Did Your Candidate Salt Before Tasting?

A famous executive reportedly used to take prospective new hires out to lunch. If the candidate salted his food before tasting it, the exective wouldn’t hire him.

This story has been attributed to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Howard Hughes and J.C. Penny among others. It’s really an urban legend, but there’s an interesting parallel between this story and what I’ve actually observed from hiring managers.

Some think they have found a similarly clever shortcut. “I won’t hire anyone who ever worked for Company X” or “I won’t hire anyone who wears loafers to an interview” or “I won’t hire someone who won’t look me in the eye when answering my questions…”

These witticisms sound clever, especially coming from a person who’s confident and believes this method works. But they lack both reliability and validity. Does the type of shoes a person wears to an interview accurately predict how they might perform in the job? I seriously doubt that any scientist would be able to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. And I’m sure, under scrutiny, we’d find that the clever manager isn’t as effective at hiring people as he or she thinks.

If I get on my scales each morning and they read 150 pounds (+/-), then the scales are said to be reliable. They provide consistent results. But if I go to my doctor, who has properly calibrated scales which tell me that I weigh 200 pounds, I’ve discovered that while my scales are reliable, they are not valid. I thought my scales were weighing me in pounds, but they’re not. Since I don’t know what unit of measure my scales are using (150 what?), they are pretty useless in helping me monitor and control my weight.

Interviews might also be reliable – we consistently hire people who have strong interviewing skills. But they can also lack validity – good interviewing skills may not be a valid predictor of success in the roles we’re hiring for.

Organizations that consistently make good hiring decisions try to increase the validity and reliability of the inputs in their decision making. Here’s what they do:
1. They ask well-designed, open-ended interview questions that offer a peak at how the prospect will behave when faced with challenges similar to what they’ll face in this job.
2. They utilize assessments that have been benchmarked to the job in advance, so they are not using intuition after-the-fact to interpret the assessment results.
3. They look at the candidate’s previous work history based on the skills that those jobs required, not on their impression of the organization that they worked for.

Good employees from Company X will likely make good employees for your company, even if you don’t respect Company X. Bad employees from the world’s most respected companies will likely be bad employees at your place, too.

Certain personality types tend to look up, down or to the side when they are thinking, rather than directly ahead. “Looking someone in the eye” may be a valid criteria when hiring an outside sales person or someone for a role that regularly interacts with the public. The behavioral profile for people who are successful in those roles tends to favor people who naturally behave that way, anyway. But is it a valid input for hiring a call center customer service rep, an accountant or a IT systems analyst? Doubtful.

So, don’t look for clever witticisms like, “did the candidate salt his lunch before tasting it?” to improve your good hire percentage. Build a system that gives you the best chance of hiring a winner based on reliable and valid inputs.

About Mark Moser

Mark Moser is the construction industry specialist for The Davidson Group, a boutique HR consulting firm. He spent over 5 years with an ENR Top 400 GC in an executive HR role. In addition to an MBA, he holds SPHR, CPBA, and CCP credentials. mark@davidsongrouphr.com (336) 314-8470 www.davidsongrouphr.com
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