Friday, November 21, 2008

On-the-Spot Job Offers: Real Solution or Quick Fix?

There is a fair deal of excitement right now in the federal public service over “on-the-spot job offers” to students in college and university job fairs. Personally, the concept of “on-the-spot job offers” leaves me skeptical at best.

Rather than launching into all the reasons why I feel that way, let me start be enunciating the conditions to which I agree with the idea of “on-the-spot job offers”:
  1. The hiring manager himself is on-the-spot to hire the employees (as opposed to a delegated report or an HR advisor);
  2. The Statement of Merit Criteria is well suited for on-the-spot assessment of the candidates by the manager.
  3. The manager is able to overcome any personal bias (positive or negative) with regards to gender, ethnicity, and other employment-equity-like characteristics.
  4. The manager is able to resist the temptation to hire a clone (i.e. someone who studied in the same institution, shares similar interests, has the same kind of personality, roots for the same hockey team, etc.).
  5. Whenever appropriate (read: most of the time!), the job offer is conditional to further background or reference check.
That is just the first half of the work, i.e. the portion that happens at the recruitment event or immediately after. But for an on-the-spot hire to be successful in the long-term, the following criteria must also be met:
  1. There are very strict conditions of probation attached to the job offer and the organization has a solid probationary process in place with clear accountability for managers.
  2. Managers set up the new hire for success by providing him or her all the necessary orientation, training and support during the first days, weeks or months on the job.
  3. There are regular formal performance appraisals during the first year (ideally every three months at least) during which the new hire is assessed thoroughly against objectives and expectations.
  4. There is ongoing and immediate feedback between the manager and the new hire to correct any behaviour that is not in line with expectations.
  5. The hiring manager is held fully accountable for the hiring decision and managing the performance of the employee.
Those conditions are necessary to highlight the fact that “on-the-spot job offers” don’t simply result in the hiring of a person for a job, but the hiring of a public servant for what could be an entire career. In other words: “Are you ready to be held accountable for hiring this employee in the public service for the next 30 years?

(Gulp!)

Assuming all the conditions are met, and assuming the manager feels confident about the whole “on-the-spot job offer” thing, then we must ask ourselves the $1,000,000 question:

"If we feel fine about hiring a total stranger after a 15 minutes assessment in a college gymnasium, why do we still resort to iron-clad processes that take months or years to administer to assess career public servants we often know (such as our own staff!)? Why can’t we use the same type of “on-the-spot” assessment to appoint internally?"

Some may argue that the jobs we staff with university grads don’t require the same level of expertise than the jobs we staff internally. I don’t buy it for a second. I just look at all the steps, tests, interviews and reference checks involved in the creation of CR-4 and AS-1 internal pools and I see major inconsistencies with the argument.

Others will argue that we need to make “on-the-spot job offers” to people in highly specialized fields where expertise is rare or unique, otherwise tey will choose another employer. That make sense, but then I wonder how we can assess highly specialized workers in 15 minutes when we take months and months to hire people for generic clerical jobs…

The real answer for the difference of treatment between external candidates to who we are ready to make an “on-the-spot job offer” after a 15 minutes assessment, and the internal employees who are qualified, experienced and who we know intimately is the following: fear.

We are afraid of confronting unsuccessful employees, especially when we know them. We dread a complaint to the Public Service Staffing Tribunal, not simply because of the extra work it might require on our part, but because it could make the Deputy Minister look bad (or, alternatively, make the senior HR advisors look bad to the eyes of the DM for allowing such a thing to happen!).

Consequently, many managers would rather leave appointment decisions in the hands of a tool (preferably a standardized test that can’t be challenged) than come up with a few simple questions that would suffice to assess the applicants fairly accurately in a matter of hours, use their judgement and demonstrate courage in making the appointment decision based on this assessment.

The perverse effect of leaving appointment decisions in the hands of tools such as written tests rather than exercising our judgement is that many applicants who are successful in staffing processes are just that: people who do well on tests.

At the risk of bringing discredit upon myself, I will acknowledge in public what I have often confided in private: I have been lucky to get a job in the public service. I was hired not so much for my competence or talent, but mostly because I did well on a series of tests (IQ, written communication, situational judgement), in-baskets, simulations, and interviews. In all fairness, the process I originally went through was very rigorous, and I do take pride in having made it through. But I know many people who would have made just as good (or better!) public servants, employees, or managers. But they’ve never really done well on tests, or at least couldn’t do well enough to go past this early screening stage. (Fortunately, in all of these cases, the public service’s loss was another employer’s win!)

So back to “on-the-spot job offers”. I don’t want to condemn these so-called “innovative” hiring methods. But when I look at the gap between this and the staffing methods we used internally, I shake my head. Couldn’t we have come up with some sort of middle ground?

For instance, managers could do a early screening of university applicants based on a 15 minutes interview during which we assessed a limited number of well-defined merit criteria (i.e. education, experience, etc.), and reserve a more thorough assessment (i.e. skills, background and reference check) for later, thus cutting by many months the recruitment process, narrowing the pool to a smaller number of high profile candidates, and remain a competitive employer.

Only time will tell if those “on-the-spot job offers” really work, or if we are simply solving a recruitment issue by creating a performance management problem elsewhere.

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