UK: Avoiding The Two Most Common Recruitment Mistakes

Last Updated: 9 October 2012

What's the most common recruitment mistake? It's using inadequate job descriptions to guide the recruiting process. The second most common recruitment mistake is superficial interviewing.

Mistake #1: Inadequate job descriptions

The first thing most companies do in a job search is throw together a very generic job description – or worse, they pull an old, outdated job description off the shelf, dust it off and pronounce it fit for recruiting the new executive. Nine out of ten times, that's a sure recipe for failure.

Most traditional job descriptions consist of vague, nebulous terms that lump together a mishmash of skills, knowledge, abilities, attributes, responsibilities, experience, education and behavioural adjectives – none of which are consistent predictors of on-the-job success.

Traditional job descriptions don't help to align organisational goals with individual or departmental goals and they don't help to clarify expectations or create a road map for the recruiting process.

When you define a job in mediocre terms, as most traditional job descriptions do, you tend to attract mediocre candidates. When all you have to interview is mediocre candidates, you end up recruiting mediocre people.

Success factor snapshot

The solution to this quagmire is to use a recruiting tool that breaks down a position's requirements in terms of specific, measurable deliverables, benchmarks and timetables, i.e.:

  • makes it easier to define a position in terms of the candidate you need rather than the skills and experience someone has gained over the years
  • serves as the foundation for the compelling marketing statement, a description of the job designed to attract top candidates
  • provides the basis for a scorecard with which to evaluate and compare different candidates
  • leads to a final, specific set of verification questions to ensure that the candidate being offered the position can actually accomplish the established goals
  • allows a new hire to start the job knowing exactly what is expected of him or her
  • provides a vehicle for managing the performance of individual employees and retaining top performers.

In addition, the process of putting this together assists with the recruiting process by prompting recruiting managers to think about where to look for top talent. It shapes the structure of the job interview and helps the recruiting team focus on what needs to be done. Finally, it provides the substance for core interview questions that ensure a high-quality interview.

Perhaps most important, it serves as a unifying tool throughout the recruiting process. It directly ties the individual goals of the position to the company's strategic goals, so that you can hire to the specific results and outcomes the position needs to achieve.

Creating the tool

To create a tool for a specific position, first toss out the outdated, generic job description. Use the SOAR technique to define success for the position:

  • Substantial goals. Identify the substantial goals you are trying to achieve in the position.
  • Obstacles. Identify the obstacles standing in the way of accomplishing each substantial goal.
  • Action. Identify the quantifiable, measurable action items that the person needs to take to accomplish each substantial goal.
  • Results. Identify the metrics you will use to measure success in the position. In other words, what results are you looking for?

Next, create the tool with four basic steps:

  1. Identify the top departmental goals. Assemble the entire recruiting team and, beginning with the annual operating plan, identify the three or four substantial departmental goals (S) that must be accomplished over the next 12 to 18 months in order for the department to achieve its portion of the operating plan.
  2. Identify the obstacles. For each of these goals, define two or three short-term obstacles (O) that must be overcome in order to achieve the goals. Identify specific actions (A) that will be taken to surmount the obstacles, and define measurable, time-based results (R).
  3. Clarify the success factor. The OARs represent the individual success factors that, when achieved, ensure the department meets its goals. For each departmental goal, consolidate the OARs into one coherent statement, which becomes the success factor.
  4. Compile the success factors. Create a different success factor for each key departmental goal and compile them into one success factor snapshot. You now have a clear description of success for the position.

A picture of success

What does the tool look like? Consider the following example for an operations director:

  • Success Factor 1: Within 12 months, improve on-time deliveries from 90% to 95%.
    • Within six months, develop and implement a vendor qualifications programme that will achieve zero defects and 100% on-time deliveries.
    • Within three months, improve machine utilisation to 98%.
    • Within three months, implement quality controls and procedures to ensure less than 2% defects.
  • Success Factor 2: Consolidate plant operations within 18 months.
    • Within three months, develop and present to the CEO a plan to consolidate two plants with no down time.
    • Within four months, complete a new plant layout that includes work cells for all manufacturing processes.
    • Within nine months, have the first cells up and running and producing at levels prior to the move.
  • Success Factor 3: Reduce manufacturing costs by 10%.
    • Conduct a SWOT analysis in the first three months and present a plan of action to reduce costs by 10% based on this analysis.
    • Within six months, reduce machine set-up time by 30%.
    • Identify main drivers of overtime and within six months present a plan that will address these issues and a time frame to eliminate them.

Clearly, this looks very different from your typical job description. With the tool, both you and the candidate know exactly what results are required from the position and what actions must be taken to achieve them. More importantly, because those results are closely aligned with the company's most important objectives, achieving them means that everybody wins.

Ultimately, the tool not only paints a clear picture of success, it also helps to attract a higher calibre of candidate.

The underlying principle here is that you get what you define. If your job descriptions focus on minimum performance (as most do), you will attract people who can only achieve that minimum. In contrast, using the tool will attract those who are driven to achieve clear and challenging descriptions of success.

In the long run, the number one action you can take to improve your recruiting process is to use the tool to align all of your company's cascading goals and attract top talent to come and work for you.

Mistake #2: Superficial interviewing

The sole purpose of an employment interview is to investigate whether the candidate can succeed in the open position. Uncovering that information requires a rigorous, disciplined interview process that leaves no question unasked and no stone unturned.

Yet, the second most common recruiting mistake at the executive level involves just the opposite.

In too many cases, executive hires involve a sloppy, undisciplined process that fails to put candidates under the magnifying glass, verify claims or check facts. And when recruiting managers accept at face value everything candidates say during job interviews, a bad recruiting decision almost always follows.

