In Hiring the Right Staff, Are You Looking for the Right Attributes?

It’s often personality attributes — not skills and experience — that separate excellent job candidates from the average and help make good organizations great.

In today’s economy, it can be hard for treatment plants to find qualified people. Finding the right people can be even harder.

Current thinking holds strongly that the best person for the job often is the one with the most education, the requisite skills and the most experience. In fact, hiring on those criteria alone can be a recipe for mediocrity.

Public and private sector organizations have found that stellar performers stand out based on certain personality traits that can lead directly to key benefits. Call them what you will — attributes, soft skills, emotional IQ — these are qualities that can’t be taught. They can make or break a team member and, by extension, the organization as a whole.

It’s not hard to teach a new person how to rebuild a pump or use the SCADA software, for example, but it is difficult or impossible to turn a loner into a team player or an order-taker into an innovator. 

At best secondary

An article in Chief Executive magazine (Nov. 8, 2012) asks, “Have you ever hired a person who had all the right skills and experiences? They interviewed well, had all the right answers, their resume read like the job description, and after you hired them they fell flat on their face? Why does this happen? Mainly because the person’s skills and experiences are not primary indicators of their ability to do your job. These are at best secondary indicators and more often than not misleading indicators.”

Research shows that this is true whether hiring for leadership positions or for the front lines. So, what kinds of personal attributes trump skills and experience as predictors of a team member’s success? They can include resourcefulness, honesty, ingenuity, work ethic, initiative, empathy, self-confidence, attention to detail.

It’s important to hire for attributes because of how hard it is to instill them. Many managers hire based on two wrong assumptions: that people can succeed at anything if they try hard enough and that people’s weak areas are the ones where they have the most room to grow.      

How, for example, can a supervisor teach a team member to be resourceful or self-confident? Current thought holds that if a person isn’t resourceful at age 8, he or she won’t be at age 30. The person may improve some in that area but not enough to succeed in a job (such as plant operations) that often requires being exceptionally resourceful.

The right questions

It’s possible to interview candidates with specific attributes in mind. For example, an interviewer looking to evaluate a person’s ingenuity might say, “Tell me about a time when you helped your team solve an especially challenging problem in a cost-effective way.”

An even better approach, some experts say, is not to ask for examples from the past but to ask how the person will apply his or her abilities if hired for the job at hand. “If they can’t use these effectively in your company and your position,” the Chief Executive article says, “then they may be a great person, but they aren’t the right candidate.”

The trick is essentially to have the person imagine him/herself in the job. The means asking, for example, “If an upset occurred in our activated sludge process, what steps would you follow to diagnose the issue and resolve the problem?”

Selecting people for attributes certainly worked for Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which pulled off the miracle victory over the Russians. It also works for many great public and private sector organizations, large and small. Chances are it can work for your organization too.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.