skills count, they’re only part of the overall picture. "A person must be qualified to do the job, but they also require the right personality. We’re a hospital that puts a premium on patient care, and we want people who can deliver on the concept," she says. Finding the right person--one who has a certain blend of compassion, diplomacy, energy and confidence--is a critical ingredient in boosting patient satisfaction, reducing turnover and fueling productivity.

For Women & Infants Hospital, molding a culture that has no uncaring doctors or cranky nurses is an obsession. Two years ago, the 2,600-employee hospital, part of the Care New England Health System, embarked on a program to hire people with the right personality. They turned to behavior-based interviews and in-depth analysis of candidates. That, combined with an overall emphasis on total quality, has led to impressive results. In 2002, patient satisfaction rose from the 71st percentile to the 89th percentile on a national scale, while turnover measured 8.5 percent, compared to the national average of 20 to 25 percent. At the same time, Women & Infants Hospital has seen labor disputes wither and productivity climb. "Behavior-based hiring works," Schoch says.

It’s a straightforward concept: hire the right people and build a better--and more profitable--organization. While many corporations are still thrilled by an MBA from Stanford or a jaw-dropping résumé that includes the initials GE or P&G, a growing number of organizations are ditching traditional thinking. They’re hiring for attitude, reasoning that you can teach the right person the skills to do the job but you can’t transform even the most knowledgeable person into a success if she lacks the right temperament. "Although personality-based hiring has been around for years, it’s now in the spotlight," says Bill Byham, CEO of Development Dimensions International, a Pittsburgh consulting firm that helped pioneer the concept.

Not surprisingly, hiring for attitude is especially popular in service-based industries and jobs that require customer contact. Southwest Airlines has built an entire corporate culture predicated on the concept. Package-delivery service UPS prides itself on finding people who fit into its culture and project the company image to its customers. And scores of others--from hospitals to restaurants, steel producers to computer manufacturers--have embraced the idea and put it at the center of their recruiting and hiring process. Yet it can also serve as a tool for hiring technical experts, such as scientists and programmers, who must blend expertise with personality traits like persistence and attention to detail.

Nevertheless, behavior-based hiring isn’t a fix-all, and it doesn’t work for every company. "It’s not as simple as finding a person who appears outgoing or thrives under pressure," observes Raymond A. Noe, a professor of business management and human resources at Ohio State University. "There are many dimensions to an individual’s personality, and it’s essential to thoroughly gauge their attitudes." As Schoch and others who use personality-based hiring have learned, it’s a complicated and time-consuming process, requiring multiple interviews, structured evaluations and, at some firms, psychographic testing and simulations.

Behavioral Interviewing
    The idea of hiring someone with the right temperament and attitude is nothing new. To a certain extent, smart businesses have always looked for people--sales associates, flight attendants, waiters, delivery people--who connect with customers, make them feel comfortable and project a positive image. But today many companies are attempting to transform the process from an art into a science. They’re analyzing what separates top performers from laggards, and good hires from bad. These organizations are turning to an array of tools to find people they can hire for attitude and train for skill.

Southwest Airlines is perhaps the highest flier in the hire-for-attitude movement. The Dallas-based carrier, which earned $5.5 billion in 2002 and employs nearly 34,000 people, spares no effort to find the perfect blend of energy, humor, team spirit and self-confidence. The first step in its hiring process is to take a group of applicants into a room and observe how they interact. Southwest’s vice president of people, Beverly Carmichael, might ask a dozen or so participants to tell about a time when their sense of humor helped them or what their personal motto is. Although most responses aren’t memorable, they do provide clues as to how a person thinks and copes. "It’s not necessarily the answer but the way a person answers," she says.

Applicants who make the grade--and on occasion Southwest doesn’t invite back anyone from the initial group interview--then engage in a one-on-one interview with a recruiter as well as someone currently in the position. That offers a chance to poke and probe further and ask far more detailed behavioral questions. Southwest hopes that by the time the process is over, it will have identified the candidates who thoroughly fit its criteria. Typically, that is someone who likes being around people and has a strong work ethic, but doesn’t take things too seriously and knows how to have fun.

Companies like Southwest Airlines that eventually create a "brand" culture realize yet another benefit: they attract throngs of like-minded applicants who see themselves as a good fit. "At a certain point, it becomes a self-selecting process," Noe says. "People who match the culture are attracted to it, and as applicants participate in pre-interviews and interviews, those that don’t feel comfortable drop out of the picture." The end result is a hiring market tilted distinctly in favor of the company. Last year, Southwest received 240,000 résumés and hired 4,900 people. Its turnover rate of approximately 4.7 percent is the lowest in the airline industry.

