Hiring the right person for the job is no easy task, and a mismatch between candidate and company just brings disappointment all round. Al Senter finds out how to minimise the risks.
Long and loyal service to one company, culminating in the presentation of the traditional carriage clock on retirement, is now a thing of the past. In an uncertain world, where job security and stability can no longer be guaranteed, the professional career is becoming a series of episodes.
Top-level managers are generally staying for a maximum of five years, although some choose to move on within 18 months. Senior executive wanderlust is only part of the explanation, however, why posts are being vacated and filled with much greater rapidity and regularity than in the past.
The frequent failure of businesses to get their recruitment right, and soured relations between employee and employer, have created a jobs market that is increasingly dynamic.
When employer and putative employee face each other in the final interview, both parties are venturing into the unknown. To add to the uncertainty, the eagerness of each side to assume that the working relationship will be roses all the way is often merely wishful thinking. Both parties may be guilty of overselling themselves in a desire to please, and potential sticking points are often dismissed with a bland 'things will work out' - a display of impractical optimism at which even Mr Micawber would balk. Honesty and a rigorously realistic assessment of the suitability of a candidate for the job are the best ways to avoid marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.
'There is no 100% predictability about this business but you can at least minimise the risk of selecting the wrong candidate,' says Dr Elisabeth Marx, director of Norman Broadbent International, executive recruitment consultants. A first step is for the business to analyse what its company culture really is. Marx has heard of too many instances where a company has failed to match a candidate to its culture, and the working relationship has ended in the candidate's dismissal or precipitate departure. This suits neither party. The candidate is disenchanted and may bad-mouth the company. The business simply has to start the whole process all over again but is unlikely to meet with greater success next time around, unless it is really lucky.
'Compare a company to a car engine,' says Chris Ludlow of Henrion, Ludlow and Schmidt, corporate identity consultants. 'The company culture is like oil - we take it for granted but, if there's no oil, the car will seize up.' He believes most companies remain vague about their culture, unhelpfully defining it as 'the way we do things around here'.
'Company culture comes from the top,' he says. 'It is the leadership that sets the tone but it's important to realise that a company's culture is as much a means of communication to the outside world as a governing identity, and that candidates coming to an interview will already have an idea of what that is.'
Matching candidate to culture is a vital process and both sides need to look out for revealing characteristics or habits, however apparently superficial. 'You can tell a lot about company culture by people's behaviour and their choice of dress,' says Frances Cook, managing director of Sanders & Sidney, recruitment consultants. 'If a company's employees come to work without ties and in casual jackets, then it is clear that things are run on a pretty informal basis and the organisation is unlikely to be very status conscious.' Companies, too, may be able to discern a candidate's attitude to work from his or her appearance and demeanour. The more senior the appointment, the more important that the candidate fits in with the company culture.
It is important for the management to identify the sort of person it is looking for. And using the previous incumbent's personality and talents as a blueprint won't necessarily provide the answer. With a notice period of a month (or more, in the case of many senior executives), the decision-makers should take a more measured approach to recruiting a replacement.
They need to consider what a replacement's role should be and whether it has changed since the previous appointment was made. There's a lot to be learnt from previous recruitment mistakes. Above all, remember it is relatively easy to train somebody, but nigh on impossible to change a personality. For example, candidates who prefer to work within clearly defined boundaries will not feel comfortable in an environment in which they are expected to use their own initiative, says Cook.
Once the company has decided the type of person and the kind of skills it wants, it needs to communicate those requirements effectively to any head-hunter who is helping it in the process and, ultimately, to the candidate.
Otherwise it risks a mismatch, disappointment all round, and a considerable waste of time and money.
Getting it wrong can have painful personal consequences, as fashion design consultant Alison Knox has found to her cost. She was approached by a head-hunter to take up a key design position in a retail group. On raising her concerns about the company's culture, she was reassured that the division she would be working for was allowed to carve its own niche. The appointment was not a success. 'As early as my first day, I saw that I wasn't going to fit in,' she says. 'It was a company that seemed to run itself not by people talking to one another but by e-mail.' She was unimpressed.
'You were expected to conform to the company's notions of what mattered. I wasn't interested, as they were, in the usual trappings of career development. Everything that I had always held good was thrown back at me and I was made to feel totally inadequate. I used to think that I was a confident and competent person but I was completely undermined and began to dread going into work. My colleagues, all with very generous salary packages, resembled the Stepford Wives in the way they obediently went along with what appeared to be "just the way things are".'
A head-hunter was involved in the Knox mismatch. But just how helpful are recruitment consultants when it comes to selecting the right person? Most companies follow a recognised recruitment procedure and, according to taste and financial circumstances, they will use a mixture of in-house human resources and outside recruitment consultants with whom relationships have been built up over years. The problem is that too cosy an arrangement can lead to complacency and ineffectiveness, argues Amanda Fone, board director of Angela Mortimer. Companies should choose their consultants with care, she warns.
Recruitment consultants can be a necessary evil, a useful tool that takes time and effort out of the process for many companies, she says. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don't know how to get the best from their consultants. 'The first question I'm often asked - How much do you charge? - should, in fact, be the last,' she explains. 'I'm amazed how often potential clients don't ask the really important questions such as how we carry out our interviews, how candidates hear about us, how long it takes us to fill a vacancy, and what proportion of candidates we find are successfully placed. A lot of work is based on an understanding between the human resources director and the agency contact. Rather than insisting on an audit of the consultancy, companies often seal the relationship on the basis of the size of a Christmas present or the scale of lunch.'
