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Hire for attitude

This article is part of a series by John Huckstepp SFIIRSM FCIPD. Read the first article, Role Clarity, here

Sam decided to widen the search.  The management journals were full of modern thinking on the need to hire for attitude, and train for skills, especially in an organisation that was going through change. 

Recruitment is an imperfect science, but in the high stakes world where employees can make or break companies, the process is key. This article touches on the risks associated with hiring for attitude over skills.  It is part of a series of blogs looking at HR disruption and risk.

Being unique 

Everyone is unique, partly through their genetic make-up, and partly because of the unique experiences that each person has had through their lives. 

Recruitment processes 

Recruitment processes sift through differences and select the best person for the role – whatever that role might be. The focus of the Human Resources (HR) function is to support that decision-making process – supplying help to find what attributes the ideal candidate should have, and tools and techniques to help to show whether those attributes are present in the candidate(s).

In most organisations, HR also has a duty to ensure that managers are not making poor decisions because of poor judgement (for example through ageism, sexism, racism, etc.).  To do this, Human Resource professionals will try to direct decisions affecting employees towards objective factors such as:

  1. Competence: knowledge; skills and abilities; experience; qualifications and training. 
  2. Other factors: behavioural requirements and the specific features of the role. 

Most requirements should be identifiable from the job description, internal processes, or other documentation, but it is not unusual for HR professionals to understand the context and organisation’s goals, and to allow those to alter requirements.

Good recruitment processes sift out candidates that do not meet essential criteria and use techniques such as testing and interviewing to select the most suitable candidate.  When organisations are looking for a simple replacement, this process can be straightforward.  When the organisation is changing, or looking to change, the situation can be quite different. 

Hiring for change 

It is in changing organisations that the idea of ‘hire for attitude, train for skills’ has become popular.  The logic is straightforward.  If you want to bring more ‘service’ into your organisation or industry, hire someone from the ‘service’ industry.  The simple premise is that hiring people from the same industry perpetuates traditional ways of working.

In a world where disruption is such a force for competitive advantage, there are real benefits in hiring workers with different industry experience, or with different skills and abilities.  Many traditionally product-based sectors have looked to introduce service – for example by offering inspection and maintenance services – as a means of differentiating their product offering.

Adopting these strategies means that it is becoming more common for organisations to seek candidates with knowledge, skills and experiences that are significantly different to the traditional competencies that they might have looked for in the same role previously.  This introduces new risks into a recruitment process that is already fallible.  How do organisations know what they are looking for is right?  How do they test or measure that?  How do they differentiate between different results to select the right candidate?

The authors of the 'hire for attitude' article stressed the need to train for skills. Few organisations are skilful at addressing gaps found in the recruitment process in anything other than core job activities or formal procedures. When hiring a sales professional, employers might go to great lengths to explain their product portfolio and their customer lists but are less likely to explain product attributes. 

Recruitment risks

There are risks associated with hiring workers without the required knowledge, skills, and experience, for example:

  • A lack of knowledge of product standards can create a significant supply chain risk if buyers rely on manufacturers to know, apply and defend product standards. 
  • Skills like account management, work planning, negotiation and team management can be hard to teach and take time to embed. 
  • Organisations are not good at capturing collective experience, so when an employee leaves, they take their experience with them. Experience from another industry is not always a good substitute. 

Attitudes, behaviours, and other factors play an equally significant role.  Where there is a deliberate attempt to hire someone from another industry, those willing to make the move are more likely to have a willingness (even a desire) to take risks.  The act of leaving one industry for another is a risk itself. 

Recruitment controls 

Leaders deploying a strategy of change need to ensure that new employees have a clear understanding of their expectations, the limits of their authority, and the necessary knowledge, skills, and awareness of industry experience to make effective decisions.  Where we have seen this work well, companies have been able to exploit competitive advantage. 

Organisations hiring workers need to understand the risks inherent in their organisation and adopt a recruitment strategy and process that offers the best balance of risk and control.  The greater the risk, the more effective the controls need to be in the recruitment process, through induction, and beyond.

New employees need to quickly learn the risk threshold of the organisation they are joining and be able to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable risk.  These are the attitudes and future skills that workers need more than any other.

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