Talent Acquisition

Recruitment – Chemistry or Alchemy?

As an in-house recruiter, you want the successful candidate to be a good match to the role profile and up to the job-challenges but, more than that, the hiring line manager will want them to be a good fit. Surveys have regularly indicated that previous hires proved to be sub-optimal in 60% or more of cases and that same basic problem has been endemic for decades.

Managers find it easy to gauge existing employees for fit, but it’s seen as challenging to assess interviewees. They often talk about ‘our unique culture’ and ‘getting the chemistry right’ but, without an objective assessment framework for that, decisions will be subjective and based on alchemy, not chemistry. In fact, culture is measurable and fit is definable.

The curse of personality

To gauge fit for a role, personality is commonly seized upon. The opinions and desires of hiring managers usually take preference, but is that correct? What about the opinions of the team, other departments, senior management, departmental customers and wider stakeholders? They may all have conflicting requirements.

If you’re recruiting for a funeral director, it might seem obvious that the last person on earth you want is that openly jolly, thigh-slapping candidate who is listing ‘stand-up comedian’ as their primary hobby. They’re obviously going to be a lousy fit, right?

However, such simplistic thinking can easily exclude otherwise stellar candidates with potential to add significant value. If the funeral director in question can successfully maintain a professional demeanour with clients, at other times their ability to raise the spirits of near-dead colleagues might be a real boon to team building, productivity and reducing labour turnover.

Apart from the risk of internal conflict, subjective hiring decisions can also leave scope for unsuccessful candidates to claim discrimination.

Organisations focus on managing their employer brand value to drive attraction but many neglect to actually assess candidates against it, to drive selection more positively. It’s tragic to see the waste for both sides when successful brand value campaigns end up transforming golden candidates into lead-balloon employees via a subjective selection process. Selecting for fit needs to be a level playing field for all.

Building a framework

To be clear, the role profile and person specification, and the usual assessment of candidates’ qualifications, experience and achievements, are all still vital and competency and strength frameworks are commonly used. However, The starting focus to then additionally build a fit-assessment framework should initially be on the organisation, not the candidates.

It’s vital to define what ‘fit’ means and here’s the first, and usually fatal, hurdle. Hiring managers often insist, “We can’t define it, I’ll know the right person when I see them,” and they fall back on personality as a selection tool. As we’ve seen, this is at best risky and the full range of stakeholders need to engage in working to define what it is that a top candidate needs to be a good fit to. They have three topics centred on the organisation that they can start with.

Departmental challenges – These tend to be relatively near-term. Is the main priority productivity? Or perhaps the need to drive up customer service? There may be other priorities, and several of them, but they need to be identified and ordered. Each can be given a relative priority score out of 10, between unimportant and vital.

Organisational goals – Depending on the seniority of the hire, these may be of more or less importance to the candidate selection process than the challenges above. Is the focus on turnaround and profitability, or perhaps opportunity and growth? Might it be on new technology or product initiatives? A takeover and integration? Whatever, goals can be listed, prioritized and scored.

Environmental issues – These often drive the longer term culture and may or may not be of over-riding importance, depending upon the individual organisation. Is innovation a priority? Or transparency? Perhaps it’s essential to comply with highly demanding legal or methodological procedures? Maybe the whole sector is in a period of decline and consolidation and that’s a priority? Perhaps the organisation is in gold-rush territory? Again, priorities need to be clear and ordered.

Defining a scope of responsibility for a role can be fairly straightforward, but It can take significant internal effort to debate and bottom out the priorities relative to that role. Not everything can legitimately score a ten. Those three headings provide starting points but, whatever the challenges and goals within them, it then becomes possible to construct a set of scales with which to measure a candidate’s fit to the challenges the organisation faces.

As a simple example, all line managers want someone creative who is a great communicator and a marvellous team player (check out the ads) but is any of that truly important and relevant if what’s required for the organisation is a vicious bastard who can ruthlessly cut costs within six months, or everyone’s dead? Opinions about fit suddenly become easier for the team to objectively assess, despite an opinionated incumbent line manager, determined to get ‘the best’ for his or her department.

Even the smallest organisations can easily take such an approach and accepting the engagement of wider stakeholders towards this process can save owner-managers huge amounts of sometimes terminal grief.

Assessing against the framework

Having a meaningful framework means that candidates can be legitimately and objectively assessed for chemistry, fit and cultural match, as well as for the usual competency or strengths. Context becomes vital to understand and assess, when considering a candidate’s qualifications, experience and achievements. They can be objectively assessed against what is actually most important for the department or the organisation, not what’s judged by the hiring manager to be most important.

After selection, the latter’s job is then to manage the resource they end up with. That’s no different to the challenge they’ve already faced when they started in their role and had to work with inherited people.

If they’re unable to cope with that idea, perhaps they’re not a good fit for what the organisation really needs in the future? That might provoke a sharp intake of breath, but HR have a vital role to play in driving a recruitment transformation which could see the proportion of successful hires markedly increase, for the benefit of everyone.

About the author: Jon Gregory an experienced management consultant, re-organisation specialist and recruitment professional. He currently works with both organisations and individuals, helping to get the right people working effectively in the right jobs.. He’s also the editor of

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