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Beating the odds on staff recruitment

I recently attended a major industry conference and listened to a presentation by the HR director of a well regarded blue chip company. I was particularly interested to hear him speak, as this "stock market darling" had blossomed through the privatisation of the energy supply sector and had, by all accounts, made an extremely good fist of change management.

As I sat on the Tube on the way home, one of the speaker's phrases stuck in my mind. "We needed to realise that we must recruit people who were not just fit for the job," he said, "but who were people who had potential and reflected the sort of organisation that we wanted to become."

It's easier said than done. Recruitment is a difficult process at the best of times and I know it can be tempting, particularly at a senior level, to appoint people who "share our values" rather than run the risk of upsetting the status quo. The problem is also acute in recruitment at junior levels, where organisations tend to appoint people who perpetuate their existing beliefs - not really what is required in the fast-changing world of further education.

At Protocol Professional, we recently conducted some market research in the sector (and thank you if you were kind enough to give us your views) which produced some unexpected results in many areas. I was particularly surprised to see that 30 per cent of respondents said that their colleges used word of mouth to fill permanent staff vacancies, and 55 per cent said that word of mouth was used to fill temporary vacancies. I asked some of our clients whether this statistic sounded credible and generally the view was yes.

As managers, we underplay the importance of recruitment at our peril. The three key stages of successfully appointing new staff are: determining what we want, attracting the sort of applicants who can deliver our objectives, and then selecting the best possible fit.

How many of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we have really spent enough time thinking through exactly what skills, experiences and competencies we need for a vacant post, not just now but over the next three years? Assuming we cross that hurdle successfully, are we sure that we have taken steps to ensure that the vacancy is known to the widest group of possible applicants? Needless to say, this shouldn't just mean our friends and relations.

One college's wily HR director recently challenged us to target some specific groups of minorities in the college's catchment area. After much discussion about how to do this, our recruitment team came up with some ideas that produced a clutch of extremely good candidates and delighted the previously sceptical HR director. Exploring beyond conventional recruitment pathways can uncover hidden gems.

When it comes to the last stage - Jselection - Jmost of us think we are pretty good at forming a valid view of a candidate at an interview. Well, even the best interviewers may need a little help, as research has shown.

On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents the perfect prediction of job performance, interviews score 1, just above graphology and astrology, while psychometric testing comes in at 5.

Of course, biographical information, references and, above all, experience of working with the individual can all help to improve our chances of selecting the right person. But the odds of successful staff selection are not as high as we would like to believe. Perhaps there's scope for a bit more work there, then?

Appropriate staff selection is critical to the progress of our enterprises.

In his excellent book Good To Great, business leadership theorist Jim Collins concludes that making the transition from good to great doesn't require a high-profile manager, the latest technology, innovative change management or even a fine-tuned business strategy.

Instead, the secret has to do with people. Truly great organisations have a culture that rigorously finds and promotes disciplined people to think and act in a disciplined manner. Jim Collins' message is clear: sharpening the tools we use for selecting and recruiting staff will help remove the barriers to change and open up the route to success.

Dr Joanna Martin is managing director of Protocol Professional, which provides HRM services to the FE sector

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