Bill McAneny of Prelude Consulting looks at how companies can help avoid bad recruitment decisions

Henry Ford once said, "Why is it I get the whole person when all I want is a pair of hands?" More and more organisations are realising that bad recruitment decisions cause damage to both the organisation and the new recruit.

Yet we find that such mistakes tend not to be due to issues of skill or experience, but ones of personality and behaviour. When we recruit, we really do get the "whole person", with all their little foibles and idiosyncrasies – the things that make all of us unique. That is why having a clear understanding of the whole person is so crucial.

With the rapid growth of Munters Moisture Control Services, they realise that the right recruitment decisions were crucial, as the impact on the business, on the applicant and, more importantly on the customers, could be catastrophic. So, short of employing someone for three months, how could they ensure they get it right every time?

Munters Divisional Director Tim Hawkin asked that very question. I explained that interviewing alone was a very poor predictor of job success. There are three main reasons why the interview has a very low predictive validity for job success. Firstly, most interviewers are not skilled in eliciting the right information upon which to make sound and accurate recruitment judgments. I see so many interviewers say, "Tell me about your self", with the obvious answer, "Where do you want me to begin?" Or the interviewer says: "Why do you want this job?" and the truthful answer is: "I don't know if I do!"

Even a skilled interview offers us only one facet of an individual. Imagine someone showing you a piece from a photograph and then asking you to interpret and comment on the whole picture. It is not possible. Yet that is often what we are asking people to do in interviews, make crucial career decisions about individuals based on very limited information.

The interview process can also, for the same reasons, be very subjective and one other negative factor in using the interview as a single selection process is that we find interviewers who clone, that is, they look for characteristics similar to their own. We call this: "recruiting in our own image" Secondly, many people have learned to play "the interview game" that is they know how to impress at interviews, indeed give the performance of their lives, without necessarily being the best person for the job. Thirdly, there are, conversely, many people who perform badly at interview, but who would be an excellent acquisition.

So how do we ensure we get it right? The key to successful recruitment is to clearly identify, right up-front, the behavioural characteristics, as well as skills and experience, necessary for the particular role and for the particular organisation. It is too easy to talk about how many years' experience, or what sort of background individuals must have and ignore the values of the organisation. Skills can be taught, but certain characteristics cannot. For example one key behavioural characteristic for Munters is caring. So we need to recruit people who really do care, as individuals cannot be taught to care the way they can be taught to use technical apparatus.

The next step is to expose all applicants to a range of activities and to a range of other people. This provides us with a multi-dimensional view of each applicant, in various scenarios and through various people's eyes. That allows us to make objective, reasoned and valid judgments as to an applicant's suitability. Rather than use terms such as "bad attitude", the process focuses assessors to look at observable behaviours and to measure these against the criteria and characteristics we are seeking. It also allows for those who may take a little time to "warm up" or those who may be initially outspoken but who settle down after the first few activities.

Using an Assessment Centre process, it is possible to achieve the multi-dimensional view, exposing applicants to a wide range of activities, a range of assessors and some standardised psychometric assessment tools. The process means we can, in two half-day sessions, make decisions on up to 24 people.

Munters have had very many letters from those unsuccessful during the assessment centre process. In all cases these have emphasised how positive the process was, how much they enjoyed it, how they learned a great deal about themselves – and could we let them know what they will need to be successful next time.

Decisions as important as recruitment can't be left to chance, an interviewer's prejudices or a one-dimensional process. Munters is a service organisation and its customers deserve more than a "pair of hands". We need to know and develop the whole person through a process that is rigorous, objective and multi-dimensional.

  • Bill McAneny is an industrial psychologist, and managing director of Prelude Consulting