Stuart White 30-04-2021 9:40 AM



One of my earliest introductions to recruitment was when working for a South African retailer in the early 80s. For a two-week period, every month, to cover the increased footfall in the store, we would recruit casual labour from an ever-ready pool of hopeful candidates which assembled daily at the staff entrance praying to be yanked from the line to make up the temporary workforce. These casual labourers would pack customers’ groceries at the check-out and in time, if they proved good enough, could become permanent employees. They could have been criminals or psychopaths and we wouldn’t have been any the wiser  - such was the manpower planning and vetting of the day.  We recruited from this group based on an undocumented checklist of availability, cleanliness and if they had a nice smile. Often managers (but let’s call them the recruitment officers) would, at a whim, shamelessly ignore the order of the queue and take someone further down the line at the expense of someone at the front using a criterion only known to him or herself (such was their power).  This process was never really questioned - I certainly didn’t.  I guess you accept what you inherit and are taught. Looking back, it was the wild west of recruitment with ad-hoc rules and no fairness. To colour in the picture which I conjure, add to it an image of a slave market and you’re on the right track.

This all came back to me recently when I was interviewed about the subject of ‘hire for attitude and train for skills’ – a notion which at its core is that you should hire people for who they are and not what they can do or, that character counts more than credentials. This can be quite a hard sell in an environment where managers are addicted to measuring age, qualifications, and length of service to determine who is the best fit for the job.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, this is what is common and normal today. Our preoccupation with qualifications and experience is derived from the need to avoid the model we used to use as retailers. In searching for a better way of doing things we sought greater sophistication in recruitment. The architects of job design started to compose job descriptions (to describe the job) and job specifications (to describe the person). This attempt to give a semblance of order to recruiting people must surely have been a welcome step away from the ad-hoc recruitment methods of the day and gave managers a better tool than using the counting rhyme eeny, meeny, miny, mo to decide who gets the job.

But I think it’s had its hey-day. More and more I am hearing of leaders who are caring less about the requirements of qualifications and experience and shifting their thinking to employing those whose personal values are in sync with the values that make the organization tick and make up at the core of their people proposition. 

They are not advocating ignoring skill and experience. Nobody wants to be attended to by a hospital nurse who doesn’t know how to give and injection or hook up a saline drip regardless of their attitude. Meeting the skill and experience requirement will always be necessary but it should not take centre stage.

It seems so obvious that if you get the ‘right’ (however that’s defined for your organisation) people you can achieve what you want. As one of the pioneers of this thinking, Southwest Airlines said you can’t create something special, distinctive, and compelling in the marketplace unless you build something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. And the best way to build something special in the workplace is to hire for attitude and train for skill.

Interviews the world over are still mostly conducted using a competency-based approach which comprises a series of questions relating to competencies and when and how you have demonstrated these in the past. The idea behind this is that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour and whilst mostly true, the problem is that attitude is often not measured in these questions. Instead, the tendency is to look for evidence of strategic thinking, decision making, or planning and organising etc. And while all of these may be critical for certain jobs they are arguably not as important as having the right attitude. Very little time is spent diving deep into the person with the right amount of digging and forensic questioning into why a person thinks and acts the way that they do. 

Attitude gets many different definitions but it means a settled way of thinking or feeling about something or someone and  is typically reflected in our behaviour. Understanding it is essential when determining job fit. Let me take a basic example; if a candidate is a natural pessimist or optimist, they will bring VERY different attitudes.  Neither one is good nor bad per se but they are distinctly different and will either be a help or hindrance in a job. For example, you wouldn’t want a pessimist working in the complaints department (you know the type - sceptical, detail-oriented worriers who not only have a Plan B but a Plan C, Plan D and back-up...) otherwise every complaint will be met with suspicion and an “we probably won’t be able to fix this” kind of attitude. In contrast, this kind of thinking might be invaluable in certain planning, accounting, quality control or engineering roles where it will be viewed as sensible caution.  As Winston Churchill said attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference, so it’s a pity we aren’t giving it more attention.

If, in the words of W.C Fields, “Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. If it is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill” then it needs be at the centre of our attention when recruiting into our businesses.



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