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Peeling Back the Onion

Randall Birkwood

What does "peeling back the onion" mean to you? For you who have not heard the expression, it refers to learning more about something or someone by peeling back the layers. It's unfortunate that we don't do a very good job of peeling back the onion when it comes to hiring people.
We make only the slightest effort to know what a candidate is made of. We typically bring them in for a round of interviews and ask them only the most basic of questions that refer to their experience and knowledge. We then make them an offer and — voila! — they're hired.

Can you imagine if you did that with a prospective spouse? I don't mean spending only four hours interacting with him on dates; I mean spending only four hours asking him the most basic questions about dating experiences, whether he likes kids and pets, etc. Well, folks, that's how deep we get when it comes to hiring. We make a decision that will affect our company's future based on a few disorganized meetings with a candidate — and we haven't even peeled back the first two layers!

So how do we go about peeling back the onion so we can truly learn about the candidates we interview?

First of all, we have to determine what we want to learn about them. Will their past work experience be a predictor of their success at your company? Sometimes, but not always. Is their knowledge a good predictor of their success? Sometimes, but not always. Are their behaviors an important predictor of success? Always.

So why do we relentlessly focus on someone's experience and knowledge, but seldom learn about what makes her tick? I have rarely seen anyone get fired for poor knowledge, but I have often seen people let go because of a poor attitude, laziness, or unwillingness to work with others.

When you put a recruitment strategy together, I suggest you consider these questions:

What attributes and behaviors can we consistently assess to ensure we make a hire who will be more productive and stay longer?

Which kinds of experience and knowledge are essential for a job, and which are merely "nice to have"?
As I mentioned, #l is more important to a quality hire than #2. But if you can satisfactorily address these two issues, you will have conquered the Holy Grail of recruiting.
Let's talk about #1 first. A person's core attributes and beliefs will determine her motivational fit and future behaviors.

A good example is peeling back the onion when looking for a spouse. If your date is beautiful, successful, and drives a great car, but at the same time angry at the world, rude to your family, and terribly selfish, the marriage will not work.

That's why you must find a way to learn more than what a candidate has done at previous jobs and what she knows about her profession. You must learn her personal attributes and the behaviors that result from them. My suggestion to get this information is through the use of professional pre-employment assessment tools. A tool will ask questions that will give you a good sense of what matters to an individual and what behaviors to expect.

If you have not invested in assessments, you can still get some information about attributes to interview for. That is accomplished by investing your time with your hiring manager.

Which brings me to issue #2. This one goes back to peeling back the onion with your hiring manager and building a great job description.

It never ceases to amaze me how few people pay attention to analyzing and building job descriptions in recruiting (Kevin Wheeler and Lou Adler have written some excellent articles about their importance). Invest the time it takes to develop a good job description with your hiring manager. Always ask him "why." Why is a particular skill set required? Why are three to five years required versus someone with less experience? What behaviors will make an employee successful in the role? What personal attributes will ensure the employee will want to stay a long time in her environment? Will an employee be working in an ambiguous environment with little direction, or will she be working in a structured environment with specific direction?

You want to peel back the onion and find out what the manager is really looking for. You want to learn as much as you can about what an employee can expect. Remember, hiring is about talent suitability, not filling a seat. Your experience requirements and job description should be realistic. Candidates should be able to determine whether they will be happy and successful in your environment.

You should spend your time sourcing for the right talent. You should not take a shotgun approach and submit a wide array of backgrounds. Taking the time to do this will result in faster time-to-fill because you are now focused on the right targets. You will know what experience and knowledge to source for, and you will know what personal attributes and behaviors to assess for. If you find the right person, she will be more productive and she will stay longer. This is the goal of all excellent recruiters: quality of hire. Quality of hire results from peeling back the onion with your hiring managers and your candidates.

If you want to hire the best, you will need to peel back the onion. First with your hiring manager, and second with each candidate. Equate it to looking for a spouse. If you don't learn more about what will make someone successful in a long-term relationship with you, and if you don't learn more about the attributes and experience a prospect should have to be successful and happy, then you have not peeled back the onion. The result is an unhappy and unproductive employee.


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