The I-Opener: Earth, Wind, You’re Hired! Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Helping Small Businesses Using I-O
Vinay Patel and Steven Toaddy, Louisiana Tech University; and Thomas Toaddy Retired HR Manager
Okay, so the title of this one is a joke,1 but we should explain it briefly before we dive into the real topic here.
It rubs our sensibilities the wrong way when we hear about hiring practices that are anything but ironclad, legally defensible, and well validated. The use of unstructured interviews or clinical decision making or gut intuition, instances of nudging the results of a mechanical decision-making process if one doesn’t “like” the results, people hiring based on liking the cut of one’s jib – or, as we joked in our title, hiring based on similarities in musical preferences.2 Perhaps it rubs your sensibilities the wrong way as well.
But throwing a fully validated, ironclad selection system based on an up-to-date and thorough and appropriate work analysis at a situation like a self-employed journalist hiring a personal assistant is simply not prudent.3 In terms of time, and scalability, and (at least at present) sheer availability of expertise to execute appropriate selection practices, our party line neither does nor, we argue, should compel individuals in such circumstances to institute full scientifically based, validated selection practices. So what line would and should compel in such a situation? How can we use what our field knows to improve selection practices in these real-world situations? Indeed, whom must we compel—business owners or ourselves?
Perhaps you are rolling your eyes at this point—perhaps you are thinking, “Of course we wouldn’t suggest such practices in such circumstances; instead, we’d suggest X.” Good! That’s where we’re trying to bring everyone via this article. Let’s make sure that we know what folks’ big struggles are and that we have something to contribute in those situations, though.
Perhaps you are rolling your eyes at this point. Perhaps you are thinking, “Why would I bother trying to help people who can’t afford my typical services?” Here are three reasons:
- We want to be the go-to folks when it comes to work issues. This means being on everyone’s mind, not just the minds of the big guns.
- It is a small world—outside and inside of I-O alike. Dismiss anyone at your peril.
- If we can do good in the world, let’s, no?
So we set out upon a two-step process: First, we leaned heavily on our third author’s career’s worth of experience in HR to spin up a metaphor for what we were discussing and to guide our questions and selection of interviewees at both of the following stages. Then, we went to the individual who inspired this topic4 and who does not traditionally work with us I-O folks. We sought to capture hiring issues in terms that are understandable to us I-O folks whilst honoring the nuances of our respondent’s own language (thanks to John for doing so well in speaking both of our languages and thanks again to our third author). Then, we pulled out some focal topics and delivered these to some I-O folks with the challenge of “Hey, what can we do for this guy and others like him?” Let’s walk through those three steps in turn:
First, a Metaphor
As soon as or even before they are aware that landscaping is a deliberate, well-considered practice, most people realize that they want to have a beautifully arranged and maintained lawn/garden/ grounds.5 Such work is not easy, though—it requires both expertise and effort, and doing the job poorly will result in a displeasing, sloppily arranged mess of a yard that everyone else will immediately be able to see, eliminating the chance that the offending individual will be invited to parties in the future.6 In such a position, one has two options: learn to landscape, roll up sleeves, get to work; or hire a landscaping firm. If one(’s family?) is large enough and wealthy enough, both options are viable—task someone in the family with landscaping, or fire off some money to get someone else to come out with a whole team, to sketch out a plan, sell it to the family, and get to (and continue to get to) work. If one cannot afford either approach—for lack of time, money, and/or a lawn of adequate size to get bids from landscaping firms at all—one is kind of, as they say, hosed.7
Many of you may be scratching your heads (not just because of the use of metaphor) at this point, though—you are in this latter group, and you do have an impressive lawn, and you aren’t a landscaping expert. How did you do it? Perhaps you reached out to your local extension office or to your local master gardeners (or to a friend with similar credentials or to Internet) to furnish (counterfeit?) just the expertise that you needed to take care of your own lawn—you don’t know anything about fruit trees but you don’t care because you don’t have any, so you just asked about the maple in your front yard. Perhaps you banded together with your neighbors to pool enough lawns and thus enough work to warrant the attention of a landscaping firm.
But what about I-O services instead of landscaping? What about high-quality, effective, legally defensible hiring practices instead of an attractive lawn?
Straight to the Heart of the Matter
We gave John Davis, president of Paul Davis Automation, a ring to further discuss this topic. John’s situation has been in the back of the second author’s mind for the past several years as an example of someone whom the second author couldn’t help with all of his fancy I-O tools. After a short conversation that was totally proFRESHinal, we dove right in to the matter.
