Month: July 2013

Testing, Testing, One – Two – Three …

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I was interviewing a candidate for a management position. The interview was going well. She was professional, knowledgable and well qualified. Towards the end of the interview, I said, “One last question, can I feel your head?”

Her mouth dropped. She stared at me wide-eyed. “Excuse me?”

I explained. “As part of our selection process, we use phrenology. We examine the size and shape of your skull to help determine your personality. For that, I need to feel your head.”

The candidate picked up her portfolio and left without another word. At least she didn’t come back and sue me for harassment – thinking I had some crazy head-fetish.

Of course, we don’t use phrenology in our selection process. It is a pseudoscience popular in the 19th century, and completely discredited today. No self-respecting employer would. But plenty of them use other tests that are just as useless.

In France, analyzing job candidates’ handwriting is quiet popular. Some estimates show that it is used by as much as 50 percent of employers, even though there is no evidence that handwriting analysis can accurately predict personality. When more than one analyst is given the same handwriting, for example, each arrives at a different analysis.

It’s easy to scoff at the French, but U.S. employers are almost as bad in their use of one dreaded tool: the personality test.

Most employers use these tests in conjunction with resume evaluations, interviews and other assessment tools in their unending quest to find perfect employees. The EEOC has ruled that this is perfectly acceptable, as long as it is not the sole decider in making the decision, and does not discriminate against a protected class (women, minorities, the disabled, etc.).

The first personality tests were psychological tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The problem with these tests is that they were designed to determine if someone had a psychological disorder, and if so, what it was. They were not designed to determine who would make a good employee. In other words, they worked off the assumption that you were crazy. The question was, what type of crazy were you?

While most employers today do not use these types of tests (although the U.S. government still uses the MMPI for highly sensitive jobs), they continue to use tests that are not designed for hiring. Many still use the Myers-Briggs, for example, even though this was a tool designed to help with training and development. It can be beneficial to customize career paths and development programs once someone is on board, but it doesn’t necessarily help employers identify the best candidates.

That’s one of the problems with most of these tests. They fail to predict who will make a good employee. For example, the test may be able to tell an employer whether the person is an introvert or an extrovert, but that doesn’t tell the employer whether that person would make a good sales person. Other factors, such as experience and attitude, are needed to determine this skill.

Another problem is that employers often don’t know what traits make a good employee in the first place. Many would instinctively say that an extrovert would make a better sales person. However, good sales people tend to be good listeners, and extroverts tend to talk more than listen.

The biggest problem with many of these tests is their reliability. The companies selling the tests will tell you that their test has been designed to ensure 100 percent honesty from the person answering the questions. Even if this is the case, the tests require that the person has an accurate self-perception in the first place. I once provided two dozen managers with a test to determine their management style. Of them, 23 had results that showed them to be participatory. This style encourages employees to voice opinions and empowers them to make decisions. The managers knew that this was the organization’s preferred style, so their answers naturally reflected this. I worked with many of these managers, and knew that their style was not participatory. They were either giving the answers they thought they were supposed to give, or else didn’t understand themselves enough to give the appropriate answers.

I stopped using personality tests in hiring years ago. While they often gave some insight to a person’s personality, they generally only confirmed what we read about the person from conversations and interviews. They added no insight. And even when they did, what might be considered negative traits were often overlooked in favor of other factors and so they did not change our hiring decision. They were also time-consuming and expensive to administer. So we dumped them, and guess what? We saw no decline in our success rate of new hires.

A woman I know had all the qualifications, licensing and certifications for the job she was applying for. She had years of experience and could quantify her success. The last step in the process was a personality test. After taking the test, she was told that it showed she was not a good fit for the profession.

Why do employers use personality tests if they don’t work? I blame my own field of HR. We succumb to the pressure to deliver perfect candidates every time. Personality tests provide the illusion that we are doing just that. On the surface, tests make it appear that we are providing scientific evidence that someone is a successful hire in a process that is anything but scientific.

So the next time an employer wants to use a personality test before hiring you, ask them to feel your head instead.

