When a role becomes vacant, we usually strive to replace the person, not the personality. But is that really the most equitable and efficient way to tackle role replacement, particularly employee replacement?
Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Bradley Brummel, PhD, professor and director of industrial-organizational psychology, at the University of Tulsa, about role replacement.
Whether replacing an employee, a teammate, or even a romantic partner, people usually adopt one of two lines of thinking. We want either someone exactly like the previous person or someone completely opposite. Personality is a key component of both approaches.
“I hear people saying, ‘Thank goodness my boss finally left. Whatever we do, we can’t have another one of this person—and normally they’ll use their name,” said Brad. “That’s the average person’s approach to some of these situations.”
Now, let’s dive into the intricacies of role replacement and how organizations should handle employee replacement.
What Is Role Replacement?
When someone moves on to a new job, you might hear people say, “I need another Janelle” or “I’m never hiring another Tim.” People will express the need to replace a role in their life in terms of the person’s name instead of the role itself. “It allows the person to evocatively know what they’re running towards to try to replace or running away from, but it’s also really restricting,” Brad observed.
Saying that you’re looking for a Jennifer or a Wei instead of a faculty member to teach intro to psych classes could be constraining. It’s as if you’re searching for either a prototype or a complete opposite. What you need to search for, however, is a set of personality characteristics.
Role Replacement by Characteristics
Someone replacing a positive romantic relationship might search for someone of the same gender or similar appearance. Someone replacing a negative romantic relationship might search for someone of a completely different age or ethnicity or hair color. This can be problematic because the role replacement might not have the core values or characteristics that drove the positives in the relationship.
This is where personality comes in. Searching for role replacements based on underlying characteristics eliminates the most changeable variables and focuses on personality, which tends to be stable.
Especially in the workplace.
If you’re recruiting research assistants, you don’t want to assess them for height or musical preference. You want people who are detail oriented, conscientious, hardworking, motivated, and punctual, for example. Beyond finding someone who is good at performing a certain set of tasks (data analysis, after all, can be taught), you need to find someone who can excel in that role. “They don’t have to be like the person who left,” Ryne pointed out. That approach to employee replacement limits our thinking.
A real benefit of using personality tests for employee replacement is that you hire for the characteristics that are critical but avoid the characteristics that that are less important. “It’s about reexamining the role before you determine who you’re going to hire,” Blake said. If you’re only looking for another Roberto, you might miss the fact that Casey has all the characteristics to do the job well.
The Dangers of Role Replacement Bias
Aside from the potentially discriminatory situation we already mentioned, role replacement for opposite characteristics can be even more problematic. You can end up tossing out necessary characteristics for the role in an effort to run away from a specific aspect that was toxic or challenging.
“For example, if you had a bad boss who happened to be female, you might go, ‘Oh, I could never work for a woman again,’” Brad said. But what actually made the boss bad was her narcissism, not her sex or gender.
Honestly, this disinterest is very, very difficult to accomplish. Our intuition is not usually reliable. Role replacement bias can be linked to traumatic memory. Certain mannerisms, for instance, might dispose you to prejudge someone because they remind you of a problematic coworker.
Despite that, Brad was clear that women’s intuitions about men are definitely noteworthy. “If someone says, ‘That guy creeps me out,’ it’s incumbent upon a thoughtful company to consider that enough of a trigger to enhance the background check,” he said. Pushing someone to work with somebody who creeps them out doesn’t seem like a wise way to build a good corporate culture.
Police Officers, Lawyers, and Politicians
Brad and Chase Winterberg, JD, PhD, talent analytics consultant at Hogan, have researched role replacement as a societal experience. Our society has strong expectations of what police officers, attorneys, and politicians are all like, but these aren’t necessarily the characteristics that matter most in those jobs. A political candidate who talks loudly may not be more effective than one who listens well.
Police officers – Characteristics that matter most in police officers are neither aggression nor restraint, two societal stereotypes. Rather, valuing integrity and having the social and emotional skills to adapt to the situation were the baseline personality characteristics most desirable in police officers, Brad and Chase found.
Lawyers – Brad and Chase also reviewed characteristics of lawyers. Far from the societal stereotypes of slick-talking, competitive people, attorneys have successful characteristics as varied as the daily tasks they perform. Someone who seeks status can be successful in law, as can someone who is motivated by altruism. “It is an issue of matching what’s required for the job and identifying those characteristics that lead to success—not necessarily matching television stereotypes,” Brad said.
Politicians – Role replacement bias in politics can affect how people vote in elections too. They may vote for someone who is perceived as the opposite of the incumbent, or they may consider nonessential, stereotypical characteristics as critical for the job. Remarking on the lack of women US presidents, Brad said, “When our intuitions judge people, we see age, gender, and race get in the way of essential characteristics that are housed in many amazing women.”
Effective Employee Replacement
First, analyze the personality characteristics that are needed for success in a role. Use a model of personality, such as the Big 5, or an assessment tool to help, and be sure to include values too. The process of naming the characteristics can also clarify what needs the role replacement must fulfill and what might be outsourced to a different role.
Then, prioritize one or two characteristics. To narrow down candidates, focus on the core personality characteristic or value whose absence might make someone potentially unsuccessful in the role. That is, if the police officer candidates don’t value integrity, they can be eliminated because they’re unlikely to succeed.
Next, don’t get caught up in comparing characteristics that may be important but aren’t absolutely essential. Make your selection based on who’s best according to the most critical one or two characteristics, Brad advised. That is, the optimal officer candidate has the greatest combination of valuing integrity and emotional intelligence.
Hire an employee replacement because she is candid, not because she is another Candace.