How To Respond in Reference Checks

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a placement firm checking references for a prior employee.  This individual didn’t leave here on the best of terms so I had a bit of trepidation about what the recruiter would ask me and how I should answer her inquiries.  Of course, the lawyers were telling us “name, rank and employment dates” as the standard response.  But recent case law has found that employers who pass along their unsatisfactory employees to others with glowing recommendations and misrepresent the real facts could open themselves to liable from the new employer.

I always try to be honest with these requests, but to watch what I say with care.  I am open in sharing the strengths of the individual and in offering examples of positive business contributions the individual made to the organization.  When asked about the individual’s weak areas, I also try to be open, but I rarely offer examples, even when pressed.

The other thing we do here at ECI is to prepare an exit letter that states what we will say about the individual when other employers call for references.  In this way, we have some documentation to use in the process and are more likely to stick with the facts of the matter when someone calls to check references.

More often than not, my own experience is that people want to do well at their work.  The reason they fail is more of a mismatch issue, either with the work group to which the person is assigned, to his or her manager or to the company.  Often employees expect and need certain things to do their jobs effectively and the company cannot consistently supply the things the person needs.

For example, some individuals believe that they will soon become managers, since we are a smaller employer.  So, they work hard and hope they will soon be promoted.  We tend to be very clear about the fact that we are a very flat organization and your promotion will probably be more like “you get to work on more complex accounts and larger projects,” but people don’t usually hear that part.  Sometimes a person takes on a role in the organization, and they get stuck in that box for the whole time they are in their career with you.  A lot of this has to do with a perception of the individual and people’s prior experiences which tend to color the actual assessment of the person’s real skills and capabilities…or in the alternative, the individual may have a blind spot he/she is unable to accept.

For others, they want to work independently and to provide to the client what they believe is best for them, regardless of the company’s philosophy or business approach.  The problem with that one is that there is generally a history with a client and as a consulting firm, you’re probably best off in approaching the client in they way they are accustomed, rather than frequently trying new strategies or systems.  Their knowledge of how you work is probably why they hired your company in the first place.

I was lucky this time.  I was able to talk about the prior employee in a favorable way, because the employee does have many fine qualities and made a positive contribution to our company.   If I had been the placement counselor, I think I might have asked a couple more pointed questions to see what I could find out.  Silence is as strong a predictor as an in-depth answer at times.

The next time I hire, however, I am going to look into Skill Survey.  This is an online application where potential employers ask the candidate to provide work references and contact information for prior employers of the candidate.  Each prior employer is asked to complete an online confidential questionnaire and to rate the candidate on key work areas.  The responses are all rolled up for the employee and you get to see what others have to say about the individual’s prior work experience in a nicely presented report.  Apparently, the response rate is very high on this application and the information yielded is far superior to what you can get doing a phone check.

And the big advantage is I don’t have to answer those phone calls anymore.


Creating Selection Standards

We recently had a team discussion over whether a company with 50 or less employees and no government contracts needed to abide by OFCCP, EEO and Uniform Guidelines in its hiring criteria.  Who must comply and which federal guidelines should these clients follow in developing their selection standards?  You might be interested in this discussion, if you are developing selection standards for your company, or haven’t reviewed yours recently.  There are a variety of guidelines, legislation, and case law out there you should know about and some new issues that have been raised because of all the web sites offering candidates and employers the opportunity to find one another.

The first question is “Which program are you talking about?”   EEO and affirmative action?  Uniform Guidelines for Selection or the OFCCP?   And who needs to comply?  Are their organizational size limitations, government contracts needed to require compliance, or other things that are of importance?  Here are some citations for your reference that may help to answer, or confuse, you  on the matter.

  1. OFCCP: “The Executive Order prohibits federal contractors and federally-assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year, from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Executive Order also requires Government contractors to take affirmative action to insure that equal opportunity is provided in all aspects of their employment.”
  2. EEO Guidelines: Each Government contractor with 50 or more employees and $50,000 or more in government contracts is required to develop a written affirmative action program (AAP) for each of its establishments. This section also requires annual tracking and reporting of data about candidates being selected, promoted or released.
  3. Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection Procedures: The Guidelines cover all employers with 15 or more employees. They also apply to government contractors and subcontractors.  The Guidelines establish procedures for instituting all tests, selection processes and inventories used to make hiring decisions.

