The High School Merry Go Round

Like many a parent of a 10/11 year old, I’m currently trekking around local secondary schools in order to make my preference choices in the next academic year.

Three schools have stood out, for different reasons.

School A, an “outstanding” and massively oversubscribed school, did very little on its open day to sell the school to prospective parents and pupils. The attitude was “We can pick the cream of the crop, and if you’re lucky enough to get in you’ll do really well here”

School B, an “outstanding” school, was welcoming and both staff and pupils put in a lot of effort to promote it. But their selection method (effectively a lottery) means that candidates have little or no chance of influencing the process

School C, a  “good” school with some outstanding characteristics, spent a lot of time talking about their values and ethos, and significantly let the pupils act as tour guides so that parents and children could ask questions. They also invited pupils separately to spend a day at the school.

What I found interesting was that the schools operated in the same way as many employers do when recruiting staff. Many companies take the view of School A. They assume that individuals would love to work for them and do little to sell themselves to job applicants. In a recession they can get away with it, but once the job market becomes more competitive they can struggle to find suitable staff.

School B is typical of many companies who’ve heard of “employer branding” but don’t fully understand what it means. They do a lot to convince candidates they are good firm to work for but then let something in the selection process let them down and make the candidate feel it is all window dressing

Companies like School C recognise they are competing for staff and have to convince people as to why they should work for them. Being open and honest about their culture, and recognising that “branding” is only part of it, is a key factor.

So which category does your organisation fall into? And if you are complaining currently about skill shortages, what are you doing to make your company the place that employees want to go?

What’s wrong with this advert?

There’s been a bit of a furore on social media this afternoon about this (apparently genuine) recruitment advert:


HR professionals will know the answer to the question in the title. Recruitment agencies should, but clearly not all do. But if you’re the owner of a small business, without a great deal of knowledge of employment law, you would expect that retaining an “expert” to assist you with filling a role would ensure that you don’t

a) Contravene the Equality Act. It’s illegal to advertise for someone of a particular sex (with some very clear exceptions) or age, yet this advert visually implies that only young women can be secretaries. As the client, you would be held liable together with the agency if an individual decided to make a claim –  and remember that even someone who didn’t even apply could make a complaint to the EHRC, which might then decide to investigate your company.

b) Send out some very negative messages about your company. The implication that women can only occupy subservient positions to male bosses is hardly likely to attract many good quality candidates, and is the suggestion that errors may result in physical punishment really the impression you want to give of how your company works?

You wouldn’t plan when advertising a job that it would result in you breaking the law or damaging your company’s reputation, yet that’s exactly what has happened here. It doesn’t matter if you or your agency think you are being “witty” by make a reference to a cult movie if your potential candidates (or indeed your customers on a wider basis) find it tasteless and sexist.

Clearly in this case the client were very badly advised by the agency concerned, who themselves seem to lack a basic knowledge of employment law or what’s often referred to as employer branding.  I’m all for doing something original and interesting to set your job advert apart from your competitors, but this isn’t the way to do it. It’s a warning to small businesses to carry out the same checks on the professional advisers you engage as you would do with anyone else you’re entering into business with.

Time to ditch the Equal Opps questionnaire?

Some months ago I was working with a client on a recruitment project, and they provided me a copy of their “Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form”. It was certainly a comprehensive document, covering as it did around 20 different definitions of ethnic origin, a dozen major world religions, an option to declare if your birth gender was different to your current gender and five options for sexual orientation. In line with good practice the form carried a declaration that it was not part of the selection process and would be detached from the individual’s application; it was anonymous and every question had a “prefer not to say” option.

This sort of form is pretty common throughout HR departments – certainly in the UK – and it is, in my experience, genuinely used for the stated purpose, i.e. simply monitoring applications to ensure that the organisation is attracting candidates from all sections of the community. But something about it left me feeling uneasy and wondering why we are really doing this. While I have had conversations in the past about why so few women are applying for a particular role or that the company seems to have an issue attracting candidates from a minority ethnic group despite being based in an area which has a high population, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a discussion about “this vacancy seems to be attracting a large number of transgender candidates – I wonder why that is?” or “We’re not getting many Sikh applicants, do you think we’ve got a problem?”

Now that could be that as a profession we’re just not as aware of discrimination when it doesn’t involve race or sex. But it could also point to the fact that we are operating simply as data collectors in order to tick a box (and indeed in the traditional risk-averse HR way, storing the information purely as insurance against a discrimination claim: “Us – discriminatory? We’ve had 17 lesbians apply in the last 6 months”)

But my main sense of unease is the intrusive nature of the questions. We talk a lot about candidate experience and trust in employment relationships. Yet for many individuals, one of their first contacts with a potential employer is to be asked a lot of extremely personal questions – and then to believe that someone they have never met will keep their stated promise that “this information doesn’t form part of the selection process”.

