Appointing a senior member of staff is rarely an easy task, Diana Barden looks at how assessment centres are shaking up the recruitment process
“Wanted: the right CEO for our organisation. Prepared to work for peanuts for 70 hours a week and stay in the post until we can afford to hire a replacement. Troublemakers, potential litigants, and anyone we feel would not ‘fit’ into our nice, easy-going team need not apply!”
Thankfully, most job adverts aren’t written in such crude terms. But given the option (and putting aside legal and moral objections), how would you advertise your senior management vacancy if you could? It seems that too many recruiters focus on what they’re ‘allowed’ to say rather than what they really want. But in an ever-more litigious society, an employer needs to ensure that they provide an equitable selection process that does not create an unfair advantage or disadvantage for one or more of the applicants.
So what constitutes an unfair advantage? Is the organisation allowed to favour a female candidate or an applicant from a minority group in order to fulfil an internal target? Is the interviewer allowed to ask whether the candidate has a criminal record? Can a candidate take the organisation to a tribunal claiming discrimination just because they have not been shortlisted? Finally, of course, if you are faced with a quiet interviewee, how will you ensure you gain sufficient detail about their experience in order to make an informed decision? (Answers to those questions above? No, yes, yes – and an Assessment Centre!)
WHAT TO AVOID
One of the biggest recruiting traps that organisations fall into is being lulled into a sense of ‘scarcity’ – scarcity of suitable candidates, scarcity of the time needed to advertise, shortlist, interview, recruit, induct and train the new employee. When a senior person in an organisation resigns, those responsible for recruitment immediately start thinking “organisational continuity is paramount, we need to find someone with the same or similar skills”. Yet there is a far more pressing question to be asked: what is the cost of making the wrong decision?
The short-term emotional cost to the staff, as well as the financial and reputational cost of poor work quality with the wrong person in post is often greater than not filling the post at all and waiting for the right candidate. It’s a question for experienced recruiters: do I appoint the ‘best of the bunch’ or hold out for the best candidate?
RECRUITMENT DONE RIGHT
Recruiting the right candidate begins with a clear definition of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ before the search for the ‘who’ can commence. What will the successful candidate do in the role? What will they be responsible for, what skills will they need to carry out the job – in other words, what will ‘good’ look like? The ‘how’ describes how they will need to do what they do in order to be successful; for example, their personal organisation or their attention to detail. Writing down expected attributes or competencies will not only allow you to shortlist more quickly, but it is also likely to keep you out of the tribunal courts if a candidate claims discrimination.
One way to dramatically increase your chances of recruiting the right person is to go further than the customary first and second interviews: test the candidate’s ability to carry out tasks that they will be expected to do in the real job, in a safe environment, in front of real clients, funders and staff. This is called an ‘Assessment Centre’, a programme of activities that can run over one or more days. Recruited this way, the candidate must demonstrate their skills and ability in certain key areas; in an interview they need only demonstrate the ability to talk about them convincingly.
WHY ASSESSMENT CENTRES?
An Assessment Centre process begins with a question: “What skills and attributes will the jobholder need to possess, and how would you observe these in their day-to-day work?” This part of the process is vital to ensure the assessment criteria, the exercises and the observation process all work congruently, and give the recruiting organisation the information they need to assess each candidate’s suitability for the role. Ideally, these points are decided prior to any adverts being published, so the criteria can attract a more qualified list of applicants.
An Assessment Centre itself can be a daunting prospect for candidates and employers alike. A good recruitment professional, if you are using one, should work with both to ensure the process is as transparent and straightforward as possible; the day should engender a healthy mix of professionalism and human-ness. Candidates should be encouraged to be themselves and not to play to the gallery, to do their best and not be discouraged if an exercise does not go according to plan. Candidates are likely to be observed by members of the recruiting organisation as well as by the facilitating recruitment company, although the decision is expected to be made solely by the organisation.
The best part? The employer knows that this important decision isn’t left to a gut feeling sparked by the first interview, but is one backed up by real, quantifiable data. Moreover, every candidate has equal opportunity to show themselves at their best and with the detailed and qualified feedback that follows, candidates leave feeling they have learnt a lot more about themselves too.