Talented people: how to find them, how to keep them

Despite extensive research showing the high cost of recruiting the wrong people, many employers seem to have a surprisingly unstructured approach to the screening and selection of their key staff, writes Jeremy I'Anson, director at HR consultancy xlSys Consulting.

Recruiting a new member of the team has to be one of the most important activities undertaken by managers. But despite extensive research showing the high cost of recruiting the wrong people, many employers seem to have a surprisingly unstructured approach to the screening and selection of their key staff, writes Jeremy I'Anson, director at HR consultancy xlSys Consulting.

Can you be certain that your selection process not only enables you to recruit and retain the most talented people but also reflects well on your organisation? This latter point may be critical. Get it wrong and you risk losing the best candidates to your competitors.

Before you even start the selection process you need to define what it is that you are looking for. Headhunters frequently complain that organisations rely on out of date or very generic job descriptions that often bear little or no relation to the role they are hoping to fill. It is essential that you clearly identify the knowledge, skills and behaviours that are important for success in this job.

Place this information in a well written job advertisement and you will have established the set of criteria against which you can assess your candidates. Remember that this advertisement may be the first sight that a candidate has of your organisation, the right wording will give a positive first impression and also go some way to ensuring that you only receive applications from qualified candidates.

Make sure that you acknowledge every application as this "lack of response" from employers is a major cause of complaint by candidates. A simply worded courteous acknowledgement is one of the easiest ways for you to score points in the recruitment marketplace.

Candidate selection

The process of sifting candidate applications also seems to be handled poorly or at best unscientifically by employers. Some organisations only select candidates with superior exam results or first class degrees, perhaps following Bill Gates' well known advice to "hire the smartest people". However, research suggests that academic excellence is not necessarily a good indicator of future success.

Peter Saville, chairman of Saville Consulting and one of the founding fathers of modern assessment and selection techniques, tells the apocryphal tale of a student at university who gained a first in applied mathematics but who spent every evening alone in his room studying train timetables. "He was obviously brilliant at maths and he could tell you the time of every train between Paddington and Penzance, but could he manage a team? I doubt it."

Peter Saville agrees that intelligence is still key, but he would also want look at the depth and breadth of a candidate's experience. "What else did they do at university? Study train time tables or get out and meet people?" These questions are best answered during the course of a structured interview.

And the interview itself is often cited by candidates as the point at which they decide to reject the employer. There are the horror stories of interviewers who talk non stop or, even worse, the managers who claim "I can tell the moment they walk through the door". Critical hiring decisions, it seems, are being made by managers who frankly don't know how to interview. Moreover, when used alone, it has been shown that the traditional interview is a poor indicator of likely success in a job.

War for talent

Although no single selection strategy can guarantee success, there are some positive steps that you can take to improve the odds in the "war for talent".

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Peter Saville says, "Study after study has established that using a structured interview together with appropriate assessment instruments can halve the error rate on hiring decisions." Apart from testing cognitive ability, most of the leading publishers of occupational assessment tests are now also developing multi-dimensional assessments that enable organisations to spot other key personality traits, such as drive, talent, potential and culture fit.

Of course, analysing every job, responding to every candidate application, training your managers in structured interview techniques and introducing assessment testing comes with a cost in time and money. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this investment will pay off.

You will significantly improve your chances of hiring the right people and this in turn will lead to improved staff retention and a more motivated work force doing jobs that closely match their abilities, personal style, interests and motivations. And there is the further benefit that you will be sending out a positive message to the recruitment marketplace that your selection process genuinely provides a level playing field for every candidate who applies to work for you.

Finally, don't forget those candidates who did not quite make the grade. Give them detailed feedback and make sure they leave their final interview with a positive impression of your organisation. Remember that these candidates are potential future employees and certainly potential customers. They can also be champions for your organisation and your recruitment process and encourage their talented friends and colleagues to come and work for you.

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