Beauty parades are no way to recruit

THERE is some very bizarre behaviour going on,” says David Sims, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School in London. He has heard of one HR department that threw away any applications written in blue ink, not because anybody believed there was anything wrong with those candidates, but just as a way of whittling down the unmanageable number of CVs they had to look at. Equally absurd practices include graphology – studying people’s handwriting – using horoscopes and psychometric testing. These are all no better for selecting the right candidate than picking people at random, according to academic research.

Yes, that’s right. Psychometric testing doesn’t work, but is really just a way of dressing up your opinions in scientific language. “Interviewers are prejudiced, and impressions are formed very quickly,” says Professor Sims. Studies have shown that interviewers are heavily influenced by dress, body language and looks. Often interviewers are looking for a certain sort of person, choose that person very quickly, and then use the psychometric categories to justify their decisions.

Such pseudo-science is popular because people don’t know how to recruit – indeed, it is a difficult thing – and these techniques “soothe people’s anxieties about recruiting well”. Thinking about personality types can help reinforce “homosocial reproduction”, or selecting people who are like the employees you already have. Such people are likely to fit in well and immediately appear to be good hires, but too many of them causes stagnation over time. “Often the unusual person will bring something fresh to the job and give you the edge,” says Sims.

The best selection processes, he says, are those which test the skills that a candidate will actually have to use in the job. One person being recruited for a position where he would have to deal with an abrasive stakeholder was confronted with somebody who shouted at him. Others who were expected to go on early morning radio and say intelligent things were woken at 5am, made to drive an hour and a half and then give an interview.

In this context, some of the odder interviews make perfect sense. Adrian Kinnersley, managing director of City recruitment firm Twenty, says that he knows of hedge funds where candidates are placed in a room for four hours, and anybody in the company is allowed to go in and ask them any question they feel like, perhaps about maths or markets, or their favourite film or why they did music A-Level. “It’s a good way of replicating the job they would have to do – switching between things tests their intelligence, and also their ability to get on with people from different walks of life.” Taking people to the pub, or for a meal, can also be invaluable. “You want to make sure they don’t turn into a nutter after a shot of tequila.”

How many interviews should you do? Forty-seven is excessive, although that number of meetings does test how keen somebody is. That said, it is important to see people a number of times, at various times of day and in various situations, to get a real idea of what they are like. Kinnersley points out that a good model is the British Army’s officer recruitment process, which is a three-day course. The idea is that you can’t bluff for an extended period of time, and the real person will come through.

Three or four interviews should be enough to judge a person – too many more and you look indecisive. Even at the most senior level, four to eight weeks is a good time period for a recruitment process. Aggressive interviewing – such as the good cop/bad cop routine – puts people off; they probably don’t want to work in a place where that sort of test is thought to be necessary.

And finally, think about what your interview process says about you. Getting people to come for interview is a great PR opportunity – they tell their friends about their experiences. Remember that the person asking the questions is being interviewed as well.

l Give candidates tasks that are as close to the job as possible. If they will need to deal with a tricky client, then try to replicate that person’s behaviour and see how the candidate copes.

l See a candidate several times, in different situations and times of day. Make sure one meeting is in a social situation, and make sure they get on with their potential colleagues.

l Think carefully about the answers you get. If somebody is very clear about where they want to be in five years’ time then perhaps he sees the world as flat and predictable, and maybe you don’t want somebody like that.

l Drag it on. Constantly rearranging interviews makes your company look disorganised and will put off candidates. Four to eight weeks is the maximum. Remember that people tell their colleagues and contacts about bad experiences.

l Decide on the sort of person you want before you meet the candidates. It’s tempting to pre-judge the kind of person you want, but often the unusual person will add something new to a team and turn out more valuable.

l Be afraid of making mistakes. Often people simply want to recruit somebody who doesn’t make them look foolish. But risk-taking is often the best way to move forward.