Preventing "bad hire" days--Testing prospecitve employees before hiring them can reduce hiring mistakes

By Nancy Doucette

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series that will focus on testing, creating concise job descriptions on which to base regular performance reviews, training, and innovative compensation programs. In this first part, we'll learn from agency executives and an industry consultant about the positive results that can occur when an agency consistently tests prospective employees.

There's a saying: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there." And while the road less traveled may be exciting on a vacation trip, it can lead to a dead end if your agency's hiring practices aren't clearly mapped out.

Implementing a consistent testing policy in the agency is too often a task that doesn't get done, and the result can be a "bad hire."

Recently, Betsy Herold, director of benefits and financial services for Scirocco Financial Group, Inc., in North Bergen, New Jersey, and her colleagues interviewed six candidates in one day for a personal lines account manager position. Although interviewing that many candidates on the same day was unusual, Scirocco Group has been growing at an aggressive pace for the past five years. The agency's staff size has mushroomed from 12 people in 1997 to 35 people today. And Betsy expects the pace to continue. "This time next year, we'll have close to 50 people."

But in spite of this kind of growth, and apparently being able to find qualified people to fill the myriad positions the agency has had to fill in the last five years, those in charge of hiring at Scirocco Group still admit that "good help is hard to find"; but it's gotten a bit easier since the agency implemented a consistent testing policy.

Betsy and Executive Vice President Cecilia Driza, who share in Scirocco Group's hiring activities, credit industry consultant Virginia Bates with convincing them that a consistent testing policy would reduce the potential for "bad hires"--those folks who present impressive resumes and come across well in the interview process but who, after they're hired, for some reason don't work out. Through her consulting practice, VMB Associates, Inc., which is located in Melrose, Massachusetts, Virginia offers management, technology and marketing strategies to agencies, brokerages and carriers.

"I'm convinced there are professional interviewees out there," Cecilia quips. "They've perfected the interview process and to some extent, they've perfected the testing process," so the elemental "gut reaction" to prospective employees is still a consideration. At Scirocco Group, a candidate will be interviewed by three or four people--Betsy Herold, plus the department supervisor or manager for the position being filled, as well as Cecilia Driza and John Scirocco, the agency principals.

"Most agencies interview without a clue of what they really need within the organization--and what they need is very often what they don't have," Virginia asserts. "People tend to hire people like themselves. So the agency winds up with a bunch of people who can all do the same thing and nobody who can do the other tasks that the agency needs handled." But once the agency creates concise job descriptions against which test results can be applied, hiring activities improve.

Virginia explains that Scirocco Group uses the Omnia Profile®. It includes a two-part adjective checklist that asks candidates to choose words that describe how people at work would see them and to select words that describe how they see themselves. So when Scirocco Group administers an Omnia Profile, the results will compare the candidate's preferred behaviors to the required duties of the job. Further, the test will identify how outward looking the candidate is, how communicative the person is and how persuasive the person is--all qualities that make for a good service person, as well as a good sales person.

And when she speaks of a "sales person," Virginia isn't always speaking of an outside producer, which is why she advises her client agencies to administer the same tests to prospective account managing CSRs and producers. "The trend in the marketplace is that true service is risk management, account rounding and helping customers understand what coverages they truly do need. And at the same time, that's what sales is. The line that used to separate an account managing CSR from a producer is becoming blurred," she says.

A candidate's ethics is also an important consideration when assessing that person's qualifications. "While you want your employees to be creative, you definitely want them to be ethical," says Virginia. For the account executive or producer positions, she suggests that the interviewer offer a scenario in which a risk is doing both roofing and siding--with roofing carrying a significantly higher rate than siding. Then ask how the candidate would classify the risk. The candidate response provides the interviewer with a sense of the person's ethical behavior.

Even if the position is not insurance-based, Cecilia says she asks an ethics question of candidates for clerical or assistant positions . For instance, how they'd handle a situation where the employer over-paid them. "Their response tells you a lot," she notes.

