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The cure for ‘have-a-go’ interviewers
By Peter Whitehead
Financial Times, 16 September 2010
Peter Whitehead talks to an expert in sorting out the genuine high performers from the rest:
For every human activity there is a theory as to how it should best be done - and every theory creates a business opportunity.
For Carol Quinn, it was inevitable from childhood days that she would make her business out of perfecting companies’ hiring techniques.
Her website biography describes how at the age of eight she visited a shopping mall for the first time: “While my girlfriends were looking at clothes, I sat watching people walk by. I wanted to know what made everyone different.”
She now teaches businesses how to select the right staff; runs a consultancy called Hire Authority, and has written books, including Don’t Hire Anyone Without Me!, recently re-titled Motivation-Based Interviewing.
From her base in Palm Beach County, Florida, she explains how her career and her interests coincided: “Looking back, I realised there were signs of this passion all my life.”
In her 20s she attended every class, seminar and workshop available on the subject of hiring: “I sat in the front, paid close attention and took lots of notes.” One company then employed her to re-invent its hiring processes. But applying what she had learned did not have the desired effect: “I hired some good people but it was those not-so-good ones that continued to baffle me.”
She turned to further study and read Herbert Lefcourt’s book Locus of Control. Next, she began analysing her hiring results and came up with the technique she named “motivation-based interviewing”.
Her teaching is aimed at hirers, rather than individuals: “Most people who give advice to jobseekers tend to give them pointers on how to ace an interview. That’s all fine, but if that person is not going to be a high performer in that job, I don’t want to help them ace an interview,” she says.
“So mostly I teach the interviewers because they know the least, usually. From my decades of experience I have found most interviewers haven’t had any training. It’s one job you’re allowed to do by just jumping in and asking somebody questions.
“Sometimes you do this for years and get comfortable with it, but you don’t necessarily do it well.”
She points out that all job applicants are trying to come across as the best hire, making it hard to distinguish genuine high performers from those who are just interviewing well.
“I think there are a lot of unnecessary hiring mistakes going on. I don’t think companies are horrible at hiring; they hire good people. But I also think it’s hit and miss,” she says.
“Interviewers don’t necessarily have the skill to do it, but we almost think ‘well, it’s no big deal’, as if there is no effect. But the effect is huge, because the company is the sum total of the people it employs and the results these people produce.
“Hiring is probably one of the most important job tasks a manager will have to do, yet they’re allowed to do it often with no prior training, and not tracked on their effectiveness.”
She says that without tracking, organisations cannot know how well their interviewers are performing.
“One company I work with created a form and made each of its interviewers sign it saying, ‘I’m hiring so and so: I believe they’re a high performer’.
“And if this person quits or gets fired in the first year, the back side of the form then goes over where the interviewer missed the boat.”
To Ms Quinn, a high performer is someone who achieves better results in a particular job, and assessing this can only be done by interviewing. She says skills alone are not an indicator of a high performer.
“Obviously, a high performer has great skill. But it’s possible that an average job performer can have great skill - even a low performer. Somebody who gets fired, could actually have very good job skills, but they’re not applying themselves.
“So if you hire based on a CV or skills or qualifications alone, you might get a high performer, an average performer, or a low performer.”
In an interactive online course, Ms Quinn teaches that high performers have three key attributes - passion, attitude and skills. To her, candidates with the right attitude and passion but not necessarily the skills are a great investment, as long as they can be taught the skills.
But few interviewers know how to assess motivation accurately: “Interviewers who have not been trained would say - ‘hey Peter, are you motivated?’ What are you going to say to that during an interview process? ‘Of course I am’.
“Does that mean you’re going to be a high performer or are you good at interviewing? It’s hit and miss.
“But you can decide if you have a high performer in an hour; it’s not complicated. What you have to do is know what information to gather and how to assess it so the person you think you’re hiring actually is the person who shows up for the job.”
Assessing attitude, for example, can be done by asking questions in the right way. Asking simple questions - such as “tell me about a time you went above and beyond to satisfy a customer” - will always produce a positive answer that causes an interviewer to overrate applicants.
She says the solution is to include an obstacle in the question - “tell me about a time you had to deal with an irate customer”. Doing this consistently will produce a pattern of how the applicant reacts to problems, which she claims is a very powerful predictor of future performance.
“You start to see the difference between people,” she says. “I’m not talking about being always perfect in the interviewing process, but I am talking about doing it better.”
- My big break? I believed an advance in hiring had to be complex to be worthwhile. Then I realised a complicated process doesn’t make anything better. Person who made a difference Reading Herbert Lefcourt’s out-of-print book titled Locus of Control. It took me six weeks and $80 to get one copy printed. It was so worth it. Would you rather have done something else? It’s no surprise I chose a career in recruiting and HR, though I don’t think I realised at eight how it was all going to come together.
- Best career advice to others? There’s no favour being done when a mediocre job performer is hired and allowed to stay. It sends the message to the individual that excellence is optional and mediocrity is OK; that’s a waste of potential. And it devastates companies.
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