In our workshops and training sessions, we routinely ask executives what percentage of job applicants embellish or exaggerate their accomplishments during the interview. In most cases, we hear a number from 100% to 125%, because many candidates embellish more than once.

Not every job candidate is guilty of what we call "interview puffery", but it does happen on a regular basis. And unless you take adequate steps to guard against it, you can easily end up with a recruiting decision that ends in failure.

The solution to eliminating candidate puffery and avoiding recruiting mistake number two? Become a great interview detective. And that requires a rigorous three-step process.

Step one: The "Five Key Question" interview

We have identified five keys traits that are universal predictors of success at the senior executive level. To uncover whether candidates possess these essential traits, ask five key questions:

  1. Can you give me an example of a situation where you have demonstrated high initiative? Initiative is a lifelong pattern, not an anomaly. The top performers will be able to give you example after example.
  2. Would you please give me an example of when you have executed a project or a strategy flawlessly? Top performers don't make excuses; they do what it takes to get the job done. They hit deadlines, achieve goals and meet budgets in spite of all the problems, bottlenecks, roadblocks and speed bumps that get in the way.
  3. Will you tell me about your most successful accomplishment in leading a cross-functional team on a major project or initiative? Top performers excel at team leadership. They know how to rally the troops and motivate people (even under difficult circumstances), and will have a minimum of several examples where they have built and led successful teams. Be sure to insist on examples of cross-functional teams, because strong leadership requires the ability to influence others not directly under your control.
  4. One of our most critical objectives is .... Would you please describe your most comparable accomplishment? Before you extend a high-level job offer, you need to feel confident that the candidate can achieve the success factors you've outline for the position. Comparative means "similar in scope, size, complexity, resources, budget and time frame".
  5. Would you please walk me through how you would go about achieving in our environment? This question addresses the candidate's ability to adapt to your specific situation, environment or timeline. Does he or she understand what's different in terms of size, scope, teams, people, changes, standards, resources, values and culture? More important, does the candidate ask intelligent questions and problem-solve to answer this question?

Often, the questions the candidate asks during this discussion are more important and revealing than any statement they make, so pay close attention to their questions and the assumptions behind them. The only wrong answer is "The same way I did before".

Step two: Put the candidate under the glass

To validate the candidate's answers to the five key questions, we recommend the "magnifying glass" approach – a technique that involves asking for multiple examples of each answer to make sure the behaviour isn't the exception to the rule.

Put on your reporter's hat and ask "who, what, when, where and why?" with several "how" questions thrown in for good measure. In other words, ask candidates to describe, in specific terms, who did what, where and when they did it, how they did it and why they did it that way. Then ask for the outcome/results to determine whether their approach succeeded.

Examples of generic magnifying glass questions include:

  • Could you give me an example of that?
  • Can you be more specific about that?
  • Can you give me a bit more information about that?
  • What were the most important details about that situation?
  • Can you tell me about another time when you faced a similar situation?

The idea is to gather as many specific details as possible about each key question. To drill down further, ask more focused questions such as:

  • What was your role in the project?
  • How did you define and measure success?
  • Can you give me a few examples of your personal initiative on the project?
  • When have you faced a comparable challenge?
  • How did you and the team make midcourse corrections?
  • What did you learn from this project?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently next time?

Be prepared to spend 15 to 30 minutes exploring the details of each example the candidate gives you. Keep going until you uncover what you need to know or it becomes apparent that the candidate is being evasive or is lying, at which point you might as well cut your losses and end the interview.

Step three: homework assignments

Once you've narrowed the candidate pool down to two finalists, it's time to come up with some homework assignments to observe their thought processes, analytical skills and problem-solving capabilities in real time.

Effective homework assignments involve projects of reasonable size and scope that relate to one of your most critical success factors. The candidate should be given all the support he or she needs to complete the assignment, and should report back to the interview panel to present his or her results and conclusions based on the homework.

Examples of homework assignments include:

  • Bring in a sales plan/board presentation/financial statement you've created in a previous position, present it to the panel and be prepared to discuss it in detail. (Note: never ask candidates to divulge confidential information during a homework assignment.)
  • Based upon what you know about our company and our needs, create a high-level strategy to address success factor X. We will give you access to the personnel and materials you need to complete the assignment.
  • Take home this set of financial statements and analyse them. When you return, tell us where you see problems and how you would go about fixing them.
  • Prepare a PowerPoint presentation on how you would begin to approach each success factor if you were offered this position.
  • Outline the steps you would take to create a vendor qualification programme.

Homework is one of the best ways to assess how a candidate thinks. It also provides useful ancillary information about the candidate's current work environment, resources, communication capabilities, strategy and planning techniques.

In addition, some of the most qualified candidates are poor interviewers, while others are great at giving interviews but not so good when it comes to actually tackling problems. Homework levels the playing field and allows every final candidate the chance to demonstrate his or her aptitude and work style in your work environment.

Some candidates may balk at the homework assignment because they perceive it as unpaid work. However, most top 5% talent, because of their self-motivated nature, will embrace the challenge and jump into the assignment with gusto. Either way, it helps to reassure the candidate that you don't expect them to come up with the "right answer". Instead, your goal is to assess their analytical, problem-solving and presentation skills in your work environment.

A critical truth about interviewing

Successful interviewing is all about drilling down and getting to the facts. By asking for example after example, you will discover a critical truth about the interviewing process – that candidates can't make up false answers quickly enough. They have either done what they say they have done and can describe it in infinite detail, or they will implode in front of you.

To ensure that your interviewing process uncovers the information you need to know, ask the five key questions, probe for relevant details and give a meaningful homework assignment. You'll get a very accurate picture of the candidate's ability to perform on the job and, more important, you'll make better recruiting decisions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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