“You can’t teach employees to smile. They have to smile before you hire them.”
– Arte Nathan, Wynn Las Vegas
The war for talent was declared by McKinsey and Company in 1997 and it still seems to be prevalent even in today’s high-paced, dynamic, techno-savvy, diverse, global workplace. The ominous message from the research was that organizations had to create mindful strategies for attracting, acquiring, developing and retaining talent to maintain their distinct competitive advantage. Failing to do so would definitely have dire consequences for such organizations as they would struggle to maintain their position in the highly competitive business environment. Today, while the war for talent is still being waged; there is another war also being fought which is that by the employees themselves to be recruited. It can be said that earlier, organizations had to find a talented needle in a haystack of superior, average and not so bright employees.Today, they have to find the sharpest needle in a stack of efficient employees.
Value of skill
Organizations with a strategic focus need to align their people management strategies with their business strategies to create a win-win situation. So, the question of recruitment and selection practices becomes very crucial. People management experts would tell you that one of the most efficient ways of talent management is to hire those who suit the present and future needs of the business. But more often than not, recruiters face the dilemma of making a tough choice between attitudes and skills. It is, of course, important to note that we are not talking about cases of two extremes or outliers, but rather, situations where HR policies need to be clear on what is more important for the organization in the long run.
Most organizations prefer to hire employees who are technically sound so that they don’t have to spend on their initial training and can have them being productive on the job from day one.
If the company’s business model is such that can take time to develop an organization-specific set of skills in their employees through dedicated mentoring and training interventions, it may hire potential talent who can be honed. In both these cases, however, the question of personality and attitude remains unaddressed.
Why the right personality?
Employees are considered as the brand ambassadors of the organizations and the ones who have direct contact with the customers. Building a loyal customer-base and improving customer satisfaction rates are unquestionably important business objectives. In any given field, technical proficiency is a required competency for successful recruitment and retention. However, technical skills are trainable and can be developed over a period of time. The cost of recruiting someone who is a misfit in the organizational culture because of a poor attitude would be detrimental to the organization. It is indeed very tempting to hire star employees, who would drive business results and contribute to the bottom line. But what if these employees are also the ones who can create a toxic work environment owing to their less than desirable personality traits of being prudish or boorish to their colleagues or abusive to their subordinates?Or if they don’t think much of customers and focus all their attention only on getting sales figures up or just winning the rat race?
What if star employees or managers are also the ones who can create a toxic work environment, owing to their less than desirable personality traits of being prudish or boorish to their colleagues and subordinates?
It’s not a question of skill vs personality
One of the easy traps to fall into while hiring is to hire based on competencies such as technical/functional skills that are easily verifiable. It is definitely more difficult to assess the personality traits of a candidate such as his/her ability to have difficult conversations, ability to adapt to change, their customer service orientation or their problem-solving capabilities compared to say their technical skills such as proficiency in a language or their machine operating skills or coding abilities. While it is glaringly obvious that it is not skills v/s personality that we are looking at but, rather an optimal combination of both. For example, an airline with focus on customer service would not choose a pilot who has a pleasant personality and great team building skills if he/she is not proficient in flying an aircraft or a manufacturing concern would not put a production in charge who can manage workers well but does not know his/her way around the shop floor operations. It is, however, considered prudent and beneficial in the long run to hire for the right attitude and supplement skills with training if required then take a chance in a reverse scenario. Examples of hiring practices of organizations such as Amazon, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Netflix, come to mind when we think about such companies who have managed to crack the recruiters’ code when it comes to hiring the right candidate who is a seamless fit with the job as well as the organizational culture.
The HR professionals can solve their dilemma by having clarity on what their organizational objectives and vision are, people philosophy and desired employee competencies and design the job requirements accordingly.
For example, job positions where employees are doing technical work with little or no team interaction and may in no way influence the general office environment such as routine jobs or research or lower level skill-based jobs, it might still be a good idea to invest in skills so that employees can start performing right away. As employees progress through different managerial levels, the focus on soft skills becomes more pressing and thus there arises a need to look for desirable personality traits along with technical competencies.
The practice of considering the soft skills as well as the hard skills of talent extends beyond business to healthcare management, hospitality, education and even non-profits. Think of the last time you met a doctor who is really good in his/her diagnosis but has terrible bedside manners or a waiter who could pass all his/her serving and catering tests with flying colors but had actually a very bad attitude towards the restaurant patrons or a brilliant professor who is very rude with his/her students and refuses to help them with anything, or a lawyer who can argue cases very well, but does not have empathy for his/her clients or does not like differing opinions from peers. It is advisable to look for a potential candidate with sound technical skills and a good work ethic and admirable personality traits than a star performer in need of an attitude adjustment. As Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, very rightly observed, “We can change skills levels through training, but we can’t change attitude.”