So the short answer is, if you have 15 or more employees, then you had better take a look at your selection process to ensure that it does not discriminate against protected classes and that you gather sufficient information in interviews, tests or inventories, reference checks, background screens or other procedures to avoid falling awry of the 4/5ths Rule.

The 4/5ths Rule is part of the EEO Guidelines and says that no selection procedure may screen out individuals within protected classes at a rate of 80% of the rate at which it screens out the unprotected classes.

In my mind, here are the points to look at:
  1. Does your company have more than 15 employees?  If so, then you must comply with the Uniform Guidelines and be sure to remember the 4/5ths Rule.  No government contracts mean you don’t need to worry about instituting the affirmative action plan just yet.  If you have $10K in government contracts, however, then you need to write the affirmative action plan and institute it.
  2. Does your company have over 50 employees and $50K in government contracts?  If so, then you must comply with the Uniform Guidelines as above and also take action to institute an affirmative action program, including the written affirmative action policy and annual reporting.
  3. Does your company have contracts with the government that yield $10K or more per year?  If so, then you must prepare and institute a written affirmative action policy.
  4. Does your company use the internet to advertise your openings and gather resumes?  If so, then the newest OFCCP guidelines say you need to be soliciting information on race, gender, age, and ethnicity.  Your applicants get to decide whether they will provide the information, but you need to ask for it.  Also, it is a very good idea to respond electronically to every individual who submits interest in your position and ask them to verify that they are in fact interested.  A good practice is to ask them to return additional information to you.  Lack of a response documents that they are not an active candidate for your consideration.

At the end of the day, rather than try to distinguish your accountability in devising selection criteria on your own, and what information you should be tracking, ask your company attorney to advise you.  And once you have your selection process in place, have your attorney review it and take his or her advice on how to improve it.  Business is tough enough these days without having to deal with a claim arising out of any of these laws, guidelines or agencies.

How To Achieve HR Department of the Year

A few days ago, some of the folks at ECI were invited by a client to attend an HR Department of the Year awards dinner.  We knew that our client and his wonderful team of Recruitment and Talent Management Staff was in the running for this prestigious award.  Annually, companies apply and compete in a variety of categories, such as Staffing, Compensation and Benefits, etc., for this award which is given by HR Executive magazine.

This was the first time we had heard about this award program, although now that we have been looking into it, we see that it has been in place for several years.  Our client is quite unique in the staffing arena, since he heads up the Talent Acquisition function within a recognized pharmaceutical company.  The things that he does differently are what I am nearly positive helped them to win the award.  Here’s my view on how they won.

  1. His team is highly responsive and customer focused.  They work hard to deliver what their hiring managers need to enhance the quality of staff, while continually working to improve results.
  2. He is a great manager.  He is able to look at the potential of his staff, to see their strengths and capitalize on their strengths, rather than worry about their weaknesses.  He provides good positive feedback, and plenty of it.
  3. He has identified a number of vendors who buy into his philosophy and serve as an integral part of his team to deliver what he wants, how he wants it.  He sets high expectations for his vendors, but is very open with them and in turn, his vendors do backflips for him.  These vendors all work collaboratively together as well.   They have learned to know one another and regularly talk to one another.  They often have mutual clients, outside of our customer.
  4. He is great at planting the seeds and tending them until they grow.  When he has an idea, he starts talking with people about it.  He engages them in the notion and eventually, through persistence, gets them to agree to following him where he leads.
  5. People in his organization see him as a leader, one who produces positive results and one who leads, rather than a supporter.  This is an important differentiator.  HR is not viewed as the gatekeeper, nor does his team have the reputation for telling people what they cannot do.  Rather, he helps his internal customers see the benefits of doing things his way and what results they can achieve by working with him.
  6. He has worked hard to brand his Talent Acquisition approach with clear thinking and strategy.  As such, he draws people from arenas where they are most likely to be a good match to his company.
  7. He answers the phone himself.  He recently told us that if you don’t answer the phone and talk to people, you probably won’t know what’s going on in the marketplace or what the possibilities are.

