Monday, January 10, 2011

Why aren't more supervisors held accountable for their hiring mistakes?

Before I begin this, let's create a fantasy world.

No, not the kind with elves and magic (maybe in a future post).

The kind where organizations run efficiently, consistently, and rationally (see I told you it was going to be a fantasy).

So we'll set it up with two assumptions:

1) Job performance is defined for every individual in the organization in clear, meaningful ways.

2) All employees are held accountable for their critical decisions.

Okay, have this fantasy world in your mind? Great. Now that we have that out of the way, I ask you: Why aren't more supervisors in this world held accountable for their hiring decisions?

Think about it. What would you do with a supervisor who repeatedly:

- Made bad decisions about what technology to purchase/implement
- Made ineffective choices regarding how to divvy up team assignments
- Spent time inefficiently and chose to focus on low-priority projects
- Conducted meetings that were too long and had little payoff

Presumably write them up or get rid of them. All of these decisions have to do with the use of resources. Yet I could make a strong argument that the most important resource decision supervisors make is about who to bring into the organization.

So honestly, why aren't more supervisors held accountable? I have several theories:

1) The hires are blamed, not the supervisor. In some cases this makes sense. But when a hiring supervisor demonstrates a pattern of getting it wrong, someone needs to be looking at the decision-makers.

2) The connection between the decision and the consequences is distant. It's easier when a decision has immediate consequences, but when the employee has been around for 2 months, it's a lot easier to focus on their mistakes rather than how they got there to begin with.

3) It's harder to hold supervisors accountable. I think most organizations simply have a harder time quantifying or otherwise seeing supervisory performance in objective ways. Even when performance is measured, too often it focuses on how they manage their employees rather than their selection decisions.

4) People have a hard time giving negative feedback, especially to supervisors. It's hard enough to tell someone they're not meeting specific production goals; it's even harder to pinpoint exactly what the supervisor is doing wrong when hiring people--and then communicate that.

5) It's political. Organizations are typically even more committed to supervisors than rank-and-file because the decision of who to put there likely involved folks higher up in the organization. Thus, to admit a mistake in the supervisor is to admit a mistake in who hired them. Not to mention that supervisors are part of the very management structure that has issues in the first place.

6) It's not clearly measured as part of the job of a supervisor. Okay, I realize this is somewhat against the rules of our fantasy world, but I suspect this is often a big problem. Supervisors are usually measured against things like "leadership" or "administrative ability", not "the percentage of new hires who receive excellent performance ratings after 6 months."

So what can we do about this? Well I think some of the answers present themselves when we see what some of the problems might be above. Clearly document that hiring success will be considered a key performance metric for supervisors. Provide them training on the topic and feedback. Have consequences for those who keep getting it wrong (which may simply be taking the decision largely out of their hands).

Should HR be more involved? Almost certainly. It is after all HR's duty to maximize human performance in an organization. We're supposed to be the experts on this stuff--if we can't articulate the issue and suggest alternatives, why would we expect line management to?

Finally, let me end on something else to think about: Does your organization praise supervisors who repeatedly make good hiring decisions? We know from basic psychology that positive reinforcement is more likely to result in repeat behavior than punishment or negative reinforcement. But which do we normally use?

Now back to reality...


Waqueau said...

Bryan-- Well, they're far from perfect (or a fantasy), but the U.S. Marines do hold recruiters accountable for the quality of their recruits. If a Marine screws up, the chain of culpability goes all the way back to the recruiter who brought the miscreant into the Corps. That's why they are relatively selective about whom they recruit.

Rick said...

It sounds to me like a training (or lack of training) issue. Very few supervisors are going to hire the "wrong" person knowing the additional work and effort that will involved in training, performance improvement , and ultimately replacing the person. Generally, supervisors are not trained properly in how to hire the correct person which results in many hiring mistakes.