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How to Find the Round Pegs

Aug 17, 2007
Our client had to terminate a senior manager, a process he found expensive and embarrassing.

Soon after this, we were asked to develop what we call corporate "core competencies" and specific behaviors required by the organization.
We discussed our findings with the client. His comment:
"If we had done this in the first place, we wouldn't have recruited the first fellow and I would have saved myself a lot of money, time and heartache..."

Just one small example of the importance of core competencies in the recruitment process.

Managers can usually identify key competencies specific to their organization by analyzing past and present successes and failures in the light of future planning requirements.

Describing these competencies in some detail will usually ensure a common understanding of what they mean, and it should then be possible to extrapolate from the descriptions the actual behaviors that people with these competencies will demonstrate.

For example, an organization may decide that being "results oriented" is an important competency required for all employees. The actual behaviors making up this competency might be identified as:
* Setting and agreeing targets.
* Identification of obstacles and taking appropriate action to overcome them.
* Achievement of targets.

So, how do we determine at an interview if a candidate for employment will demonstrate these behaviors if we give him or her a job?
It's amazing how many people think they can solve this problem at the interview stage simply by asking the candidate if he or she is "results oriented." Obviously, anyone who wants a job is going to answer "Yes."

If we have an effective process in place, however, we should be looking for clues to the likelihood of the candidate having the competencies we are looking for long before we reach the interview stage. Building this process is the subject of another article: for now, we'll look how to find the evidence we are looking for.

Your first rule must be that the best predictor of future conduct is past behavior. A candidate might say that he or she has, in their previous employment, set targets and overcome obstacles to achieve them. But have they? You need confirmation.

You can determine the truth through the questions you ask. For instance, - "Tell me how you went about setting targets for the last quarter" should produce evidence that the candidate really does have a process for setting targets. Your next step then should be to ask for the name and telephone number of the manager with whom he/she agreed the targets. This will also let the candidate know that you are going to follow up on this information. If you do nothing else in the recruitment process at least check the references!

Once you have determined that your candidate has in fact set and agreed targets you can then ask them: "Tell me what obstacles you identified," and "what action did you take?"

By focusing on actual events you make it easy for the candidate to give specific answers - to show they have actually done the work they claim. But you must make it clear that you don't want theoretical answers.
If your candidate cannot produce concrete examples you know you are getting into a risky area and you need to assess this accordingly.

Life outside work can offer some answers. A new graduate, for instance, might not have had to set targets in his or her part-time job but could have been doing it in study programs or in sport.

In the example above we have been looking for past behaviors that match the requirements laid down in our competency. By recruiting people who meet the criteria we have determined we will move towards the culture we want. We will also have some measures to include in our performance management program to ensure people develop these competencies on the job.

Having a clear direction for an organization and a picture of how employees will operate within it is the first stage of developing competencies. The rest is not too difficult if it is built into the processes of managing people.

A free example of a competency is available as a download from the website that is shown below with the author's information.
About the Author
Paul Phillips is a Director of Horizon Management Group; a specialist human resource management consulting firm. He has over 30 years experience in HR and, while based in Australia, has worked in a number of overseas locations. www.horizonmg.com
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