We started off by asking John how he approaches hiring in his organization. He told us that he approaches hiring in a unique way, in that he keeps a list of individuals who he has either met or found on LinkedIn whom he feels would be a good addition to his organization. When a position opens up, he goes through that list to interview them. His interviews consists of having lunch or dinner with the potential hire about 10 times, and he uses intuition to make his decisions. There are a few reasons he prefers this method over using formalized tools, and surprisingly, cost isn’t one of them; he would much rather pay to get a great hire the first time rather than going back to the drawing board.
The reason why he isn’t using formalized tools is because they’re simply a foreign concept. Being the president of a small business, he’s never had good luck with using tests for hiring. The reason being, because of the nature of the business and work, employees are almost required to do a variety of tasks that aren’t clearly categorized within one specific job. According to John, most business owners may be aware of liability and of other HR-related issues, but they are not aware or familiar with the proper I-O techniques used to hire.
We were grateful for what John shared with us—not because it bodes particularly well for the services offered by the field of I-O being of benefit to him, but because we thought that he did a great job of conveying the multiple levels of complexity associated with his position. From where John stands, tests are unavailable or incomplete, recruitment practices are deliberate but unsystematic, and he’s looking for a better way but hasn’t heard of one yet. What suggestions or comments does our field have for John? How can we make I-O services more accessible (and possibly more affordable) to the general public? Here are what a few practitioners have to say:
The Context, the Problem(s) and the Solution(s)
Our next set of interviewees helped us think about and, in some instances, reframe the problem—both the problem that John is facing and the problem that others like John face. Each of them was helpful in brushing aside the notion that we always need to do expensive, time-consuming validation work the moment that we walk into an organization (or, indeed, ever); they helped us see ways that we could provide right-sized, low-cost solutions that would add as much value as possible—as much exposure to and use of the I-O toolkit—with as few pain points as possible. These folks gave us much more information that we have room to share here, but perhaps the most valuable pieces that we can cover are captured below:
Points to Consider
From the conversations with our folks, some of the reservations we had about our field were reinforced. Each of our guests shared the same concerns about our profession, and saw it as an opportunity to fix the field rather than to just call this state of affairs a weakness. In Neil Morelli’s (head of Selection Science for The Cole Group) experience, there doesn’t seem to be any availability of I-O to small business. In fact, he says probably about 90% of small businesses haven’t even heard of I-O. Luke Simmering (Talent Solutions consultant at CEB, now Gartner) has similar experiences and says that smaller companies don’t have the same advantages that I-Os know about. So in summary, what we have here is an opportunity to benefit small companies and even help with legal vulnerability.
Why do we have this issue in the first place?
Why is I-O so largely unavailable to small businesses? Kyle Morgan (associate consultant at Aon) tells us that one of the reason our field may not be able to help is that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze; it’s expensive when it comes to the ROI. He’s not wrong; our services can add up quickly and may not be something that is affordable to small business, at least as our services are traditionally packaged and sold. Second, the marketing skills of I-Os aren’t all that impressive.8 Neil comments on how we as I-Os can do the best job when it comes to designing a selection and recruitment system but are not good when it comes to marketing—it's just not what we do. This could be another potential reason why I-O isn’t well known in the small business community. Because we now know that we are, at least currently, expensive (duh) and are terrible at marketing, why are we even bothering ourselves with this, or more importantly, why should smaller organizations even bother with I-O?
Should smaller organizations even bother with I-O?
In short—yes (you may skip to the next section). Although larger firms may not be able to provide consulting services to small organizations,9 boutique firms exist and can do just that, and they do this by providing, in some cases, different or different levels of services than larger firms provide. So yes, something can be done here. Luke says that there is always a middle ground, and our other experts also agree. Kyle thinks we can always add value or give advice. All three of our experts stress the value of having a good/credible relationship with managers in smaller organizations.10 Building credibility will help managers understand how much value we can actually add to their business. Neil says we can’t approach small businesses with our rigid I-O steps like we normally would, but we can start by incorporating something small without deviating from core I-O principles: data-driven decisions, operationalization, conceptualization, and standardization.11 From Luke’s point of view, once we get our foot in the door we can start to shape what managers do to make it more I-O. Now that we know that we can truly help small businesses, how should we start?
What CAN We Do?
Surprisingly, a lot. Without compromising on our core I-O principles and by creating that trusting and credible relationship with these businesses we can: provide better and more qualified employees, reduce adverse impact, and retain good employees. Neil says that we can do all of this by starting to speak the language of business—and not just in terms of jargon, but in terms of ROI and strategic HR and objective-oriented planning. Without this, we can be hard to understand or, worse, uninteresting and irrelevant. Next, all three of our experts agree that we should start by supplementing whatever the small organization already has with an I-O best practice. This shows them how much utility and ROI we can provide them. This helps reduce any apprehension they may have towards I-O. Essentially we are helping them take a step in the right direction by giving them proper methods.