We are very proud of his team and that our client won this award.  We’re enjoying it vicariously.

Answering Behavioral Event Interview Questions

One of the most frequent searches that leads to our website is “How do you answer Behavioral Event Interview questions?”  Or more often, “How do you answer ECI interview questions?”   For those of you who are in the job market, and it seems like there are a huge number of people looking for work these days, here are some tips from a firm who provides such questions to potential employers.

Before you go to your interview session, take time to think through your own key experiences and success stories.  What are the situations where you personally achieved outstanding results?  What did you do specifically to achieve the outstanding result?  What was the benefit of your efforts to the company and to your own personal growth?  This is the fundamental structure of behavioral event interview questions.

A good interviewer will be able to probe into your answers and check on the validity and sincerity of your responses to the questions.  What employers want to confirm by using behavioral event interview questions is that you have the experience (real, actual, accomplishments and knowledge) that you said you had in your resume and in your application.  Employers are verifying the presence or absence of the key skills and competencies that are required for success in the role.  It is an expensive proposition to bring people into an organization these day, so the better the selection process, the better the results after hire.

Some things you definitely don’t want to do in the interview:

1.  make up a story – this is big trouble and you will get yourself into a jamb with an experienced interviewer using a Behavioral Event Interview process who knows what he/she is doing

2.  stick with one or two examples of your experiences and continually end up going back to these as you answer questions. This shows that you have limited experience or knowledge and that you cannot talk intelligently or in-depth around a particular subject

3.  use the proverbially “we”  “my team”  “I should, I would, I could have” examples.  These are also dead give-aways that you don’t have the experience.

4.  fail to answer the question.  Don’t bother providing another answer to a question or avoid answering the question.  If you don’t have an answer, admit that you don’t have an answer.  However, if you have more than 2 such responses, you might really not be a good match to the position for which you are being considered.

5.  try to take over the interview by answering the question with another question.  Well trained interviewers will find this arrogant or condescending if done too frankly and with persistence.  Your best day is when a poor interviewer starts gabbing about his world and the company and how wonderful he/she thinks it is.  In those cases, nod and smile and definitely ask more questions to keep him/her going.  If his/her ego is that big, they deserve to hire you, even if they don’t know about who you are!  This happens much more frequently than you might imagine.

Things you should do:

1.  Be honest and open about your prior experiences, without complaining.  Do not, however, demonstrate a poor attitude about your most hated boss or colleague, your worst nightmare job, what you can’t stand about your current or past company.  If you offer these responses, we don’t want someone with a poor attitude, so regardless of you skill set, better interviewers will not move you forward in the process.

2.  Stick with business.  Answer the questions without going on and on.  Don’t start talking about personal information, relationships with people, who you know or your off-time activities.  This is not something that should be discussed in an interview anyway.  And if I, as the interviewer, don’t know who you do, who cares.

3.  Be polite and professional.  Do not interrupt or tell jokes.  Dress appropriately for the interview and clean yourself up.  Get your hair cut or styled in a more traditional manner.  Nothing worse than going to an interview with heavy perfume, bad breath, body odor or other issues that people could find offensive.  Fine if you have tattoos and piercings.  That’s your business, but do we need to see all of them during the interview?  Match your persona to the company environment into which you wish to gain employment. That’s your best bet.  If people see that you fit, you are 30% of the way in the door.

4.  Make sure your resume and application are accurate and that they clearly reflect your skills, experiences, and accomplishments – embroidering your actual experiences and adding in some accomplishments you might not have achieved can be red flags.  If you get caught, which you might in the interview, you will be knocked out of the process.  If the employer checks references, as more are doing these days, you will have problems.  Something like over 50% of people’s resumes cover up employment gaps, include errors or downright misinformation these days.

