Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Old-school competencies

Recently I went with family to the old Empire Mine in the gold country of California. It's one of the oldest, deepest, and richest mines in California. It produced 5.6 million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956.

In the display cases I happened to notice a brief description of the typical tasks and competencies required of a miner (a mini-job analysis if you will):

How would you have selected people for this job? Physical ability test? How about some type of personality test that measured flexibility and stress resistance? Might a realistic job preview have been a good idea?

Note it includes the traditional "what would happen if this job was done incorrectly..." question. This takes on increased meaning when you look at the shaft that the miners traveled down every day on their "way to work":

You may not be able to tell, but that sucker's pretty much straight down.

Suddenly my cubicle's looking a lot better.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Applied Workforce Planning: Air Traffic Controllers

There's plenty of disagreement over whether the aging of the U.S. workforce will indeed spark a wave of simultaneous retirements and thus a scramble to replace employees. Personally, I think it's going to depend on a lot of factors--the housing market, health care costs, and technological advancements to name a few.

But there are instances that demonstrate what it could look like if a significant portion of the U.S. workforce retires. One of those instances is the air traffic controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and were the subject of a recent piece on NPR. Let's look at the situation and the implications:

- In the summer of 1981, President Ronald Reagan replaced 12,000 striking air traffic controllers all at once. When you make such a large number of hires, in the same classification, with a lot of them probably being around the same age, in public sector (where folks often stick around for a long time), you better be thinking about workforce planning.

- Thirty percent more controllers retired last year than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicted. That's significant, and whether it's due to insufficient planning or not, it provides an example of the scope of the problem we're facing.

- Last year the FAA imposed a new labor contract on the controllers which lowered pay for new hires, froze pay for those with longevity, and placed new restrictions on the working environment. Not a great way to attract new candidates into a field where you need a high number of replacements in a short period of time.

- According to the union, employees feel stretched and burned out, which may lead to a serious accident. Not the type of publicity that demonstrates an outstanding employer brand.

Lessons? Like politics, all workforce planning is local. And yes, it's an inexact science. But sometimes the numbers just hit you over the head and demand attention. Do you have a situation like this in your organization? If so, what are you doing about it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

You don't know you

In a recent interview with Gallup Management Journal, Cornell psychologist David Dunning talked about why people aren't very good at judging themselves. Why is this important? Because it has a great deal to do with how we recruit and assess applicants.

A big part of the reason we're so bad at accurately judging ourselves is due to our self-serving bias--our tendency to take credit for successes but blame outside factors (other people, equipment) for our failures. This helps our ego out--if we were always blaming ourselves for failures and attributing success to outside factors, we wouldn't be very happy campers. But it has the downside of oftentimes blinding us to the real reason why things happen.

Dr. Dunning covers a wide range of topics in the interview, including gender differences, when overconfidence may be a good thing, employee training, providing feedback, and the serious implications of this phenomenon (e.g., think about doctors judging their skills as being better than they are).

As I said, this is important because a great deal of recruitment and selection is about self-assessment--a prime example is the growing movement toward online training and experience (T&E) questionnaires made easier with the spread of ATS products. Many of these questionnaires are chock full of questions that (no joke) aren't much different than: "How great are you at X?"

But it's not just about T&Es. People make judgments about themselves when deciding what jobs to apply for in the first place. They describe themselves in certain ways during job interviews (when the motivation to make yourself look good is even stronger).

What can we do about it? Simply put, verify, verify, verify. If someone claims to be the greatest Java programmer on the planet, make them show you. If they claim to be a great orator, make an oral presentation part of the hiring process. Then talk to folks that know their work to establish a history of competence. Don't take someone's word at face value because (a) they may be trying to snow you, but more subtly (b) they may not know themselves.

By the way, Dr. Dunning is co-author of one of my all-time favorite articles, "Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace" which describes how the inability of people to judge themselves accurately can result in very serious problems.

Last thing: if you're not already familiar with it, check out the fundamental attribution error, which is one of the other big things our brain is constantly doing. It has huge implications for how we judge others.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rigorous assessment pays off

It's great when the mainstream press gets assessment right. It doesn't happen a lot, so I want to make sure to point out a good example.

Ellen Simon (AP) devoted a recent article to employers that, even in a tight labor market, put job applicants through the paces.

Some of my favorite bits from the article:

- Employers that recognize their employees are an integral part of their brand. If your employees are unhappy, not trained, or otherwise a bad fit, customers (and potential applicants) notice.