Some issues that are relevant to small business include:
- increased turnover;
- hiring individuals that are required to do more than one job;
- ending up hiring people that aren’t cut out for the job.
Luke suggests that these businesses should start to measure competencies that touch different aspects of the jobs. Then give candidates realistic cultural expectations and job previews to help reduce turnover. However, this is a candidate’s market; managers need to make sure that they give off the best (and accurate) impression of their company. Similarly, Neil and Kyle recommend selecting employees based on competencies. Neil takes it a step further and also recommends that organizations should always link their hiring process to overall goals. Look at the organization's needs and hire based on that. I-Os should use experience and stories to motivate managers and build social capital. Once we achieve referenceability, we can paint a picture of how we were able to help someone in a similar situation. Specifically in Paul Davis Automation’s case, John is already aware of I-O—we can begin to push him a little and to translate I-O into his world. He should think strategically and look for observable, measurable business outcomes. This gets him away from the purely subjective process. As far as recruiting goes, Neil states that there could be a more holistic recruitment strategy as far as understanding and setting up a talent pipeline: setting up an employee referral program, creating ads and thinking about employer brand, and assessing current and previous employees to see what could be done better. What do we need to do on the business side for the brand? At the end of the day we can design a process that is empirical. This all happens when we step back and relate all systems to the overall goal.
However, an unaddressed problem still exists: there are more small business than are I-Os.12 How can we cater to them all? Should we just put resources out there and let folks apply them?
Should we automate?
Well, this is a complex question isn’t it? Kyle believes that encouraging small businesses to talk to us—especially if they encounter a problem that they haven’t before—is the best approach. When it comes to putting resources out there and letting folks apply them both Kyle and Neil recommend that someone with a smidge of technical training should be the ones to use and implement these tools. We can definitely productize some tools and methods, but most I-Os might have a problem with the tools not being specific enough.13 However, when small businesses approach us with these tools we can, because of the social capital we have built, customize based on their needs. Eh. This might take a bit of a cultural shift.
Now that we think that we CAN help small business but are also terrible marketers, what do we do? Luke proposed that larger consulting firms can set up a fund, similar to what we see in the government, that is specifically used to help small businesses.14 Larger companies and clients that employ these consulting firms can help contribute to this fund. Also pro bono work always helps ;).
Neil suggests that we should (a) outsource our brand awareness for I-O, dispelling some of the myths around I-O and teaching people about what it means to have science around hiring; and (b) create a community of I-Os and support groups that can be accessed by small businesses. This basically breaks down to a matchmaking game between what we can offer and what businesses need. We can start by creating a contact list of I-Os that do consulting with small business. We need some lead-generation or demand-generation system in combination with the marketing campaign. Once matches are made, I-Os can start off with small projects and then switch to a strict maintenance relationship after that.15
This particular area of applying I-O to small businesses is rich with opportunities to do some good and to help people who could really benefit from what we do. Our experts gave us a nice preview of what we can do, but it is our job as an I-O to help spread this knowledge so that the I-O brand can reach its full potential – which, in the end, serves all of us.16
1 Incidentally so is the title of this recurring column.
2 Which could be a proxy for race, sex, age, national origin, religion, &c.
4 Though, to be clear, he didn’t inspire the title of the article—John doesn’t hire people based on their musical preferences (as far as any of us are aware).
5 As a business or as an individual or whatever – it’s a metaphor.
6 At least they probably won’t sue you for an ugly lawn. Probably.
7 This is a technical landscaping term. We think.
8 Read: We’re awful at marketing.
9 Precisely how and why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but we concluded that this is, at least at present, indeed the case.
10 Well, also in larger organizations – but we’re talking about the smaller ones right now.
11 All of which can be accomplished on a shoestring budget if one is so inclined.
12 Well, okay—there are also more large businesses than there are I-Os, and we get along fine. You know what we mean.
13 Perhaps the biggest area of selection miscommunication/dissatisfaction is around the word “validity,” as in “I bought a valid test from a vendor” >_<
14 This would allow us to expand our approach so that we could do some of the more fancy and valuable but pricy I-O activities in those businesses, but we wouldn’t have to—sometimes just having a free consult (on someone else’s dime) could be great.
15 Of course, it’s not going to be this easy, there is the matter of getting people trained up to, you know, DO the things that our experts discussed—aligning I-O with business strategy and communicating that to clients, for instance.
16 I.e., humanity.