Companies express their guiding principles most clearly during the employee selection process. For instance, employers that value the old adage of “not judging a book by its cover” tend to adopt equitable employee selection procedures. While the specifics of employee selection processes vary, using a universal employability framework will ensure that your organization takes a grounded approach to judging candidates, whether for entry-level or C-suite positions.1 The three universal competencies that orient an employee selection process are people skills, learning skills, and work ethic. Pursuing candidates with these competencies will strengthen any organization and guard against hiring employees with poor problem-solving, self-management, and interpersonal skills.
People Skills: Can This Person Get Along with Others?
People are social creatures, which means hiring managers should consider a fundamentally human question during employee selection: will this candidate be rewarding to work and spend time with? Although this question is simple, it is often overlooked. Employers are often enticed by bright candidates. But when these people are incapable of getting along with others, or at least unwilling, they tend to erode organizational morale.
Tech guru Steve Jobs is a great example of someone who, despite being admired for his intelligence and creativity, was emotionally taxing to work with.2 His inability to get along with others was apparent from the start of his career. During his stint at Atari, his employers assigned him to the solitary night shift so he would stop upsetting his coworkers. Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell later said that Jobs “was very often the smartest guy in the room, and he would let people know that.”3 Jobs was suspicious, argumentative, entitled, impulsive, prone to setting impossible standards, and emotionally volatile. He did not value people skills, which curbed his ability to get along with people throughout the ranks. Workers at Pixar and Apple both admitted that working with Jobs required inhabiting an almost egoless state because they were subject to constant abuse and expected to be extremely deferential. Although his genius made him successful, his harsh behavior prevented him from becoming CEO at Apple and eventually resulted in his ousting from the company.
Organizations may clamor to have a genius in their ranks, but focusing on candidates with strong people skills is more beneficial. The majority of today’s leaders are people leaders managing employees with team-based jobs.4 When folks who occupy these leadership positions lack the necessary people skills, productivity can plummet. For the sake of those already working within the organization, employers should ensure their employee selection processes place people skills at the heart of the search.
Learning Skills: Can This Person Do the Job?
The accelerated development of new technologies means professionals must pursue education to improve at their jobs and adapt to the business world’s ever-shifting terrain. Hiring managers should look for candidates who display, in addition to occupational expertise, a high degree of inquisitiveness and a propensity for learning. Even at the C-suite level, learning skills should not be taken for granted. As Steven Berglas, PhD, points out in The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, “super smart and capable people” often “fail to use their abilities to continually adapt and instead resist new information when it is obvious that the old way is working against them.”5
Berglas illustrates this refusal to adapt with the story of Sewell Avery, the CEO and chairperson of the department store retailer Montgomery Ward & Co. Prior to his time at the helm of Montgomery Ward, Avery was CEO of the United States Gypsum Company. Having come of age in the depressed 1890s, Avery applied the economic attitudes of his youth to his business by running his company frugally and keeping it debt-free. This approach paid off when the Great Depression arrived. Many of Avery’s competitors were forced to close their doors, but the United States Gypsum Company continued to grow. J.P. Morgan was so impressed with Avery’s leadership that he asked him to take charge of the ailing Montgomery Ward & Co. department store. Avery remained steadfast to his frugal formula throughout the post-World War II economic boom. His approach was so inflexible that, despite warnings from his subordinates, he refused to follow consumers and open stores in the suburbs. His reasoning was that another Great Depression would arrive soon, but it never did. Consequently, Montgomery Ward & Co. fell behind its competitors and never caught up. If Avery had stayed curious and kept learning about the changing market, Montgomery Ward might still be around today.
Regardless of a job’s context, learning skills and openness to new experiences are valuable competencies. Employee selection procedures should focus on candidates who are willing to resist clinging to tried-and-true methods and instead flex their learning abilities. The recent changes wrought by COVID-19 have served as a reminder of the importance of approaching new business environments, organizational and team structures, and social situations with a healthy dose of curiosity and openness.