Creating a Hiring Package
    While it seems unlikely that hiring for attitude would work for every organization, Byham believes that most companies can benefit in some way. The goal might not be to hire a bubbly flight attendant or a compassionate nurse, but even bill collectors, steel workers and prison guards require the right temperament for the job.

One thing that gets some organizations into trouble--particularly those with tight budgets and limited human resources staffs--is depending solely on personality profiles and psychographic testing that don’t take behavior into account. "One of the problems with personality tests is that a particular quality or trait may or may not tie in to how a person actually performs the job," Noe says. For example, attempting to size up a candidate for a sales position by testing whether he’s an extrovert or introvert may result in a poor hiring decision, since there’s no conclusive evidence that either personality type is more successful. On the other hand, asking a person how he dealt with an intimidating situation can lead to valuable insights.

It is possible to take the hiring-for-attitude concept too far. "Companies put themselves at risk if they favor either attitude or technical capabilities too heavily. For almost every job, a person requires both," says Bruce N. Pfau, co-author of The Human Capital Edge (McGraw-Hill, 2002) and practice director for organizational effectiveness at consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide. This is especially true, he says, as individuals rise through the ranks and seek management positions. At that point, learning specific skills or technical capabilities can prove difficult, if not impossible. On the other hand, even the most knowledgeable manager can fail without good interpersonal skills and an ability to motivate workers.

That’s a concept that strikes a chord at UPS, which has 360,000 employees worldwide. The Atlanta-based delivery service, which had revenues of $31.2 billion in 2002, has crafted an entire recruiting, training and internal-promotion process that focuses on attitude. It recruits heavily on college campuses, provides intensive training and then promotes mostly from within. When employees apply for a management position, they undergo at least two levels of behavioral interviews that focus on issues such as motivation, commitment and building working relationships. UPS also looks at personality dimensions specific to the job. In every instance, the firm has designed questions to probe for specific attributes.

By the time employees choose to enter management, usually after several years and hundreds of hours of training, they are usually highly attuned to the UPS culture. And once they have completed the behavioral interviews, the company is almost certain that there’s a match. Virtually all of the company’s top executives, including its CEO, Michael Eskew, began working at UPS in hourly positions and climbed through the ranks. John Saunders, vice president of organizational development, says, "Through internal recruiting we’re generally able to find people with the right value and attitudes for management."

Reaching Hire Ground
    Hiring for attitude isn’t an exercise in amateur psychology or executive intuition. And it won’t succeed simply because a company slaps a motto on its Web site or a sign in a window proclaiming to the world that it’s looking for outgoing, friendly people. "Some companies believe they’re hiring for attitude, but they lack specific tools and measures for analyzing an applicant. They wind up telling a candidate that the chemistry isn’t right or that he isn’t a good fit, but the decision is not based on valid criteria or any hard data," says Mike Vermillion, a Des Moines, Iowa, recruiter who works with Fortune 500 companies.

Even worse, some organizations introduce a flawed behavior-based hiring system. They either ask the wrong questions or fail to build an evaluation process that can make sense of the answers that applicants provide. Like a bad language translation, it can lead to errors, embarrassment or worse--as the organization winds up employing the wrong people. "The ultimate question is how does an organization predict, with limited information, who will behave in the desired way? It’s fairly easy to study top performers and identify the qualities and traits that make them successful. It’s another thing to select applicants who can display the same characteristics--especially with limited time and resources to make a selection," Pfau says.

Even companies that get the hiring-for-attitude concept right aren’t guaranteed to emerge a winner, financially or otherwise. Silicon Graphics, a Mountain View, California, company that produces high-end computers used primarily in the entertainment industry, has been recognized as a best-practice leader in the behavior-based interviewing process. Nevertheless, the company’s sales and reputation have lagged in recent years, and the firm has undergone a seemingly endless series of layoffs and restructuring efforts. As Vermillion puts it: "There are no guarantees."

Workforce, July 2003, pp. 56-60 -- Subscribe Now!

Turning Hiring Questions into Answers
Direct Question Behavioral Question
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Tell me about a time when you felt shy in a public situation.
How important is it to follow the rules Please describe an incident in which you broke the rules.
Do you believe that a person should have fun at work? What would you do to make a workplace more fun?
How important is a sense of humor at work? Describe a situation in which your sense of humor helped you.
What values are important in the workplace? What is your personal motto?
What is your problem-solving style? Discuss a time when you tried to solve a problem but were unsuccessful.

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