By Mickey Fineberg, PhD
What happens when – in your role as a business psychologist – you recommend a salesman for a high impact position, only to learn later that the guy has messed up in a very big way? It happened to me some years ago. Did I quit? Hell no, But I did learn a few lessons. First, here's what happened:
By 1992, I had been testing people for various jobs for 12 years. I became particularly adept at identifying top-notch salespeople for a company that sells and services material handling equipment (forklift trucks and aerial "high lift" vehicles).
We're talking about capital intensive equipment. The selling situation is extremely competitive. You need people who are aggressive, socially adept, financially savvy, and also bright enough to understand the strategic issues in capital purchasing and the role and impact of the buyer-decision makers. A sales cycle could get quite complex and take somewhere between six to 18 months, depending on the nature and numbers of vehicles required.
For several years, I was on an absolute roll, enabling my clients to select successful salespeople to enter places where they were not invited with the greatest finesse, initiate key relationships, understand the issues and players and work their way to the bottom line: the close.
Then, out of nowhere my Waterloo arrived when Dan (fictitious) showed up for testing. He appeared to be a glib, engaging and assertive man with a distinct swagger. Dan possessed the kind of physical characteristics I like to see in a capital equipment seller. He was stocky, but not too heavy, not unlike a lot of industrial buyers with whom he would be required to build rapport. The only thing that troubled me a bit was his casual attire: khakis, a white sweatshirt and a pair of black, red and white Air Jordan sneakers. Now this was around the time that casual environments were just beginning – on Fridays, at most, and certainly not Thursdays, the day of our testing appointment. Until that time, I was trained to think that such dress could mean: "I'm an under-achiever. Don't expect too much from me, 'cause if you do, I will surely disappoint you." Despite my clothes-makes-the-man concern, I resolved to stay fully objective and let my interview and the test battery inform my conclusions and recommendations.
The data ultimately painted the picture of a very bright, driven, assertive, well-organized and socially astute sales professional. He was also motivated to hunt for new relationships and to orchestrate complex sales situations. There were some moody, critical and over-aggressive tendencies, suggesting no more than a highly competitive style which under pressure, could put off the internal support people at the company. He also showed emotional aloofness and difficulties establishing genuine relationships with people, which could be a problem for a manager, but not for a seller who is a bit of a lone wolf anyway. His style and comfort with the majority of buyers would, I thought, be quite good natured, purposeful and effective.
I really relish identifying good people, and I put a lot of energy into promoting Dan for the job. Nevertheless, I also noted his downsides, but felt assured they could be managed in the best interest of sales growth and the penetration of a tough market. In reference to the dress issue, I learned that Dan had showed up for his interview with my clients in perfectly acceptable business attire. I thus viewed his clothing choice as kind of cute. Dan simply decided to dress like a slob for me, I reasoned.
My client gave heed to my recommendation and made Dan an offer. He accepted. The new salesman responded quickly to training and made a fast and productive start in the field. About two months later Dan was arrested for robbing a bank. That's when it dawned on me Dan had a strong motivation for wearing those Air Jordan's.
When my client called to apprise me of Dan's misdeed, I said: "If you could keep him out of jail, he would have made a hell of a salesperson." The client laughed. I proceeded to take responsibility for aspects of the test data that might reflect anti-social possibilities, but would normally not lead to felonious behavior. I even stood firm on Dan's other assets that led me to recommend him. I then went on to recommend future steps to avoid such a rare and embarrassing experience.
In essence, having a sense of humor, taking responsibility for the problem, saying what I would do differently to correct the situation and never blaming others or the client, helped me to weather my personal Waterloo. Yes, I continue to work as a psychologist, assessing and developing business talent. And yes, I still make mistakes. But so far – knock on wood – none of them have robbed any banks lately.
Here are some of the things I learned, and some of the answers I have provided to other HR professionals and hiring managers with whom I have shared this experience for mutual learning purposes:
1. Ditch the Guru Attitude
Some psychologists and test publishers would like to think that it is their test program or (published) tests that make the major difference in telling how a candidate will adjust to a company culture and achieve in a job. B.S.! While a potentially important factor, an off-the-shelf-test, or a well-conceived psychologist administered program, only provides 25 to 35% of the predictive information. The other three remaining factors are: interview performance (collective hiring manager impressions); education and experience; and reference information. Employers who get sucked into the guru factor tend to over-rely on testing and thus neglect their homework and scrutiny in the other areas. The result may not be people who rob banks, but more often those who rob their organizations with a negative impact on coworkers, customers or potential customers, or with other forms of counterproductive behavior.
2. Background Checks
Financial credit history and criminal background checks are important to consider. While it was discovered that Dan did not have a previous criminal record, he had declared bankruptcy more than once. Interestingly, this factor was never called to my attention, primarily because my client was over-relying on my ability to predict winners from a testing-only perspective. Most certainly, the disclosure that he had a touchy financial credit history would have provoked a revisitation of the test data and another look at our informal experiences with him.
3. Honesty Tests
The research on integrity tests has indicated an excessive rate of false positives. That is, too many people assessed as dishonest are actually honest on the job. Professionals and management personnel tend to come out as dishonest significantly more than line production, sales and service personnel. While the publishers cite studies that honesty tests are not often faked, our experiences indicate that these tests are relatively easy to manipulate. True, there are the more naïve petty thieves who admit to dishonest behavior on integrity tests thinking that they will appear more (rather than less) honest to their prospective employers. Dan, however, was not naïve and would have had any of the honesty tests for breakfast. He would have, as many other managers or professionals, come out with "moderately risky" results (at worst).
4. Reference Checking
We have found that organizations are more inconsistent with this practice because of tendencies to get only employment verification at best. We always urge our clients to do this with a guerilla attitude: in addition to HR, call bosses, peers, direct reports, suppliers and customers (as applicable). In Dan's case, I did not explore and suggest reference strategies as I often do, because Dan struck me as above average on most key data points. Again, the guru syndrome was settling in with me and my client as well. However, I should have, in hindsight, pushed harder for referencing based on his dress, overly casual style (at times) and some data that suggested over aggressiveness and emotional aloofness (difficulty establishing genuine relationships with people).
5. Gut Instincts
This is a very interesting issue for me. Looking quantitatively at a variety of aptitude, preference and personality assessments (against the demands of the job) more often supersedes gut instincts as valid predictors of job performance. Quite often, our clients respond to gut issues and have difficulty making sense out of these signs, only to have them clarified at times by our assessment information. However, back in 1992, I think I was over-reliant on quantitative assessment data and tended to be insufficiently sensitive to my feelings (gut instincts) in working with various candidates. For a lot of reasons, I have learned to integrate my instincts as a more prominent element of the assessment process. This has enabled greater precision in describing people and, most importantly, greater predictive validity for our clients. Nevertheless, objective assessment analysis typically has greater weight. For this reason, we always have one psychologist who has not worked directly with the tested individual, review and comment on test data.Print Article