Three Disciplines for Making Smarter People Decisions—Discipline #3: Accountability

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed responsibility for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”

Michael Armstrong
Former Chairman and CEO AT&T

Accountability. We have heard it discussed frequently in recent years when talking about politicians, mortgage lenders, and educators. Typically, we comment on our frustration with a perceived lack of accountability on the part of anyone and call for change. Time to “stand under the arch.”

Interestingly, I seldom hear the word “accountability” in conjunction with making people decisions. It seems in many organizations today, the leader or hiring manager is either unwilling or not asked to “stand under the arch” and be accountable for his or her selection decision. Surprising? It is when you consider that the cost of a bad hire at the manager level can easily exceed a half a million dollars. The cost of a poor hire dramatically increases when the decision involves a senior executive. Shouldn’t someone be accountable, stand under the arch, for such a decision?

How is the lack of accountability apparent? It may take many forms- abdicating the selection decision to group consensus, using psychological profile testing as the determining factor in the decision, handing the complete process over to others, most commonly HR, or simply taking a haphazard approach to staffing. But the outcome is the same: no accountability for the decision.

In many organizations, hiring managers are involving the “masses” in a selection decision. After seeing a group of colleagues meet with a number of candidates, the hiring manager tallies up the votes from a variety of interviewers and the winner is declared. Pay no mind that many of the people involved in the “voting” process possess few, if any, of the necessary skills to effectively assess talent. They may only have tangential familiarity with what is critical to success in the position. Nonetheless, here they are weighing in on a candidate that they believe is the one who should be selected.

If the group expresses a different preference than the hiring manager, the manager is most likely to go with the majority. To do otherwise might mean he would have to “stand under the arch.” And clearly we can’t have 5, 10, 20, or more people stand under the arch. What happens when a sizeable number of people weigh in on a hiring decision? In such cases, the vote often comes down to “likeability”- an important element for fit, but hardly the most important factor. Even with prepared interview assignments, the process discipline breaks down; “likeability” rules and accountability is lost.

Taking another step away from standing under the arch, some managers rely on psychological testing to determine the “correct” selection decision. When “let me see the test results” is the most important criteria in making a decision, the manager is clearly positioning himself to put the test under the arch should the decision be a poor one, in the event that matters to anyone. In this situation, not only does the manager avoid the arch himself, he can ease out of the real work of developing a thorough scorecard or job/candidate specification and a rigorous staged interview and assessment process. Personality testing certainly might provide insightful support data to the interview process, but the leader needs to personally understand the candidate as a “whole” person rather than a set of personality traits or competencies for which he has no context.

When the hiring manager abdicates the complete process from scorecard development to candidate assessment to the Human Resources function, a search firm or other third party, he is more than just disinterested in getting the right person in the job, he is ready to push anyone else he can find under the arch should it become necessary.

The haphazard approach is obvious to all – both inside and outside the organization:

• Job and candidate specifications are poorly defined/change as the search progresses
• Interview scheduling is a low priority and candidates are left guessing about timing
• Interview preparation is minimal at best and candidates often feel they are “wasting” time
• Interview feedback to the recruiter and candidate is tardy and often poorly articulated as well
• Search process continues for an inordinate amount of time without an action plan to hire an “A” player

If no one is accountable for the hire, who is accountable should the hire not work out? With a lack of clear accountability, the decision to terminate the mishire usually comes long after it should have. As a result, the costs of a poor hire continue to grow well beyond the point when they could have been somewhat minimized with a timely decision to terminate. Taking too long to terminate a poor hire further exacerbates the collateral damage caused by a bad hire including loss of customers and talented co-workers.

How to improve accountability?

• Make hiring “A” players an important scorecard priority (and acting timely on poor hires). Set expectations for the manager’s responsibility in making the selection decision. Reward a manager who effectively hires top talent for the organization.

• Establish on a talent acquisition process where the hiring manager leads from the front. From developing job and candidate specs to sourcing, screening, interviewing, assessing and making the selection, the manager should be intimately involved in each step and clearly driving the process forward.

• Insist that all hiring managers possess strong assessment skills. Educate hiring managers on the effective use of a few skilled interviewers to support candidate data collection. Put psychological testing in its proper role as an input to the assessment process. If need be, limit manager access to test profile data before he provides a complete assessment based on other data.

• Get feedback from all involved in the hiring process (including candidates and external recruiters) on the manager’s effectiveness in leading the process. Use this data to coach the hiring manager on areas for improvement going forward.

Three Disciplines for Smarter People Decisions: Create a position scorecard, establish and interview assessment process, and expect accountability. Embrace these disciplines and watch the improvement in the quality of people decisions.