Globe and Mail: Peter Tingling dissects employment picture in shaky economy

Jun 13, 2012

The following article was published by The Globe and Mail on June 12, 2012.

Hiring is difficult enough in good times. So what happens when the economy is shaky?

Some experts say hiring is easier because layoffs, such as the recent deep cuts at Research In Motion Ltd., flood the applicant pool with talent. Others say there’s too much “noise” in the marketplace as unemployed people – typically grade-C players, they say – carpet-bomb employers with their résumés.

Recruiters complain that it is harder than usual to find talent because the best people don’t get laid off, and they are also less inclined to leave a secure job. In addition, company expenditures tend to be scrutinized more carefully in unsure times, making it more difficult to receive approval for hiring in the first place.

“There are a lot of employees who may not like their current employer but they’re thinking, ‘Better the devil you know at the moment,’” says Peter Tingling, associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver. “When the economy gets better, then they will leave. So those employees are hard to displace if you go and try to recruit one of those.”

In any case, getting it right is more critical than ever.

“When times are tough, mistakes are a lot more costly,” Dr. Tingling says. “To a certain degree, the rate of success is a function of the number of tries. You can improve it, but you’re still going to make mistakes. Everybody does. What managers have to do is correct the mistakes faster.”

In support of making swift corrections, Dr. Tingling cites what Apple Inc. chief Steve Jobs called the “bozo effect” – that is, the propensity of weak bosses to hire mediocre talent.

In addition, the vast majority of human resources interviews are like “first dates,” Dr. Tingling asserts, with banal questions that don’t improve the likelihood of hiring the right candidate.

“Invariably, we hire for the wrong reasons because we ask the wrong questions,” he says. “Typically we ask a very superficial question, such as, ‘On a level of one to 10, what’s your level of initiative?’ But we don’t ask, ‘What are the last four things you did that demonstrated initiative?’ We need to ask questions that are actually tied to the performances and behaviours we’re looking for.”

Managers should also examine the good hires they’ve made. What was right about the process? In addition, look at the bad hires and ask what went wrong. We also need to revisit the bias many Canadian companies have when recruiting – mainly the stigma attached to people who have been made redundant.

“It’s a common rule of thumb that if a person has a job already, then they must be good,” says Dr. Tingling. “To look behind that bias is actually hard. There are some interesting cases in the United States where people have actually posted job ads that say we want people who are currently employed only. The question is whether this is discriminatory or acceptable.

“I would say that the heuristic is probably wrong. Nothing is ever going to replace a good selection process.”

Shakiness in the economy can mean some very good people are out of work, but their clients generally don’t want to hire out-of-work people, acknowledges Jamie Danziger, partner at IQ Partners Inc., a Toronto human resources firm. But since in tough times, it’s harder for employers to recruit those who are already employed, and with talent from companies such as RIM coming into the marketplace, that attitude may be becoming more flexible.

“In certain markets, such as IT, there’s going to be a little bit of a paradigm shift – at least for companies that are forward in their thinking – that it’s okay now to find somebody who’s unemployed,” says Mr. Danziger. “But it’s going to be very custom-fit to the industry and particular sector.”

At the same time, targeting talented people who already have a job can be faulty if they’re not a good fit with your company, Dr. Tingling warns. That person may not work as well when separated from the team at their former company.

“It’s kind of like taking the heart of a great athlete and putting it into my body,” Dr. Tingling says. “It’s not going to make me a great athlete.”

Dr. Tingling, who also runs his own small software company, advises companies not to pass by introverts.

“We have this fascination in North America where we tend to equate being articulate and extroverted with being intelligent. I’d say that they’re moderately co-related but nowhere near what people think.

“It’s so easy to get seduced in the interview process. You need to take a step back. I’d look for the person who does a bit more of the work and takes a little less of the credit.”

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