- This quote from Rackspace Managed Hosting CEO Lanham Napier: "We'd rather miss a good one than hire a bad one." Without getting into Type I versus Type II errors, let me just say that Mr. Napier demonstrates the wisdom of someone who's seen what a bad hire can (or can't) do. (Check out their refreshingly simple career portal)

- The fact that Rackspace interviews last ALL DAY. Yep, all day. In this age of "I only have 30 minutes for the interview", that's darn refreshing.

- The wonderful use of realistic job preview videos by Lindblad Expeditions that show employees cleaning toilets and washing dishes. Says Kris Thompson, VP of HR, "If they get on board and say, 'This is not what I expected,' then shame on us." Check out how their online preview video combines push with pull.

I don't agree with everything in the article--I'm not a big fan of the idea of secretly judging people on their waiting room behavior--but all in all some great examples here to recognize.

(by the way, the HBR article Simon cites, called "Fool vs. Jerk: Whom Would you Hire?" is here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The changing requirement for war

The competencies required in the modern workplace change seemingly on a daily basis. Whereas computer skills were once a "nice to have" competency, now at least moderate computer proficiency is a "must have" for many (if not most) jobs. Whereas the ability to collaborate frequently with others may have been an infrequent requirement, now it is a prerequisite for many occupations.

Many times these changes are required to take advantage of new technologies and to keep up with competitors, and for the most part the transition works. On the other hand, sometimes we plan for one change in competencies when we should have gone another direction.

An excellent demonstration of this is the military. In this article from The Economist titled Armies of the future, the author describes the vision of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

The army's idea of its “future warrior” was a kind of cyborg, helmet stuffed with electronic wizardry and a computer display on his visor, all wirelessly linked to sensors, weapons and comrades. New clothing would have in-built heating and cooling. Information on the soldier's physical condition would be beamed to medics, and an artificial “exoskeleton” (a sort of personal brace) would strengthen his limbs.

At first, with initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed this vision would be validated. But as the nature of the warfare changed, so did soldier requirements. The current person in charge of the war in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has co-authored a new manual on counter-insurgency. According to the article:

Counter-insurgency, [the manual] says, is “armed social work”. It requires more brain than brawn, more patience than aggression. The model soldier should be less science-fiction Terminator and more intellectual for “the graduate level of war”, preferably a linguist, with a sense of history and anthropology.

This has huge implications for how the military will recruit, assess, and train soldiers, and we can argue about whether this shift could have been predicted or not, but there are some clear lessons here:

1 - Job analysis is important, and don't just do it once and put it in a file. Not that we needed any more evidence of this, but the example above vividly demonstrates how critical it is to carefully study a job (and keep studying it) to inform recruitment and assessment. Of course simply doing a job analysis doesn't guarantee success, as I'm sure there was a not-insignificant amount of thought that went into the "future warrior" idea.

2 - Look before you leap. Plan for how you will select people and train existing staff. The article doesn't go into this in depth, but one big implication for such a significant shift in competency requirements is what to do with existing staff. We've all been there--we implement a new software program, we require everyone to start writing or presenting more--and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Is our success due to the skill level of existing staff? Our careful planning? Or dumb luck?

When it comes to ensuring people are successful at what they do, fortunately we don't have to rely on luck. But we do have to devote time, resources, and careful attention to doing recruitment and assessment right. The consequences are important--whether they're saving lives or helping an organization be successful.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Jobfox members look upward

Jobfox is a job site I've posted about before that is making an attempt to more accurately match candidates with employers. The idea is to allow candidates to describe themselves in detail, including their work preferences, then have employers seek them (hence their motto, "be the hunted.")

Speaking of work preferences, one of the features the Jobfox offers is the ability for candidates to select up to five features of a job that they value the most--things like 401k matching, unstructured environment, and work/life balance.

Since Jobfox has all this information on people, they recently posted an analysis of results of over 6,000 registered job seekers. The press release focuses on the dearth of "green" factors people are looking for (e.g., looking for a company that is ecologically friendly), but to me the take home is about career advancement. Take a look at the top six desired job qualities:

Advancement opportunity (55%)
More leadership responsibility (41%)
Work/life balance (38%)
Leadership that's respected/admired (36%)
Sense of accomplishment (36%)
Higher salary (28%)

Notice that half of these, including the two most popular, are related to moving up in an organization.

The other result of note has to do with another kind of green (in the U.S. at least). Look at where salary is--down at #6. This suggests (and smart organizations know) there are ways of attracting and retaining talented folks simply by offering ways for people to take on increased responsibility and leadership opportunities, or restructuring the job (which might also help with that sense of accomplishment).