Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Year in Review: Attraction and assessment

Last year as ever we covered research on how we get people into jobs, and how they perform in them. To kick us off, here's a few fascinating findings unearthed by our colleague Christian Jarrett from the Research Digest.

Firstly, it's hard to spot liars. In a study asking participants to watch videos of genuine and bogus accounts of previous jobs, their ability to tell one from the other was barely better than by guessing. But the headline was that many participants were hardened interviewers, yet their performance was no better than those who had never conducted an interview before. Interview experience may still help with validation: in a dynamic interview, techniques are available to probe and explore, which may provide more critical perspectives. But in terms of 'reading the signs', veterans don't do better.

How do we recruit high performers in a competitive field? Increasingly, it seems, organisations are going to greater lengths to stand out from the crowd - see this media account of the Cicada 3301 mystery if you want an extreme example to occupy your afternoon. And research suggests the basic concept is solid: holding everything constant, a less typical method of reaching out to your applicant base, such as a postcard rather than an email, may produce better results: in a recent experiment, providing Google with a response rate of 5% rather than 1%.

Before you get around to assessing your applicants, it’s important to ensure you get suitable people to apply in the first place. A big part of this is candidate quality, but recent research argues that quantity may be more important than we think, especially if we are worried about cheating. Mathematical models suggest that even if cheating is profligate, were you to test enough people – and so free to be more selective, taking the top 20% rather than top 50% - you could end up selecting higher-calibre candidates than if you stuck with a cheat-proof but low-volume process.

What are modern recruitment methods actually assessing? Industry best practice involves identifying criteria that matter to the job, and then trying to obtain a distinct measure of each. But a body of research suggests candidates who do well are often coasting on a meta-ability, the 'ability to identify criteria', meaning how well you can figure out what is expected of you in a situation. Research this year suggests that we may need to accept that this ability, ATIC, is useful for performing the job, just as it is in getting the job, by allowing you to discern the course of action that is likely to satisfy others or fulfil unspoken expectations of managers, customers or stakeholders.. This asks hard questions about how we should design selection processes: high-ATIC candidates can’t show their stuff when assessment criteria are transparent and obvious to all, so might ambiguous jobs be better assessed for using ambiguous processes? A provocative idea to chew on.

We assume extraverts sell more and that cognitive ability is always an asset in jobs. Yet both these taken-for-granted facts were held up for scrutiny this year. Evidence suggested that 'ambiverts' who sit between the extravert and introvert extremes tend to do better in sales roles: in the study in question, earning $151 revenue every hour vs. $115 for the highly extraverted. Meanwhile, a body of research argues that high cognitive ability can actually be a liability for certain types of work [such as?], but a critical review disputes this, claiming that all else being equal, "the smarter you are, the better you will perform on just about any complex task."

Not every candidate can be successful, so it's useful to know who feels hard done by; after all, these people are your customers, partners, or prospective applicants of the future. Research suggests that candidates are likely to believe they were given a fair shake if their personality resembles one of two constellations: Resilient types or 'going with the flow' Bohemians. Those of an Overcontrolling disposition are more liable to feel victimised by unwelcome results.

Sometimes candidates are genuinely victimised. Evidence suggests that candidates with a non-native accent are less likely to be hired, on the pretext that the candidate doesn't appear politically savvy - a nebulous judgment hard to prove or disprove. Employers should ensure that checks and balances are in place to avoid such systematic prejudice squeezing talented individuals from the system.

So what to do, hirers of the world? Be realistic: it may be harder to eliminate cheating than to soften its effects. And your processes may not be purely measuring what you want, but still capturing candidates with the capability to do their job. And, rather than relying on interviewer superpowers, use checks and balances and appropriate weighting to make sure a bogus interview doesn't blow you away. Don't abide by stereotypes: look harder at that quietly confident salesperson, or that impassioned presentation from that entrepreneur with an accent. Cognitive ability remains important for job performance. Ultimately, to catch the best and brightest, it could be down to you to be creative in your recruitment methods.

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