5.  Have prepared 4 or 5 really good questions about the company you would like to know more on.  DO NOT ask about salary until you get down to the later stages of the interview process and let the interviewer be the one to bring it up.  Wait until you get down to the top candidacy stage to  negotiate.  Your research should be able to tell you what the employer pays for people in similar roles.

That’s it.  Getting a new job requires persistence and a lot of activity.  Be sure to load your pipeline with at least 10 or more possibilities each month and keep that many prospects in your pipeline until you get hired.  Having that many options is what it will take these days to get yourself hired.  Good luck and happy interviewing.

Are You Downsizing or Maximizing?

Turbulent times cause companies a lot of problems, and sometimes opportunities.  One question our clients ask is how to staff the current operation to support the business, without cutting out so much muscle that you lose the ability to grow or improve your profitability.  There is a break point in that discussion and the answers depend upon what your end objective is.

We’re used to seeing nearly annual reorganization by our clients in the pharmaceutical sector.  The reasons behind this are related as much to the need to show a positive return on the balance sheet as they are to addressing shifting market needs.  I believe that some companies continually refine the quality of the sales force, for example, by doing a nearly annual lay-off to avoid having to dismiss staff for cause and taking the chance that they will be sued for wrongful discharge.  But, hey, I get it.  The average time to run someone through the discharge process is about 9 months.  That is a long time to wait in a turbulent business environment to make a change and correct a performance problem.

So if your end objective is to enhance the quality of your workforce, then perhaps consider the lay-off method to clean house.  If you choose this method, be sure that the criteria you use to do your lay-off is based on organizational need, and not personal preferences for various individuals.  While I am very concerned about age discrimination, I think seniority is poor criteria to use for the lay-off benchmark.  It is easy to use and a very clean method, but it may not help you to prepare for the future, based on your future vision, or enable you to maximize productivity in the current environment.  On the other hand, your older employees have a lot of knowledge and experience.  They can be a great source of advice and counsel on what to try, what has worked in the past, and what to avoid to weather the storm.  So you will need to weigh both sides of this logic as you make your decisions in the final analysis.

If you are moving in a new direction or perhaps seeking merger and acquisition opportunities in the marketplace, you’ll want to focus on enhancing productivity of your workforce as much as you can and increasing your profitability.  But again, don’t start with the names of the people and pick your favorite people.  Start with the goals and objectives and your strategic plan for the future.  Be sure to review this plan carefully with current market conditions in mind.  You probably won’t have the resources you might have had 3 or 4 years ago for development, resources or marketing.  So staff to achieve that new plan, given the available resources you do know you have.

In tough times, it is a lot less expensive and more profitable to sell new products to existing customers than it is to generate new customers.   The proviso here, however, is that your new strategic plan needs to be aligned with the opportunities and needs of your existing customer base.  If not, then you will need to identify your less profitable customers, downsize them, and put your resources toward developing new business in new channels who will help achieve your plan.

The whole point in solving the impact of the turbulent market on your organization is that we need to evaluate what resources we have, time, money, people and opportunities.  Next, we need a specific idea of what we want to build that will take advantage of the opportunities which will emerge in the changing economic conditions.  Then, we think about organizational structure to support the idea.  And last, we assess the people, based on the criteria needed to achieve the new idea.

And be prepared.  Sometimes, your top performers may not fit your new model.  But with a clear understanding of the skills, knowledge and abilities you do need, you can staff to achieve those needs, even in a turbulent marketplace.

How Do You Build A Competency System? continued….

A critical aspect of constructing a Competency System is whether you have someone on site who can champion for the cause.  If your company is smaller in size, and you have an HR professional who understands the rudiments of competency construction, you may be able to create the system yourself with a bit of help from friends.  There are several good websites that offer pre-made competencies to use.  The good part of these systems is that they are very quick to implement and your performance management process is generally housed in a single database on the site you choose.  The downside is that the provider has your data and you may be forced to enter a lot of information about your company and your employees.  If you can live with the approach and the content they provide, this may be your best plan of action.  Some of these sites also enable you to input your own descriptors, and give you a good deal of flexibility in accessing developmental resources and ready-made tools to support the process.  Some providers even have seminars where people can take classes in competency system development for a fairly inexpensive cost.