Of course, without the information, organisations won’t necessarily know if we do have a problem in recruitment. But is there a better way to do it? One that better balances the company’s requirements without the need to pry into personal information that we admit is of no relevance to the role we’re recruiting for. I don’t have an answer – do you?

Outgoing Personality Seeks Similar

I’ve blogged before about how businesses should view recruitment as an investment decision, and spend the time ensuring – as much as they can – that they appoint the best candidate.

Interviews, as has been commonly recognised, are a pretty poor way of predicting future job performance, but are still an essential part of the recruitment process since (despite social media) we need to be sure that we can build a relationship on a personal level.

Larger businesses often use personality tests or inventories as part of their recruitment and increasingly these are targeted at smaller businesses too. But when, how and – in a market filled with initials like DISC, MBTI, 16PFand OPQ – which should you choose?

Personality questionnaires (they aren’t really tests, since there is no right/wrong or pass/fail) should give you an insight into aspects of an individual’s personality, which should give you an indication of how they will respond in a particular situation. This can be important in assessing how a prospective employee may “fit” in a particular environment or with colleagues. They aren’t infallible, nor are they a substitute for interviews or other selection methods. But used properly, they can be a very good way of gaining more information about a candidate.

So which one should you use? Here are some pointers to help you decide:

  • How many questions does it use to determine results? Fewer than 100 (yes, 100 – one well known one uses 256) and you are substantially increasing the risk of unreliability or a candidate manipulating their profile. The DISC based profile tools seem to be particularly prone to this (I’ve seen one version that only used 25 questions)
  • What psychological theory does it use? This might sound a bit arcane, but some tests are based on personality models which are now seen as outdated and/or incorrect. The well-known and often used Myers-Briggs or MBTI questionnaires have recently received a lot of criticism about this
  • Does it contain a “lie” scale within the tests? This is a set of questions within the test designed to find out if a candidate is trying to ‘fake’ their profile to give what they think you want (psychologists and test designers refer to this as the “social desirability” scale).
  • How much does it cost? You get what you pay for. Proper tests, which have been statistically validated and revalidated, are expensive. A free “personality profile” downloaded from the internet will be worth exactly what you paid for it.

Having read this you may decide that it all sounds too much hassle to be bothered with. But personality questionnaires are just like any other aspect of recruitment (or indeed business as a whole) – if you want good results, do it properly.

One Bad Apple

Originally posted May 2014

I’m currently the approved HR adviser for Knowsley Council’s Business Growth scheme, and recently that’s involved me working with a couple of entrepreneurs who are considering taking on their first members of staff.

What’s struck me on meeting them are 3 things

  • They want to be “good” employers – do things legally correctly and behave fairly to their staff
  • They have a perception that employment law is designed to stop them doing things
  • This perception is often based on the fact that they’ve  heard stories of other small businesses that have had problems with an employee and which ended “badly” for the employer (“He was doing X, Y and Z, they couldn’t get rid of him and when they did he took them to a tribunal which cost them ££”)

If you employ 5 or 6 people then having 1 problematic member of staff can be a major management headache – especially if that individual starts quoting apparent “rights” at you.  While it’s often quoted that you should base your management approach on the 95% of staff who work well rather than the 5% who are a problem, it can be difficult to remember this when your time is being taken up by one troublesome person.

So here are some tips to tackle these situations

  • Don’t let things fester – tackle a problem when it first appears. The longer you allow unacceptable behaviour to continue, the more the individual will assume it is ok. This applies whether it’s performance, attitude, time-keeping or any other work area
  • If someone quotes “rights” at you – check it out before responding. Unless they are employment experts, the chances are that they are no more knowledgeable than you, and are twisting something to their own advantage.  Remember that many employment rights are the right to request something without being disadvantaged (e.g. flexible working), not an absolute right in themselves.
  • The law does allow you to dismiss someone provided you have a fair reason (which covers 5 very broad categories) and have followed a fair process (which essentially means giving the individual the chance to give their side of the story before making your decision).

And if you do part company, analyse why things went wrong

  • Did you recruit the person because they were a “friend” of an existing employee, or because you needed someone quickly and the individual “looked ok”. Recruitment shortcuts are one of the commonest causes of problematic employees
  • Did you spend time with them when they started work, ensuring they knew what was expected of them and they understood how your business operated. The time you’d spend doing this will be significantly less than the time you’ll spend managing them when things go wrong

Successful entrepreneurs have things go wrong and learn from their failure. But when it comes to employment too many use one failure as an excuse for not trying again. Remember that one bad apple shouldn’t – and doesn’t have to – impact on the long term success of your business. (As those 70s business gurus The Osmonds put it here)