Be a hiring machine - Part 2: Making the Determination

Making the Determination: Interviewing For Ability, Talent and Character

Here's part two of our series on how to be a hiring machine. You can read part one here.

When we interview we are trying to create a hypothetical environment to mimic a real-world situation. This simulation will hopefully enable us to reduce the risk of making a bad hire by giving us a fair estimation of the candidate’s performance in our real-world environment. What measurements will give us the best prediction of performance? The three critical measurements are:
What is Ability?

Ability is the measure of a person’s skill and experience and correlates to a job description’s “must haves”. When a company interviews for ability, they are trying to determine if the person can accomplish the minimum requirements of the position. The simplest question to ask is, “Can the person do the job?” Another, perhaps more concise question is, “Can the person be effective in this role immediately?”

Ability determines the execution ability of a company. To slightly oversimplify, the more ability a company’s workforce maintains the more it can get done. Of course, ability is affected by things like work ethic and decision making. But in theory, a company with three software developers can write three times more code than a company that has one software developer.

For some jobs ability level might be the only concern: “Can they cut down a tree?” For others positions, and this depends on the job as well as the company, there are two other measurements—talent and character. Knowledge workers require high degrees of skill, but also high quantities of talent and character. For example, hiring someone to flip burgers may only require the ability to flip burgers; it does not require a great deal of talent nor character. Hiring a Vice President of Marketing requires ability, but talent and character are probably just as important.

Since skill and experience is a largely objective measurement, ability is then the easiest and least expensive to identify. “Is the person ethical” is a much more subjective and nuanced question than, “Can the person write HTML?” Since the latter measurement is largely objective, we can use lower-cost resources (lower-level employees, outsource) to measure ability. Once we have inexpensively confirmed that the person has the skill to accomplish the job responsibilities we can move to more subjective questions.

Ability First

Only after the interview process has determined the ability level of a candidate is adequate should we concern ourselves with the more costly measurements of talent and character. If the person can not do the job there is no reason to confirm whether they can grow with the job or if they fit the corporate culture. Perhaps this sounds strong, but for both candidate and company alike, spending time in interviews that test for cultural fit and for growth potential before we know if they can do what is required of them day-one is a waste of everyone’s time. Thus, the first step in the interview process should be to gauge ability level; it is the easiest and cheapest to identify and a “must-have” requirement.

What is Talent?

“How well does this person fit our long-term objectives?” This is an appropriate way to correlate talent’s importance to interviewing and hiring. Every company has immediate needs, and those immediate needs, like tax preparation or Java coding, are what we look for in ability. Talent optimizes these abilities and it should also map to long term corporate objectives, like managing teams or launching an office.

In older economies, talent had some importance, but perhaps not as much as skill (if you need someone to chop down a tree, do you need them to design a saw as well?). In knowledge-worker organizations problem solving and decision making are often as important as skill.

If you map talent acquisition to corporate development objectives you can actually build the higher-value employees in your company instead of hiring them from outside. Look why some companies hire college recruits—the ability requirement is low, but they hope to build ability through talent development. For companies like consulting firms and investment banks it is more effective to build the talent for five years then to recruit someone with five years of experience. In many industries, we simply do not have the luxury of a five-year training window, so we can not solely screen for talent.

Talent can be measured with behavioral and problem-solving questions. Behavioral questions measure a person’s past performance in certain situations, which give us a measure of their decision-making abilities. It takes a skilled interviewer and appropriate content to drive this stage of the interview cycle. If you ask someone to name a time they were given a project with little supervision or resources and how they dealt with it, you get a very subjective response.

Talent Second

Talent is more difficult to identify than ability. Whereas ability measurements like skill-testing produce results that are easy to measure (it is easy to see that 2+2=5 is the wrong answer), talent measurements require more interactive open-ended questions. Not only do we need to spend more time with the applicant to gauge talent, we need a more skilled resource to measure it. Thus the measurement of talent becomes more expensive. However, talent is more easily identified than character, so we should take care in identifying talent in the middle stages of the interview cycle. If the person does not fit our development strategy, does not solve problems well or makes bad decisions it is likely a waste of resources to see if they augment corporate culture.

What is Character?

“Do I want to work with this person?”

“Will this person have a positive affect on our culture?”

Both of these questions are appropriate measures of character’s value to the interview process and hiring. Like talent, character optimizes the output of ability. Someone can be very skilled, but if they are difficult to manage—then the value of their skill is reduced. Character also maps to broader human capital objectives in that it closely aligns with employee retention. If you hire disagreeable people, your turnover is likely to be higher than average.

Character can be measured by behavioral interviewing questions. It is often not the response that is important, but the way the response is given that is important. An answer that says “yes” but has associated body language that is contrary to the answer is a character “red flag”.

Character Last

Of the three, ability, talent and character, the nebulous nature of character makes it by far the most difficult to quantify. Due to this problem, the last stage of interviewing requires the highest value employees to competently measure character. In a well-run interview process we desire to reduce the risk of a bad hires as well as maximize the time and effort of employees. No one will say in an interview that they are not a hard worker or that they have a bad temper. In light of this, character should be measured near the end of the interview process by very adept interviewers whose opinion will be trusted.

In saying that character should be measured near the end of the interview process, we do not intend to say it should not be looked for earlier. Care should be taken at all stages to identify risk associated with character. Although we can tolerate some deficiencies in talent and skill, deficiencies in character are almost always a reason for a no-hire.

Next week – Part 3: Mix 2 parts marketing and shake

About GravityPeople

GravityPeople is a leading recruitment outsourcer providing direct-hire and hourly recruiting services. Established in 1998, GravityPeople has been serving the San Francisco Bay Area Technology community for over decade. Now with a national focus, GravityPeople provides strategic technical recruiting services to clients across North America.

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