Director’s Blog 10/11/19

Director’s Blog October 11, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

Last week I talked staff retention.  This week I will discuss hiring.

Hiring is a well-explored topic within decision-making theory.  As humans our decisions are often irrational.  However, hiring lends itself to empirical analysis.  You have a series of candidates, you make a choice, and you evaluate performance.  You mix up how you make choices and see if that improves outcomes.

We know that structured interviews, that involve each candidate getting the same questions, ideally based upon a priori established job criteria, are more effective.  Implicit bias training can reduce the tendency to choose someone because they look like us.  Unfortunately, the evidence is that even a very good interview process doesn’t do a great job of predicting performance.

Occasionally I run across people that are baffled by the fact that we do not interview as part of admissions in the undergraduate research program.  I’ve been told that is “wrong”, or “unfair”, even when I point out that interviews are not predictive, and we have evidence that what we do works.  Our longitudinal data, including assessment of outcomes of participants demographically matched to applicants who didn’t participate, shows we are very successful.

What is predictive?  The best predictor of job performance is job performance. Even before we get to advertising a job, we watch performance of individuals in other relevant organizations, locally and nationally, encouraging strong performers to apply when we have an opening.  I look at resumes to see what people have done and use interviews to see if I can figure out the impacts they had in those positions.  We have also asked people to perform tasks that mimic work, such as writing a press release around science.  If we don’t give applicants a deadline, we can look to see whether they ask for one, or better yet, figure it out on their own.

Hiring or promoting from within can be advantageous, not only because they know the organization, but because we can evaluate performance in a relevant context, including our capacity to position them to be effective within our team.  As a small organization we have limited opportunities for internal hires.  Sometimes we can evaluate people on the basis of seasonal, contract, or part-time work they do for us.

Each hiring process is unique. How limited is the skill set we need, especially given our geographic and benefit limitations?  How critical is the position?  Do we have individuals that have already demonstrated strong performance within RMBL, broadly defined?  What is the urgency?  We do our best to integrate best practices.  It’s clear how to reduce implicit bias in interviews, but as we put less emphasis on interviews, and try to be more creative in our approach, we have fewer guideposts.

I will also be honest in that when I appoint people to director committees, I go through the same process, using direct observation and analyses from multiple people.  Do people make meetings or respond on reasonable timeframes?  Since effective decision-making involves understanding constraints and focusing on leverage points, do they ask good questions?  Once a decision is made, are they effective at building alignment beyond a small circle of friends?  Are they demonstrating growth?  Performance is critical when it involves chairing a committee core to RMBL’s functioning, but committees can also a learning opportunity, and learning involves not always getting it right.

Please send me your thoughts and ideas.  We are always analyzing our decisions.  We also try to shorten the learning curve by learning from others.  Thanks to long-time RMBL supporter John Norton for keeping me abreast of corporate best practices, RMBL COO Kelly Sudderth for the wisdom and experience she has brought to RMBL, and more recent RMBL community member Emily Snow for sharing her learning and experience.

More Reading:  I particularly like the passage on when intuition is, and is not, helpful in decision-making.