Rules Rule – Especially When It Comes to Being Pregnant at Work

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My family and I went to see my four year old’s dance recital at the neighborhood theater. Unlike most of these events, it wasn’t first come first serve seating. You had to buy tickets, and seats were assigned. They even had ushers. I guess they were trying to avoid a Who-Concert-in-Cinncinati-like stampede (If you are too young to get that reference, look it up, but don’t tell me. I already feel old).

We had seats in the middle row near the stage, but the people in front of us along with the angle of the seats made it difficult to see. It was the earlier of two shows, before dinner time, and so the theater was only two-thirds full. The recital was minutes from starting, and seeing some empty seats higher up, we suggested that our two other daughters sit up there so they could see better. They left, only to come back moments later – one of the ushers, a white-haired volunteer who obviously had nothing better to do, had admonished them telling them they had to sit in their assigned places.

Those seats went unfilled throughout the entire show. What would have been the harm in letting two young girls sit there?

The rules, of course. The ushers’ jobs were to make sure everyone sat where they were assigned, no exceptions. Even when it made perfect sense and it would do no harm. In this case, the adherance to the rules meant nothing more than a couple of disappointed girls and a less than ideal theater seat. However, this same adherance to rules is much more damaging when it comes to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.

According to a study conducted by the National Woman’s Law Center and A Better Balance, pregnancy discrimination is on the rise. The EEOC reported that there were almost 6,000 cases of pregnancy discrimanation filed in 2011, resulting in $17 million in damages. Cases ranged from stock people not being allowed water bottles while on the sales floor and cashiers not given stools to sit on, to professionals being let go for taking to much time off due to their pregnancy. One woman even alleges that she was forced to work or lose her job, despite a doctor’s authorization, and this led to a miscarriage.

It should come as no surprise that these cases occur in the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid maternity leave. But why does it happen? Do the managers and HR people hate pregnancy? Do they hate women? Are they cold, heartless Ebanezor Scrooge wannabe’s (before that fateful Christmas Eve, of course)?

Some of these people are no doubt bitter and unhappy malecontents determined to ruin other peoples lives. For them, it is all about control. They’re the boss. They aren’t going to let some expectant mother tell them what to do.

For others, however, it all comes down to the rules. Many who hold the title of manager are not truly managers. They certainly aren’t leaders. They are custodians. Their jobs are not to help make strategic and tactical decisions that are going to help the organization thrive. Their jobs are to make sure the trains run on time, so to speak. To make sure employees are punctual, that the doors open on time, that the shelves are stocked according to plan and that the cash registers balance.

They are there to make sure everyone is following the rules. And if the rules say no water bottles on the sales floor, then there are no water bottles on the sales floor, no matter if the pregnant woman passes out from dehydration.

The line managers are not the only ones to blame. A much larger responsibility goes to the organizations for which they work. They put pressure on these managers to do more with less, even if that means treating workers poorly. Often, the managers are overworked and underpaid, and this treatment filters down.

Worse yet, the companies put out policies and directives instead of training their managers to make good decisions. I worked with a man who took a job as a district manager of a clothing retailer. He would work with his store managers to help them understand the business and take actions that would make them successful. He taught them to read Profit & Loss Reports, how to calculate productivity. He got them thinking about product placement and ideas for improving service. When his boss learned what he was doing, he was told to stop. “We don’t want our store managers to think,” his boss told him. “We want them to smile pretty and look good in our clothes.”

The man quit a week later. Good for him.

The employers also fail the managers because they either don’t hire them for, or instill in them, a sense of self-confidence. Show me a manager who is purely an enforcer of rules, and I’ll show you a manager who does not have confidence in his/her leadership abilities. For them, rules are a way of exerting power and control over others because they do not have confidence in their ability to lead.

Don’t get me wrong. Organizations need rules if they are going to function effectively. When they are based on sound judgement, they can provide consistency throughout and organization and promote its culture. But when rules don’t make sense, they need to be broken. I understand the safety that comes in following the rules. A manager who applies all rules to the letter will never get into trouble. At the same time, that person will never excel, either. Think of those that have accomplished great things in their life – Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi. Of how many of them was it said, That person was great at following the rules.

Why Pay Interns?

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A manager called me up one day, asking if he could hire an intern for his growing department.

How much are you looking to pay? I asked.

I don’t have room in my budget for pay. I was hoping it could be an unpaid internship.

