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Is Selecting the Right Candidate the Key to HR Success?

Often in the news, we see major issues in organizations that can be related back to poor recruitment and selection.

For example, in addition to not having enough staff, problems in the prison service have been put down to the ‘wrong’ staff being appointed. Members of the Prison Governors’ Association claimed that the selection process was allowing too many unsuitable people through, plus the staff were poorly trained - both of which relate to HR functions.

As HR professionals. we are constantly having to justify the ‘value' of HR; sound recruitment and selection processes are one of the visible ways for HR to make a difference to the success of an organization. In the prison example, what criteria were used in appointing prison officers? Were they the ‘appropriate’ criteria? And did those selected actually meet the criteria? How valid was the selection process?

The 'right' staff

So, how can we ensure we get the right staff? ‘Values-based interviewing’ is increasing, whereby interview candidates are questioned on their attitudes, rather than just technical knowledge and ability. We all want to be treated by staff who are interested and enthusiastic – whether it’s in a shop, or a hospital – no-one wants to be dealt with by staff who have a ‘don’t care’ attitude.

For jobs in the care services, this is crucial. We all want to have staff who look after us in a caring manner, as well as having medical competence. Which is most important - knowledge, technical competence, or a caring attitude? 

It brings us to the question, what makes staff display good customer care skills? Can we train employees to be more courteous and to ‘go the extra mile’? Or is an innate ‘trait’? Is it a part of our personality? If so, can we then ensure that we recruit and select people who will be keen to help and will work extra hard to give that much sought after ‘discretionary behaviour’?

Many organizations train staff to ask customers if they need help, but there is a difference between being helpful because you have been told to, and being helpful because you really want to assist someone. Think of people you know… who are the ones who would go out of their way to help… and who are the ones who will ignore problems and just get by with a minimum of effort? We all know colleagues who turn a blind eye to problems and who solve issues with a sticky-plaster approach, but we also know colleagues who make an effort to put things right, those who go looking for the root of the problem and who will improve things for the future. (Which one are you?)

Recruitment methods

So, how can you make sure your organization only employs the best staff? Unfortunately, there is no magic test that can tell us who will have the appropriate work ethic or who will be a hard worker. Research by various academics have tried to see which are the best selection methods – Robertson and Smith (2001) tested a variety of methods, concluding that Assessment Centres, tests and work sampling being some of the most effective, but that no method achieves 100% validity in predicting who will be good at the job.

Interviews are the most popular method, but are known for their biases: stereotyping, appointing people who are ‘like us’ and with whom we identify, selecting those who impress us in the first 3 minutes (the halo effect); all these biases can lead to appointing the wrong person. On the negative side, we might take an instant disliking to someone or they fail to make a good first impression (horns effect) which means we don’t appoint them - all for the wrong reasons (which may also be discriminatory!). Ask yourself – have you ever appointed anyone because you just ‘liked them’, based on a 30-minute interview? Or not appointed someone because you had a ‘gut feeling’ that they weren’t right? We might all do this, but care needs to be taken that we are not losing out on good candidates - or appointing the wrong ones - because we are basing our decisions on the wrong criteria (and possibly falling into a discrimination trap too).

Tests are often put forward as an objective way of appointing people, but they too have their faults. Are they less discriminatory because they are seen to be objective? Or more so, because they have flaws in their design (the language used may disadvantage those whose first language is not English)? Are the results actually valid and reliable? Costly and time-consuming, recruitment tests need to be handled by properly trained assessors. And they add stress for the candidates – are they worth it?

As mentioned above, Assessment Centres are often touted as being the ‘best’ selection method, as they bring together a number of activities and tests, against which candidates can be assessed. Evidence (and common sense) suggests that the more methods we use, the more reliable our results should be, as we have more data on which to base our decisions. If an Assessment Centre means that a candidate has to complete a test, take part in a group discussion, give a presentation and participate in an interview, then we can see them undertaking a variety of roles and hopefully get a much better view of them.

For example, you might choose to have an informal lunch, where the candidate drops their guard and the assessor can see a glimpse of their true personality, not the false one presented at the interview (we may project a different personality in an interview – through nerves or a wish to impress. This is not usually our ‘real self’).

Being an astute assessor means firstly designing activities that will test for the abilities you are seeking and then analysing candidates against a meaningful set of criteria. Assessors need to be trained in spotting traits and being able to assess candidates fairly. Avoiding bias in Assessment Centres can be as difficult as avoiding it in interviews.

A point about references

Historically, employers used references to weed out ‘bad’ candidates and to find out what prospective employees were really like. Nowadays, with fears of legal retribution from candidates, few referees are willing to state what they really think of an ex-employee.

Can we believe a good reference? We read about fake reviews on websites when buying products on the internet, to encourage people to purchase an item – is it the same with job references? After all, no-one would offer the name of someone as a referee if they thought they might give them a bad reference – we only use those who we know will give us a good ‘review’.

The best of a bad bunch?

There is often pressure to appoint, even if there are no suitable candidates. All too often people get appointed because they are the best of a bad bunch. Managers may say there is a need to hire someone… anyone! This usually means risks are taken in appointing a ‘not-so-good’ candidate, rather than re-advertising and going through the whole process again.

If we get selection wrong then we are stuck with a poor recruit. Getting rid of someone once you’ve appointed them is a long, difficult and costly task; an unsatisfactory situation for both candidate and employer. The CIPD state in their Resourcing and Talent Planning Survey report 2017, that the cost of replacing someone is £2000. Multiplied up, this means that poor selection processes may be costing organizations thousands of pounds.

For managers, the cost per leaver rises to over £6000 (CIPD, 2017). Therefore, it’s crucial to get selection right and appoint someone who will do a good job and stay with the organization for a reasonable amount of time. If HR can reduce recruitment and selection costs (and reduce labour turnover) then they are demonstrating how HR adds value.


Going back to our original question - how can we tell whether someone is a hard worker and who will put in that extra effort? - there is no easy answer.

Recruiters must give thought to the criteria that are necessary for the job, before thinking about how to test potential candidates for relevant skills and abilities.

Consider how we can assess the candidates. Can we avoid bias? Although we may feel we are good at judging who might be a good appointment, there is no real way of truly knowing someone as a result of a short selection process. Time with the candidates, really getting to know them, is time well spent. Use as many selection methods as are relevant and valid.

Don’t be pushed into appointing ‘for the sake of it’. Sadly in today’s rushed world, far too little time is devoted to the selection process. As we see from the problems in organisations – many of them relate back to not appointing the right people.

If HR can focus on this, perhaps some of the resourcing problems in organizations might be reduced.