So You're Ready to Hire - Now What?

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Even with unemployment still near 9 percent, prospects are looking up for American firms. S&P 500 companies are reporting cash supplies that are nearly 50 percent higher than three years ago. A recent survey of chief financial officers by the Zicklin School of Business found 64 percent of respondents plan to add employees in the next six months, up from 56 percent last quarter.

As the economy slowly starts to recover from the recession and companies sitting on cash decide to invest, often they turn to their greatest asset: personnel. Human resources managers are now in a position to re-hire and, in doing so, restructure their employee base and strengthen their companies' futures. But what does a company need to keep in mind as it begins hiring after a long period of inactivity, or worse, layoffs?

A common mistake organizations make is to re-hire for the same positions that were eliminated during tough times. Doing this would forfeit a perfect opportunity to redefine target results, redesign work, realign measures of success and hire accordingly. A few questions all hiring managers should ask before they begin are:

What are the needs of the customers? What are the needs of the business? What are the necessary - not traditional - steps to meet the needs? What are the appropriate measures for the results and the work? Only when these questions have been answered should people be hired to fill new or returning positions.

Following a "first results, then work, then people" design approach allows companies to think more strategically and change their hiring practices. Instead of focusing on experience or education, they should hire for attitude and aptitude, then teach the necessary skills for the specific job. This approach creates a more performance-driven organization. It's akin to drafting an athlete for his athletic ability, then teaching him the game.

Attitude is often overlooked during the interview process. It's also hard to test for attitude, and as long as a candidate is polite, prepared and professional, there isn't much more evaluation. It helps to put a candidate through interviews with several people involved in a specific process. The group effort can help determine if the candidate possesses two outstanding qualities, known colloquially as ‘plays well with others' and ‘runs with scissors.' Teamwork and the ability to think outside the box are critical but often scarce attitudes for employees in a process-driven environment.

Aptitude is about the ability to learn what's necessary for the job as well as the ability to understand what others in the organization do. A candidate must possess the basic skills required to perform a role in the process, but the ability and interest to learn are often mistakenly overlooked in favor of experience or education. An experienced employee with a bad attitude who is disinterested in learning new methods will be a burden, but an employee with the right attitude and high aptitude can be taught the specifics of a job relatively quickly.

Several years ago, Hills Pet Nutrition, the maker of Science Diet pet food, needed to hire for 300 positions in its Richmond, Ind., factory. Instead of simply looking for workers with factory experience, the advertising emphasized teamwork and explicitly stated that no factory experience was necessary. Among the new hires - out of more than 1,000 resumes - were teachers, police officers and even Navy submarine veterans. As a result, the plant quickly became one of the highest producing facilities in the company.

The plant manager and human resources staff discovered common characteristics among those applicants: the ability to learn, skills related to conflict resolution and an understanding of the importance of teamwork. That doesn't mean every company that adopts a process-centric structure should go out and hire teachers, cops and submariners. The point is that when you look for attitude and aptitude, there's no telling where you will find it.

As they begin reinvesting in personnel, managers should focus on finding a new kind of person, with new capabilities to carry out the most complex tasks of a process-centric organization. The right kind of people will be focused not on the boss but on the customer; not on individual performance but on team performance; not on the task but on the outcome.

Lisa W. Hershman is the CEO of Hammer and Co., a Boston-based business education and research firm, and co-author with Dr. Michael Hammer of the book, “Faster, Cheaper, Better: The 9 Levers for Transforming How Work Gets Done.

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