What would the intern be doing? I asked.

Oh, filing, setting up appointments, working reception, making sure coffee is filled.

I asked a series of questions. Would the person be having any meaningful interactions with clients? Would they being doing any financial analysis? Will you be providing the person with any industry specific training?

The answer to all my questions was no.

Then you can’t have an unpaid intern. A summer employee who is paid under our current structure, that I can help you with.

The manager was incredulous. Other places do it, he said.

I gave my standard reply when someone tells me this. Other places are wrong.

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. A century and a half later, slavery continues in the form of unpaid interns.

College students and recent graduates are hired by the tens of thousands every summer to work as interns. Some have meaningful assignments, but many are brought on to take care of the most mundane tasks: fetching lunches, delivering packages, filing, entering data. The Department of Labor has made it clear that unpaid internships need to be for the benefit of the intern, and not the employer. It must include work related to the inern’s future career and have some educational component. The concept is that if the student receives training and experience in lieu of pay. Many, like the manager I denied, either ignore these regulations, don’t understand them or don’t care. Until recently, employers are rarely called on this violation of the law.

Since a Federal judge in Manhattan ruled that unpaid interns working on the movie Black Swan were essentially employees and should have been paid, I’ve read and heard several commentators lament the end of internship programs. The reasoning is that these employers will determine that interns just aren’t worth the hassle of potential lawsuits, and that paying them some small wage will somehow send their multi-million dollar corporations reeling into bankruptcy.

Black Swan grossed over $300 million. I’m sure they could have afforded a couple of interns a nominal wage. The cost would have probably been less than their cattering budget.

Still, I agree that many of these companies will drop their internship programs in order to avoid lawsuits. They’ll have to find someone else to beratewhen the coffee pot is empty?

Unpaid internships have thrived because they are in industries considered glamorous – fashion, film, television, publishing. Students are clamoring to get their foot in the door in these industries, which has made it all to easy for the companies to say, “Work for us for free. We’ll treat you like dirt, give you all the crappy jobs. In the end, you’ll get connections and be able to put our name on your resume. The world will be your oyster.”

One concern is that the end of these unpaid internships will mean that these students and new grads won’t be able to make the connections they need to get paying jobs. However, according to a recent study of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, unpaid interns faired only slightly better in obtaining regular employment than those students who did not do internships.

Contrast this with paid internships. Paid internships tend to be in more technical, less glamorous industries, such as IT, engineering and accounting. The same study showed that these internships were much more likely to result in a regular job. I used to hire civil engineering interns. We used them throughout the construction season to supplement our survey crews, monitor construction projects and assist with traffic studies. Some of the work was menial, like holding a rod in the middle of a field for a Survey Crew Chief, or counting cars as they went through an intersection. Some of it was more substantial. All of it provided them real life work experience, and we used these interns (we actually called them Co-op positions, since we and the student both gained from the relationship) as a pool for hires after they graduated.

The difference between the companies like ours that pay interns, and the ones that don’t is that the ones that don’t think they are so cool that interns would actually pay them for the opportunity. We were an engineering firm. We knew we weren’t cool.

Those who exalt the merits of unpaid internships remind me of the apologists for slavery who say that the blacks were better off under slavery than after they were freed.

That’s debatable. Nevertheless, they were still slaves.

I’m not saying that interns are the same as the black slaves two hundred years ago. After all, they have a choice. They weren’t kidnapped and chained in the hulls of cargo ships and bought and sold and traded. They can always leave, and if they do, no one is going to hunt them down like dogs as they try to escape to freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line.

Still, just as slavery is wrong, regardless of the circumstances, not compensating your workers is wrong. It needs to change. Either these employers need to create a truly educational internship program, start paying interns or end their programs all together.

Will this mean a change for both interns and the employers who enlist them? Of course. But the marketplace will adapt. It may even turn out to be advantageous for some students. After all, only those interns who have some other means of support (i.e. well-off parents) can afford to work without pay. Those students who already have bills to pay and a mountain of student debt don’t have the option of working for free, no matter what opportunity it provides.

In 2012, the movie Lincoln chronicled the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

I wonder if in making the film, they used any unpaid interns.