If your organization is larger and more complex, then you really should be thinking about conducting a study process in order to identify the factors that differentiate high performance in your organization.  The best decisions are based on objective and valid information.

Avoid putting people in a room and working with a facilitator who asks you what means success.  Your chances of drafting an effective model are significantly reduced with this methodology and you will probably spend a lot of money for the consultant.  One size does not fit all where Competency Systems are concerned, particularly within the larger organization.  You’ll need a system that aligns to your culture.

ECI uses a multi-staged process for gathering the information upon which to build competency systems.  The process includes behavioral assessment, using a valid and reliable instrument, job analysis in the field, an employee survey, leadership interviews and sometimes customer feedback.  By correlating this data base of responses to actual performance on the job, statistically valid factors are identified upon which to construct the content of the system.  Visit the ECI website for more information about this process and to download our Competency White Paper.

We also recommend that you put together a task force made up of people at a high enough level in the organization to make decisions around process and content.  This aspect also enables you to gain some buy-in at the grass roots level and to enhance uptake, once the system is designed.  Most assuredly, you’ll need a consultant to work with your task force so that you keep the team focused on getting the work completed and implemented.  Don’t offer this assignment to your interns, however, since you need people who have experience in managing others and in making decisions at upper levels.

Having good up-to-date job descriptions can be a real benefit when you are constructing a Competency System for a lot of reasons.  First, you can use these documents to identify common behaviors that people have to demonstrate to be successful in your company.  Also, the technical aspects of the role can be described in the job description, thereby reducing complexity in your models.

Leader support is essential for the success of your Competency System.  We have worked with companies whose sales leaders have said….”Frankly, I don’t care how they bring in the business.  As far as I am concerned, if they close it and achieve their goals, I really am not going to lower their performance rating based on some competency system.”  If this is a fair representation of your organization, then you have some work to do before you even begin to build your system.  Otherwise, you are wasting time and resources to build a system that will find itself a binder on the shelf.

In cases where leadership support is lacking, determine what problems are being encountered in the marketplace and with your teams that would be addressed through the implementation of a Competency System.  You may need to champion for the cause for awhile before you actually begin to build the system in order to gain that essential leadership support.  If leaders are not willing to participate at a basic level and do not see the value in the system, your chances of success are seriously reduced.

Budget is something you can work around.  If you have a very large organization, you may need to put together an HR team to lay out a plan and then approach the process over a period of 2 or more years.  Begin by building the models and getting people to use them for selection or for developmental purposes.  Then add on another talent management process, such as performance reviews.  Continue to add new processes year by year until the whole Talent Management process has been developed and is cohesively working together on the foundation of your Competency System.

If you have a small organization, then your most cost effective strategy would be to learn more about competencies and know what type system you wish to build.  Next, collect some information from your employees through surveys and through conducting job analysis.  Look for trends in the information you gathered upon which to construct your models.  Last, put together the task force (including one or more of those leaders we talked about) to develop the tools you will use to install the system.  This way, you gain some buy-in from people and a basic understanding of how the system can work.

There are as many good competency systems in use as there are bad.  Some basic principles of devising good Competency Systems are:

  1. Involve people in providing input on what means success in your organization.  You make better decisions on the basis of facts.
  2. Match your system to the preferred style of your organization – simple or detailed, depending upon what people seem to prefer.  Notice, I did not say “complex.”
  3. Make sure your system is simple enough to be easily understood by users.  Avoid having 20 or 30 dimensions with multiple descriptors.  Better to have 5-7 per job family, and incorporate the key factors beneath the dimensions.
  4. Gain leader support before you begin.  If you fail to gain the support of leaders, the system will fail.
  5. Make sure all parts of your Competency System tools are linked to the common base of dimensions and definitions.
  6. Have good job descriptions.  These can help to support your system and give you many more design options.

