Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care anything about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win. -Vince Lombardi
The blocking and tackling functions of HR are hiring, firing, and managing motivation. Each has a direct impact on human performance, and human performance is the best leverage point for improving organizational performance.
Hiring includes recruiting and screening. Recruiting brings in applicants while screening identifies who among the applicants will create the most value for the organization. Recruiters find prospects, qualify the prospects, and sell the prospects on applying for jobs. Screeners evaluate the applicants to either find a really good one or to tell the recruiter to keep recruiting. If you hear the hiring manager say, “Well, I think he’ll be OK,” your organization may be getting ready to hire a mistake.
Screening processes work best with ample numbers of qualified applicants. If you have one vacancy and one applicant, you can’t be selective; and there is no point in even having a screening process. Applicant volume is the most important performance indicator for any recruiter. Recruiters complain about this, but it is their responsibility to set the stage so hiring managers can be selective. This means at least three qualified applicants for a vacancy.
Bringing good people into the organization is the single most important function of HR. If the HR department is weak in recruiting and screening, hiring an outside company to do it for them is not the right solution. You’ll be paying twice to get one job done. Instead, rebuild your HR staff.
How will you know if you need to rebuild? Lack of management trust is the most critical indicator. Here are three other indicators:
1 TOO FEW TOP QUALITY APPLICANTS: Management should be able to be as selective as they want to be in hiring. Think back to the circumstances around past mistakes in hiring. Were there plenty of good applicants and you just make a bad decision or was it the best choice you could make from a group of unimpressive applicants?
2 YOUR HIRING PROCESS HAPPENS WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF A WRITTEN LIST OF SELECTION REQUIREMENTS: These competencies are the criteria against which you assess applicants. This is different from a position description, which lists duties and responsibilities in a job. Requirements are about the human attributes that are needed to be successful. If you don’t have a list of requirements, the decision comes down to who makes the best impression in the interview. Hiring an employee who stays with you for years can be a million dollar decision. Treat it that way.
3 A RESUME AND AN INTERVIEW ARE THE ONLY WAYS YOU HAVE TO EVALUATE APPLICANTS: Selection is about predicting the future, and to be successful, you need accurate data concerning intelligence, abilities, motivation, and personality traits. Using only a resume and interview to answer these questions is unreliable. You need objective, standardized methods to help you assess what the applicants really have to offer.
Strategies that include tests, simulations, and specifically structured interviews can measure competencies, even the “soft skills” like motivation. HR professionals may be unaware of this knowledge base and need help from someone with substantial graduate training in psychometrics to develop an accurate screening process.
If these suggestions seem to be too costly or elaborate, take a minute to consider the costs and benefits. There aren’t generally accepted accounting procedures for the value of a good employee or the costs of a poor employee, but the lost productivity, effort needed to terminate that employee, and additional time and effort needed to hire and train a replacement should be obvious.
On the benefits side, a top quality employee can deliver three to five hundred percent more productivity than a mediocre employee. The fact is, you can’t spend enough on hiring to make it a bad deal. Having an accurate hiring process is the best long-term contribution HR can make to your organization.
Firing poor performers is the quickest way to improve an organization. It will temporarily leave a hole in staffing, but combining well-targeted terminations with an accurate hiring program creates a potent force for improvement. Many executives shy away from removing the poor performers because it sounds too draconian, since we’re talking about removing employees that the organization has regarded as “acceptable.”
No hiring process is perfect and every organization has employees who are marginal performers. In addition, every organization has managers who are reluctant to fire anyone. These factors combine to create and grow a population of marginal employees. A systematic termination program is the best way to counter what becomes over time a gradual decline in average employee quality.
Your goal should be to create the best quality workforce possible, that means making an ongoing effort to remove people at the bottom and replace them with the best new hires you can find. To make this work, HR and senior management need to support line managers as they make the termination decisions. Providing “support” to managers doesn’t mean somehow making them feel good about having to fire someone. It means making sure that managers know they have their boss’s backing to make tough decisions. It also means that managers know that they can’t procrastinate about getting the job done.
For a systematic termination process to be effective, several things must happen. First, the owner, CEO, or president must own the process and lead by example. If the boss can’t do it, nobody else will. Leading by example also includes following up to make sure that the decisions have been carried out. Secondly, the process has to create an annual, unavoidable occasion to evaluate people and make decisions. Over time, the process will embed itself in your organization and become a less daunting.
Motivation is defined as “directed energy.” Without energy, nothing gets done. Without direction, nothing useful gets done. Managers can’t do anything to change employee energy. They bring that with them when they walk through the door. You may be able to temporarily energize people with a pep talk or scare them with a threat, but soon it will be back to business as usual.
Since energy can’t be changed, managers and HR are left with the “directed” part of motivation. Almost all organizations do at least an OK job of communicating direction to employees and usually call this “goal setting.” However, the difference between doing an OK job and doing a really good job is significant.
HR’s role is to provide programs and tools to help managers manage motivation. Successful programs let supervisors create rewards for employees who help accomplish organizational goals and create an exit for employees who either lack talent or choose to spend their energy doing something else.
How can you tell if HR provides the right kinds of programs and tools to help you manage motivation? There are areas to check:
1 Performance appraisal: Is your performance appraisal program the traditional kind where supervisors rate employees against a list of personality traits or competencies? If so, you need to get rid of it. Instead you should have some sort of goal setting program that points employees at the future and evaluates them based on what they achieve.
2 Compensation and benefits: Base pay and benefits are best used to attract and retain employees. Beyond that, their everyday motivational value is zero. Most organizations also have variable compensation programs to provide rewards to high performers. Variable compensation includes commissions, bonuses, profit sharing, and merit pay. If there is a clear line of sight between employee results and payout, commissions and bonuses are effective motivational tools. In fact, they are powerful enough that you need to be sure your commissions and bonuses point people in the right direction.
3 Progressive discipline: Most organizations have a progressive discipline program, but check how often it is used. No one likes to discipline an employee, so in many organizations, the program is not used other than to cover for a termination decision that has already been made. To be effective, line management has to use it to create negative consequences for counter-productive behavior. As with terminations, leadership by example is the only good method for changing how frequently and how well the program is being used.
We in HR may tend to wander away from blocking and tackling due to distractions and less important initiatives. Let’s face it, a lot of blocking and tackling is just plain hard work, and some of this work, such as termination, is emotionally difficult. It is human nature to prefer more enjoyable activities, but we must realize that HR has substantial potential to improve the performance of any organization.
“Building a practical and useful theory of goal setting and task motivation.” September 2002. American Psychologist. Vol. 57, No. 9, 705–717
Mace, C. A. (1935). “Incentives: Some experimental studies” (Report No.72). London: Industrial Health Research Board.
Dr. Gary Kaufman is the owner of the Gallatin, TN firm, Human Resources Consulting and Dr. Jon D. Hall works with HRC as a Senior HR Consultant.