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The Ideas Distillery
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Make sure you select the right staff for your business

Let it be said: small business owners and managers can be pretty hopeless when recruiting new staff. How often have you heard a small businessman say knowingly – “it’s all about gut instinct,” or perhaps “I know within 10 seconds if I’m going to employ somebody.” They might as well be picking staff by looking at their star signs.


This is all the more worrying because a bad choice of recruit will always have a far greater effect in a small business than a larger one; one wrong choice can end up upsetting everyone and everything. The plain fact is that it is in the interests of small firms to approach staff selection methodically and in a carefully planned way.


Adopting a systematic procedure for selection has many advantages:


  • The assessment process becomes a better predictor of competence. We want to ensure that a candidate who comes out of the selection process well will also end up doing the job well in practice.

  • The risks of bias – even sub-conscious bias – are minimised.


There are some invaluable spin-offs. Planned selection ends up creating two documents – the job description and the person specification – which are useful for a variety of purposes. They can be used for advertising job vacancies, drawing up contracts of employment, staff reorganisation, identifying training needs, disciplinary procedures and rationalising salary structure. In fact, it is hard to see how any of these activities can be carried out effectively without this documentation.


The image of your organisation is likely to be enhanced, both externally and internally. Job applicants are becoming increasingly sophisticated and may be drawn to an organisation operating a business-like selection procedure. Similarly, existing staff generally are impressed by the care going into recruiting their colleagues-to-be and welcome the attention they themselves receive during job analysis.


And the disadvantages? First, there is a higher cost – even if you don’t call in an expert, the whole process takes more of your precious time. Second, because we are all human and because no system is foolproof, you still might employ someone who turns out to be hopeless.


Planned selection follows some logical stages. You can’t make valid job selection decisions if you don’t know the kind of person you want, so you need a ‘person specification’. And you can’t tell what kind of person you need if you don’t know what their job will entail – so you need to carry out a job analysis, which will produce a job description. And after that, you’ve got to use a method of selection (or a combination of methods) that is valid – so graphology and astrology are out (or at least, at the bottom of the pile!).


What existing documents are there? Ask existing job-holders and their manager (you?) about the job. Observe the job being performed, and consider whether you should call in an expert outsider to obtain a really objective view. Then briefly write down the job description – what the job involves. Your headings might be: location; responsible to…; outline of job; safety aspects; and hours of work, holidays and pay.


The ‘person specification’ is a statement of the characteristics of the person who would be effective in the job. For example, a good sales person needs confidence, assertiveness, intuition and thick hide – qualities which would be largely wasted in a book-keeper’s position. This might be set out within a ‘competency framework’ – a set of distinct person characteristics with clear examples for each (so the meaning is precise, allowing the reliable assessment of candidates). It should be brief – a couple of sides of A4 are enough.


Competency headings might read something like this:


  • Qualifications

  • Technical skills

  • Organisational skills

  • Caring

  • Diplomacy

  • Co-operativeness

  • Conscientiousness; and

  • Communication skills


There are all sorts of traps for the unwary when writing person specifications – they are there to allow you to discriminate between good and not-so-good candidates, and that is all. Specify ‘sense of humour’ and it doesn’t discriminate – everybody’s got one (of sorts). Specify quantity rather than quality of experience and you could end up discriminating against women, who often have stop-go careers.


Last, which method of selection should you go for? Almost everybody uses an interview, but if used in the traditional way (i.e. no job analysis, no person specification, just a disorganised chat) it is a poor method for predicting performance. Better than astrology and graphology, but poor. But when interviews are structured, they become much better at matching the right candidate with the right job, and so the main message is always structure your interviews.


For many small organisations, structured interviewing may be all that is needed to achieve real improvements in selection. In some cases, additional methods of selection may be appropriate.


If your person specification indicates that disposition is particularly important, consider using a personality questionnaire. Consider also whether work sample testing (observing an applicant performing aspects of the job) would be appropriate to the position – carried out properly, it can really separate the sheep from the goats.


And when all else fails, you can always consult the stars….




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