Work Ethic: Can This Person Be Motivated to Do the Job?
Socially skilled, bright, and adaptable candidates can still fail to fulfill their promise if they are not motivated to work hard. Motivation is formed by personal values that impact career outcomes. If a candidate does not buy into the vision for their role or the company, their work ethic is bound to lag in the long run. Therefore, hiring managers should look for an overlap between candidate and organizational values. A fictitious but helpful example of what happens when employees aren’t motivated can be found in the character Stanley Hudson in the American version of the TV series, The Office.
Although stone-faced Stanley has a history of hitting high sales numbers with Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, he no longer musters the energy to do anything beyond his immediate job description. Stanley’s recurring catch lines are “no” and “do not care.” He refuses to coach younger employees such as Ryan, always leaves the office at 5 p.m. sharp, takes naps during the workday, and does crossword puzzles during meetings. The show makes the reason for his disengagement clear: Stanley does not buy into the vision that his boss Michael presents to his employees. In season 2, Stanley vents his frustration to Michael:
What is wrong with you? Do you have any sense at all? Do you have any idea how to run an office? Every day you do something stupider than you did the day before. And I think, “There’s no possible way he can top that.” But what you do you do? You find a way, damn it, to top it. You are a professional idiot!
The clash between Stanley and Michael becomes a running storyline in the show. Stanley’s disengagement eventually climaxes in season 5, when he has a heart attack due to stress from working in an environment he does not enjoy. Stanley returns to the office with a stress monitor that goes off whenever Michael approaches him. Although fictional, Stanley’s disengagement and resulting health issues are based in reality. According to a Gallup poll, 71% of Americans do not like their jobs and therefore do not work hard or show loyalty to their employers.6 Moreover, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that people who work for employers with whom they don’t agree are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and other health issues.7
Alignment with organizational values will almost certainly affect employee engagement with work, as well as health. In turn, job engagement and health affect whether employees work hard in their roles. Educational psychologist Lee Cronbach summed it up best when he said, “If for each environment there is a best organism, for each organism there is a best environment.”8
Success in Employee Selection: A Matter of Good Data and Perspective
While reviewing candidates and what they each have to offer, it is helpful to use these three competencies as a big-picture barometer of hiring success. Understanding where each candidate stands in terms of these criteria helps employers make the best hiring decisions possible, plus anticipate areas that might require special attention or training.
- Larcher, A. (2019, August 16). Hogan Assessments Launches a New Product to Help Organisations Recruit the Right Candidates. Swiss Entrepreneurs Magazine.https://swissentrepreneursmagazine.com/index.php/2019/08/16/hogan-assessments-launches-a-new-product-to-help-organisations-recruit-the-right-candidates/
- Fernandez, J. (2018). The Entrepreneurial Personality: Meet Steve Jobs. Hogan Press.
- Cassidy, M. (2016, August 12). Cassidy on Nolan Bushnell: ‘Steve Was Difficult,’ Says Man Who First Hired Steve Jobs. Mercury News. https://www.mercurynews.com/2013/03/28/cassidy-on-nolan-bushnell-steve-was-difficult-says-man-who-first-hired-steve-jobs/
- Heerwagen, J., Kelly, K., & Kampschroer, K. (2016, October 5). The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work, and Workplace. Whole Building Design Guide. https://www.wbdg.org/resources/changing-nature-organizations-work-and-workplace
- Kaiser, R. (2009). The Perils of Accentuating the Positive. Hogan Press.
- Blacksmith, N., & Harter, J. (2011, October 28). Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/150383/majority-american-workers-not-engaged-jobs.aspx
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1999). Stress… At Work (Publication Number 99-101). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/default.html#Job%20Stress%20and%20Health
- Cronbach, L. (1957). The Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology. Classics in the History of Psychology, York University. https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Cronbach/Disciplines/#:~:text=If%20for%20each%20environment%20there,he%20can%20most%20easily%20adapt.