The Dismal Message Of Some Human Resource Advisers

Human resource specialists seem to spend a lot of time these days developing ways of ‘testing’ potential employees. Technology does have a part to play in assessing candidiates for jobs, not least because it comprises an attempt to move beyond stereoypical and unfair assumptions. But to work to greatest effect technologically-led assessment must be considered carefully, and with due acknowledgement of the difficulties of ‘proving’ it is meaningful. If educators made the same deterministic (and dubious) assumptions as some human resource managers, there would be far less call for educational services.
Like everything else in our brave new technological world, ‘human resourcing’ has been re-branded as a science.
In many ways, this is to be applauded. Anything which moves us on from the old-style way of ‘jobs for the boys’ has to be an improvement. But in at least one respect it’s worrying.
New-style appointment procedures
Many appointment procedures now begin with an application form which asks questions about how the propective employee has tackled a variety of challenges, followed by ‘assessment’ at a ‘centre’. And only after all that does a real human being perhaps deign to conduct a personal conversation or interview with candidates about the post in question.
So, once the standard information has been recorded, the initial application form in these cases often states that in one way or another that ‘past experience is the best indicator of future performance’. This is generally the prelude to a requirement that the applicant gives ‘brief’ accounts of how he or she dealt with a difficult situation, resolved a dilemma or took a fractious group of people to some sort of resolution of their problems.
Real scenarios, or imagined?
Wonderful. Presumably in every case the job the applicant is going for requires a vivid imagination? Because the only sure thing we can learn from such accounts is that people are good – or not – at writing (very) short stories. These may indeed be stories related to the skills and scenarios of the post in question, but they are hardly testable against hard evidence.
Degree certificates may not tell us much, but they do confirm that a job applicant’s claim to be a graduate (or whatever) is genuine. Such genuineness cannot be established for these ‘mini stories’. Of course many people do tell the truth when they give accounts of their past actions; but it’s a certainty that not all of them will be doing so.
Thus we are confronted by a situation in which those who stick firmly to the truth (as they understand it) are likely to be competing against others who are not so fussy about such matters… or who simply have convenient memories. In this context, what useful value can anyone put on the assumption that person’s future actions will follow from their reported history?
Assessing what?
Then there’s the second stage of the selection process. For some posts it is fair enough to ask the candidate to perform tasks like the one s/he aspires to in the job on offer. If you say you can type forty words a minute, then here’s your chance to demonstrate that. If you claim to be able to work with spreadsheets, please go ahead and show you can.
But some tasks, especially at more senior levels, require careful and balanced judgement. They are about bringing experience and human insight to bear on difficult situations. They require a wide grasp of the influencing factors and a steadfastness in terms of dealing with people.
I.Q. tests by another name?
In such tasks there is little reason to suppose, as increasingly is assumed, that non-contextualised ‘verbal reasoning’ tests and the like will take us very far. An untitled poorly written paragraph of general assertions such as often appears as part of these ‘tests’, giving no indication of who wrote it, or for whom, makes little sense to those who know that all real-world interaction takes place in the context of unarticulated as well as formal intentions. This real-life exerience makes it pretty problematic to answer stark multiple choice (i.e. non-discursive, computer-markable) questions about what such paragraphs supposed to ‘mean’.
Perhaps there’s an irony, given the observations above, in the likelihood that only those without much imagination may be comfortable responding to such mechanistic examination.
The validity of I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) tests has been under challenge for a full half century now; and the British ’11 Plus’ examination – in some respects a precursor of these types of mechanistic tets – is rightly history, discredited and still a cause of great distress to many whom it so cruelly labelled unsuitable for more academic or rigourous secondary education.
The clash between the premises of education and those of candidiate selection
Checking out the general abilitiies of people going for particular jobs is a sensible idea. Myers Briggs tests, for instance, give a useful – though not infallable – indication of how a person might approach given situations, thus helping everyone (including the candidate) to assess whether s/he is ‘right for the job’.
This, however, is a long way from the claim that what’s happened in the past is a good indicator of a perons’s future behaviour and capability. Indeed, those of us who have worked in adult (and perhaps even children’s) education would be out of business entirely if everyone believed this to be so.
Of course past experience helps to mould future behaviour; but much more important, given a general level of aptitude and attitude, is the opportunity which presents, or does not present, to learn and develop.
How do they know?
It’s a question which I’ve asked before, but it still seems reasonable: How do the decision-makers actually know that their way of doing things selects the best applicants? And the answer is, unless they’ve followed up those who weren’t successful, and compared them (using fully valid criteria) with those who were, they cannot know for sure.
The human resource specialists and assessment centre gurus may be covering their backs and keeping some employers happy whilst they’re at it. And no doubt some do a very good job. But it still seems indefensible to claim that they really know what potential employees are ‘like’ on the basis of their new-style forms and some of the tests which have been devised for selection.
Those of us who have more belief in the capacity of people to grow and learn might fear the new ‘science’ of human resourcing sometimes gets dangerously close to the dismally deterministic ways of the discredited ‘educationalists’ of yore.
Frankly, were I a prospective employer, I’d expect more for my human resource investment than that.

Posted on April 4, 2006, in Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. How important is recruitment really? If most organisations did half a job of recruitment, but a really good job of integrating, equiping and motivating new employees I reckon productivity would rise.
    I have been frequently shocked by organisations that will spend thousands of pounds recruiting an individual to then leave them to flounder. A cursory “induction programme” often comprising health and safety warnings and little else, is too often the only communication from organisation to new recruit.
    Thousands of people in hundreds of organisations are doing their best to do their job…but are having to guess at a good chunk of what a good job looks like.
    When employers start investing in the all important first 100 days of a new recruit, then they can really expect to see a return.

  2. Recruitment always faces a challenge. It is, in essence, impossible to predict how any given individual will perform in any given environment when one of the key variables is the mix of people with whom they will have to interact. Thus, ultimately, in the commercial context the final decision about who to appoint may come down to feel.
    There is no reason, though, for not having PROPERLY designed and appropriate simulations of the task environment which will ultimately face the candidates with which to arrive at some understanding of their “technical” capacities to handle the nature of the job. The key word however is APPROPRIATE.
    Another major difficulty ( and there are many more) is that the H.R. “professionals” usually only dimly understand, if at all, the essential nature of the roles they have been retained to help fill.
    There is also a small matter of certain procedures coming into and out of fashion without regard for their suitability for the particular task.
    I could continue at length!

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