Friday, December 16, 2011

Personality, or I Know It When I See It

A comment arrived last night in a recent thread that I think is quite revealing. It's from a commenter who appears to have been a hiring manager in the chemical industry. Their comment:
When faced with a pile of CVs, perhaps 100 or more you need to do a (very) quick weeding out, rejecting the obvious non-starters, perhaps leaving 10 or 12 for further consideration. Does anyone stand out? Either because of their relevant expertise or because they work for a competitor whose products you know, or perhaps their CV shows some spark of life which you can direct into the channels in which my company is interested. 
After thinking more about the CV's content I try to only take forward to a meeting around 4, but no more then 6, applicants. Anyone who bothers to 'phone to discuss the position and shows some genuine interest and knowledge gets an automatic invitation. 
The first meeting can be the decider. Personality is the key, all the qualifications and expertise in the World will not get you the job. Often within the first 5 minutes, or less it is obvious who will fit. As an employer I cannot have anyone on the team who will disrupt an organisation which may have taken years to build-up. Especially in laboratories situated on a manufacturing site, as most are, the 'works tour' quickly sorts out those who cannot relate to the operators in their overalls.
That's one of the more true (and more terrifying) judgments of hiring I've seen in a long time. I've had enough opportunity to meet candidates and participate in interviews enough to listen to my gut feelings. "Hey, this gal seems pretty smart" or "That dude seems like a real tool" only takes a few moments or a few questions after a handshake and/or an interview seminar. I remember seeing only one slide from a candidate recently and thinking "this person knows their stuff". (FWIW, I was proven right, too.)

But there's the rub about 'personality' or a 'good fit'; it is incredibly subjective and a potential catch-all for all sorts of erroneous non-verbal signals. I've never been a hiring manager, but if I had a bad 'gut feeling', I suppose that would be a sign to me that I needed to talk more to the candidate and ask them more questions about how they would handle certain situations or certain personalities. I suppose the same caution should be applied to a good gut feeling, too. You can't be too cautious (which is what the commenter I think was trying to say.)

Readers, do you trust "personality" to know who to hire?

Thanks to Anon121620111241a for writing in and sharing the benefit of their many years of experience. It is appreciated. 

7 comments:

  1. I have been a hiring manager and affirm the scenario is fairly typical and that generally it always does come down to "personality". Yes I trust my ability to gauge personality but recognize not 100% reliable. It is not only the personality of the candidate as also that of the manager as well as other interviewers with the overall culture and group dynamics that matter. It is indeed more subjective so important to have multiple people interact with some one even in early past CV screen stage, and although scientist can often deride HR this is a point they can be most helpful in providing an alternate perspective. Its critical to speak with references both before as might be forewarned what to expect(i.e. characterized as really shy or boisterous person) and after, especially if concerns come up (so goes without saying picking who reference are is vital). Unfortunately on occasions wrong impressions get made and hard to overcome and have seen good candidates lose out.
    CMCguy

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  2. I actually think the 'personality' test is the easiest of all. CV's can be tricky as anyone can look good on paper - but each organization has their own 'personality' and it's very easy to determine whether someone will fit in.

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  3. We've interviewed a few candidates for the place I work (a structural bio core) and I did get that 'gut feeling' with a guy I was sure was BS'ing his way. Turns out I was right and my boss was wrong. The boss was impressed by this person's pedigree, yet the guy was weird and was not easy to talk to and easily distracted. That, and other things made me suspicious. Luckily the guy was hired elsewhere. Otherwise we may have hired someone who would have been (personality-wise, at least) a terrible fit for our lab.

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  4. Working at a small company (<15 employees), "fit" is as important as skills. If any current employee has a negative feeling about the candidate it would adversely effect their candidacy.

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  5. There's no question that fit/personality is probably the most important facet of a candidate's employability.

    I worked in a small research group that had one person who everybody hated (and in return, this person hated everyone else too). The effect was staggering. The constant bad blood created a foul atmosphere in the lab that made it unpleasant to even show up, let alone do anything productive.

    When I'm evaluating candidates, you had better believe I'm wondering whether they're going to use the last of all the 1M HCl and not make more or treat MS/BS scientists worse than the PhD's.

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  6. CJ, an excellent topic. How far do “gut feeling” and personality go? I think our ability to read another person is pretty sophisticated, and indeed is evolutionarily adaptive. Goleman’s Social Intelligence is an excellent read in that regard; I really like his scholarly treatment of the subject. Blink, by Gladwell, is an entertaining read on this topic, too. A caution I would add when it comes to hiring is that the personality of the interviewer is important; one person’s gut may say something very different from another’s.

    Personality is clearly important, but there is more that should be considered. I liked what you said about asking them more how they would handle certain situations or certain personalities.

    Here are some other things to consider. Obviously, competency in the field is important, which is pretty easy for us to get at. In addition, anything you can do to shine light on his or her raw intelligence, critical reasoning power, drive, and interests is also very useful.

    And here’s another biggie: What are his or her work-related needs, i.e., what motivates this person in a work setting? There’s little a person can’t do who’s motivated. Sapienza’s excellent book, Managing Scientists:  Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research, looks at this in some detail. She classifies scientists as having natural tilt toward one of three needs: Power, achievement, or affiliation. It’s not that hard to get at this, and knowing this about a candidate helps to see if they are a fit for the job and the team. So, for example, if you want the candidate to stay at the bench and “get it done,” i.e., an achievement-motivated person, check and see if that’s their natural tilt. A person who’s more interested in advancement (power) or interacting with everyone (affiliation) or providing vision and creativity to the organization might not be the right choice.

    Another huge factor is the candidate’s character. There are good tools now for measuring character strengths, thus discovering what a person’s “home base” is, i.e., what character traits they tend to use by default. This is very useful information, especially when it comes to interpersonal interactions. Do you want a person who’s strong in diligence, patience, meticulousness, scholarliness? Or someone who’s very creative, visionary, and inspirational? Or perhaps really good with people? Or good at taking bold steps and marching things along?

    So, yes... gut feelings are useful, but they suffer from operator error, i.e., who’s having the gut feeling? And personality is important, but not sufficient. Your instinct to inquire further, talk to them, ask them how they’d handle certain situations and personalities, is right on the mark. Add to that some probing of the factors mentioned above and you’ll have your answer.

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  7. Funny. This is the same psychobabble we hear during a presidential election year.

    If you follow this advice, are you more likely to get a Carter or a Kennedy?

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