If you would like more information about ECI’s competency systems, please give us a call at (908) 806-3444 or click here to visit our website.  We’d be happy to offer a recommended strategy to help you build your system.

How Do You Build a Competency System?

A lot of the people who visit our website want to know the answer to the question “How do you build a competency system?”  And of course the answer is, “It depends.”  The things that determine how to approach building a system are really pretty simple:

  1. How many people are in your organization?     100 or less, 200 – 5000,  over 5000
  2. How many common job groups do you have?   Under 15, Between 15 and 50, Many more than 50
  3. How unique is your company and the work you do?   Not unique, Somewhat, Very unique
  4. What type of systems does your company prefer?    Simple, Somewhat detailed, Detailed
  5. Do you have people on staff who can champion for the development of the system?    Yes        No
  6. Do you have good job descriptions for every role?     Yes        No
  7. Can you gain leaders’ support for this program easily?     Yes       No
  8. How much do you have for a budget for the work?   Nothing, A little, Have funding

Let’s start with the first question…how big is your organization.  If you have less than 500 people, you are probably better off with a very simple system that has organizational competencies, centered around the values you expect people to demonstrate as they interact with one another and your customers.  Then use well constructed, functional job descriptions to behaviorally describe the technical skills and abilities expected in each job title.  This system works well when you have a number of job titles and not enough people to establish a real baseline of what differentiates high performance in a distinct role.  You can, however, identify and study what behaviors are found in high performers by rolling populations up into job families or job groups.  (Leaders, Associates, Supporting Roles)

If you have more than 500 people, or one population that encompasses a large part of your workforce, you can incorporate technical skills and abilities within a single model for specific jobs or job groups.  For example, in a pharmaceutical sales company where many people are focused in field sales work, you could devise a distinct family of models for the sales team.  Model 1 would be for Sales Representatives, Model 2 would be for District Managers and Model 3 would be for Regional Leaders.  These three models would be related to one another through the use of a single set of dimensions, with the performance factors, or behavioral descriptors for each dimension,  differing at the job level.  In this way, a continuum is established.  Selection processes, career planning and other talent management processes which rely on the competency model become more targeted and easier for users to understand.

On to question 2 – How many job groups do you have?  If you have many job groups, in which the jobs within the job group are quite distinct, then you are better off reverting to the model described above of using cultural competencies working side by side with a behavioral job description.  This gives cohesion to the system, while enabling people to see themselves within the models for developmental purposes.  If you have only a few job groups, then you are better off preparing a model for each job group, leveled by the various positions present within the group, such as described above for our friends in the pharmaceutical company.

How unique is your company?  Most people will respond that their company is quite unique, but in reality, most companies are quite similar, particularly industry by industry.  A good way to investigate the degree of uniqueness is to go to industry websites and look for typical job descriptions.  Review these to determine how different you really are.  If you tend to be quite different from the norm, then go ahead and build a competency around your cultural dimensions, supported with good behaviorally based job descriptions that you have cast to reflect the actual job content in your positions.

What type of systems does your company prefer?  This is a good question and perhaps one of the more important considerations in developing your system.  There is no way that a company which tends to invent as it goes along will do well with a detailed system of definitions and a complex set of tools.  If your company is still growing and developing its culture and marketplace position, or if you are in a time of distinct change, then you are better off with a very simple system that defines key behaviors that everyone is expected to demonstrate.  If your company is very stable and tends to have a good deal of familiarity with performance management systems and tools, then you have a better chance of succeeding with a more detailed model.

However, our own experience with our clients over the years shows that if you want them to use it, they have to “get it” quickly and be able to remember it.  We recommend no more than 7 dimensions, each containing no more than 3 to 5 key descriptors.  This enables both managers and performers to target the things that count in the role and to focus on developing primary skills, knowledge and abilities.

Tomorrow, I will discuss how to decide whether to try to do the work yourself or hire an outside resource to build your system.  If you would like additional information about ECI’s competency systems, visit our website at and download our Competency White Paper.