Fone recommends that, having selected their consultants, companies should open themselves up and develop a close but exacting partnership with them. 'The best companies understand that they will get the best out of the relationship by ensuring that the consultancy understands the culture and philosophy of the business.' And that doesn't just mean reading the corporate literature. 'It's part of my job to read the company reports, note what they say about training and development, and so find out how much the company's actions match its fine words,' says Fone. 'But, as consultants, we need to meet the whole corporate team from the account handler to the receptionist.' Given the right background information and a good feel for a company's culture, consultants are less likely to make a stab in the dark and may be well worth their fees. They can make an effective initial selection of interviewees from hundreds or even thousands of applicants, sifting through CVs and narrowing the field down to a more manageable short list. The extent to which they are subsequently involved in the interviewing process or giving further advice is really up to the company.
Many companies resort to the recruitment pages of the broadsheets. Few trawl further afield, though plenty of other recruitment opportunities are available. 'The internet is fast challenging broadsheet supremacy of recruitment,' says Michelle Pearl, director of European development at internet recruitment specialist The Monster Board. 'Surveys have shown that 60% of people on the web use the internet for job-seeking,' she says. The Monster Board, developed in the US in 1994, has already been used by 13,000 companies in Canada, Holland and the UK to reach 3.5 million job-seeking visitors a month and The Monster Board plans to expand into Belgium and France in the near future.
Clearly, the internet is particularly appealing to those looking for jobs in the IT sector, but its popularity is also increasing in other spheres. Honeywell in Glasgow was looking for a German-speaking production specialist with a good knowledge of the German market. TMP Interactive came up with five candidates - two in the UK and three in Germany - through links with forums, chat groups, news groups and home pages on national web sites. As Roy Everett, TMP's director of interactive services, points out: 'Statistics show that 25% of internet users never read newspapers.' The internet often taps in to a different market.
By whatever means, from the latest technology to a discreet word in someone's ear at the 19th hole, the list of hopefuls should be whittled down to three or four serious contenders. Again, there are a variety of tools to help companies to do this, such as graphology, psychometric tests or assessment centres. 'Graphology is a snapshot in time,' says Frances Cook. 'It can tell you about a likely personality but it is no predictor of behaviour.'
A far more common means of measuring a candidate's suitability is the psychological assessment or the psychometric test. 'Psychometric testing gives you half of what you want to find out about a candidate, and avoids what happens in a face-to-face interview when the behaviour of both parties tends to be coloured by their immediate perceptions of the other person,' says Colin Selby, director of Selby Mill-Smith. 'We use a computerised test rather than a paper questionnaire. We don't include questions about fear of caged animals or whether or not the candidate dreams about snakes. Our set of questions are carefully developed to be entirely work-related and they can be tailored to different ages and levels of responsibility. Psychometric testing will put into a succinct form what the candidates already know about themselves.' The tests are not fail-safe, however. Companies need to be aware that candidates are often tempted to build up a favourable picture of themselves but the more expensive the tool, the more seriously people will take the exercise, says Selby.
The use of videos can also be helpful. At MSL Search and Selection, candidates are shown a video of the client company before the camera is turned on them. The recordings are then transformed into a CD-Rom, which can be viewed at the client's leisure. Richard Brennan, a senior consultant, is enthusiastic about this method. 'It's a fantastic tool and it prevents the myths and misunderstandings that can occur in a face-to-face interview. If the client wants to check something, there it is in black and white. And the client can compare and contrast the candidates' responses.'
MSL has recently used videos to place a management development consultant with a training company. 'My initial impression was that the first candidate was stronger and he projected much more charisma,' says Brennan. 'It was only when we viewed the video that the virtues of the successful candidate shone through. He may not have had the first guy's charisma but his quiet confidence was evident. What he actually said, not how he appeared, was very, very impressive.'
These tools are a useful adjunct to the traditional, rigorously structured, face-to-face interview. To get the best out of the encounter, the main interviewer, who must also be the ultimate decision-maker, needs to be thoroughly briefed. Unwieldy interview panels should be axed, says Marx, or reduced to just one colleague - perhaps the human resources director - playing a clearly subordinate role. And the interviewer must be thoroughly prepared. 'If you have a consultant's report on the candidate, with a detailed account of the person's strengths and weaknesses, read it carefully,' she says. 'Try to find out what motivates the candidate. Put problem scenarios to them. You need to learn how they would act in a crisis, how well they would act on their feet.'
To avoid any misleading impressions, and before a final decision has been taken, it makes sense to ensure that the candidate meets his or her future peers and subordinates in a more informal situation. Even in such theoretically relaxed surroundings, the personal chemistry (or lack of it) that will bind the newcomer to the existing team will be apparent.
Recruitment is hardly an exact science. It grapples with the irrational and intangible and, however precise a company thinks it has been, mistakes will still occur. But it is minimising that risk through careful preparation and harnessing the tools available to aid the recruitment process that is important. In that way, perhaps your employee will be collecting his carriage clock.
DO make sure you really know what you are looking for
DON'T be fooled by the contents of a CV
DO your homework
DON'T ramble. Allow the candidate to do most of the talking and listen to what they are really saying.
DO keep the interview to a maximum of an hour
DON'T oversell the job or the company
DO give the candidate a warm handshake and guide them to a seat
DON'T take calls during the interview
DO build a rapport with the candidate by making plenty of eye contact and by smiling
DON'T sit behind a desk with your arms folded
DO sit in a circle around the table
DON'T make a decision too quickly
DO offer the candidate refreshments
DON'T make an appointment purely because a candidate is just like the previous incumbent
DO be spontaneous, be natural, be yourself.