Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Hiring for attitude"

One of the most common pieces of advice given to hiring supervisors is "hire for attitude." This phrase is often used by consultants as a key "ah-ha" part of their sell because it just makes so much intuitive sense.

But what exactly does that mean? The core idea usually is that since things like knowledge and skills are trainable, you should focus your hiring efforts on looking for things about people that aren't likely to change--their persistent habits, ways of looking at things, and attitude. You may have seen something like this:

So assuming we buy this argument (more on that later) how do we hire for attitude? There are many ways to approach this question, but it becomes somewhat easier if we replace "attitude" with "personality." Personality can be thought of as the persistent way individuals think, feel, and behave, and is a topic that's been red hot in assessment circles for the last 15 years, ever since Barrick & Mount's study.

What do we know about personality testing? We know that it can work, particularly when you match the job needs to the aspect of personality you're testing. In fact, personality tests can work even better than the vaunted intelligence test depending on the type of job (the more complex the job, the better intelligence tests do at predicting performance).

We know that personality tests tend to have less adverse impact than some other forms of testing, like intelligence or physical agility tests. This tends to lower your exposure to discrimination lawsuits.

We know that not all personality tests are created equal--like any other kind of test. There are really only a handful of time-tested personality inventories that I would recommend.

We know that personality testing isn't something you should just try your hand at--for two main reasons: (1) you'll need to understand theories of personality that have been supported (e.g., Big 5), and (2) if your hiring practices are challenged in court, the level of evidence you'll need to defend a personality test is higher than, say, a simulation that mirrors actual job behavior. Bottom line: unlike interviews, personality tests are something you should let someone else put together.

Finally, we know that you shouldn't immediately go with a personality test regardless of the job. You wouldn't recommend a typing test, regardless of the position, would you? Then why recommend a personality test when maybe, just maybe, there are other aspects of the job that are more important (writing ability, oral presentation skill, learning ability)? Some people would argue that things like writing ability and oral presentation skill can be taught--I say, maybe. I think it depends a lot on the person. And what sort of training operation does your organization have? You can train on these things, but will you?

When it comes to hiring right, there are no magic pills. It takes work to figure out what selection approach is best given the needs of the job, the organization, the available labor pool, etc. It's not rocket science, but it ain't color-by-numbers either. Can "hiring for attitude" work? Yep. Just make sure to look before you leap.

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