Those face-to-face meetings, coupled with carefully researched references, and the test results ought to yield a "super star" employee, right?

"We've had several big hiring mistakes," Betsy confesses. "Instances where we didn't pay attention to the whole picture." Omnia's two checklists show the difference between an individual's "job concept" and "self concept," and the bigger the difference, the greater the likelihood that the person isn't well suited for the position. But in its evaluation of the results, Omnia will identify the areas where further investigation will help clarify whether or not a candidate would be a good fit. Omnia will even include some follow-up questions that the agency can use or offer a specific line of questioning.

Aside from the insights Omnia can glean from the candidate's responses, Betsy says she can also tell a great deal, based on how the candidate follows (or doesn't follow) the test's simple directions. In the word pairs section, the candidate is instructed to select one word that coworkers would say applies best to that individual. She reports one candidate checked every box--he was energetic and lethargic; interesting and boring. Betsy has found that if the candidate stumbles through the test, or comes to her for clarification of the test's instructions, it's an indication of some other problems that affect the person's ability to do the job.

And although candidates can complete the Omnia Profile online, Betsy says she prefers to have the individual complete a paper copy of the test so she can evaluate the person's penmanship. In positions where handwritten instructions are sometimes required, she says legibility is important.

Cecilia recalls one instance in particular where a potentially big hiring mistake was avoided because she relied on the test results even though they contradicted her "instincts." The candidate had applied for an account manager position and Cecilia was impressed enough by him that she had him take the Omnia test. "The test results were so clear," she recalls. "I'm paraphrasing, but in essence, the results were: 'This person is not a behind-the-desk person. He would be tremendous at sales.'

"Without the Profile," she continues, "I wouldn't have picked up that he didn't belong behind a desk--even if I'd spent another three hours with him. He made a nice presentation. He had enough knowledge. He'd been an account manager in his previous job ... and maybe given how he tested, that's why he wasn't happy in that position."

Cecilia called the candidate back and reported the test results to him. He said he'd love a position in sales. She offered him the sales position and says he's doing great.

At Peel & Holland Financial Group in Benton, Kentucky, Roy Riley, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, says he doesn't like to use the word "test," although the agency does test every potential employee--and has done so since Roy joined the agency 11 years ago. "It's not pass/fail," he explains. "It's more an indication of a person's natural abilities and that individual's 'striving instincts'--how they need to take action to achieve results and where they need to avoid certain actions to achieve results."

The agency has used the Omnia Profile for several years and last year implemented the Kolbe Index in preparation for the agency's reorganization. (Peel & Holland was featured as the Marketing Agency of the Month in the May 2002 issue of Rough Notes.) All 34 Peel & Holland employees took the Kolbe test in preparation for the reorganization. "I knew we were going to rearrange some of our teams that service accounts," Roy recalls. "I thought I knew where people would fit. Kolbe changed my mind in several instances."

The Kolbe System focuses on making the most of an individual's instincts and innate strengths. Kolbe research indicates that when people act according to instinct, their energy is virtually inexhaustible. In an agency setting, the Kolbe System is one remedy for firms that find they have a square peg in a round hole. (For a related story on The Kolbe System, see "The Employee Puzzle" in the September 2001 issue of Rough Notes.)

Roy refers back to the Kolbe results when he's considering moving an existing employee to another position within the agency or in the event of a productivity problem with a specific individual. "The test can give you some insight into what motivates a person," he says. "It's a management tool for me."

Since it reorganized last year, Peel & Holland holds quarterly agency meetings in which the entire staff is brought together to discuss the agency's status and direction. At the next meeting, the staff will have a chance to get better acquainted with each others' "striving instincts"--how each person creatively solves problems--as identified in the Kolbe test they all took last year. "As a group, we're going to take a look at the Kolbe results to figure out how we can communicate more effectively with each other and make better use of each other's time," Roy explains.

With respect to new hires, Roy acknowledges that testing does cost money but "if you don't test, and then hire the wrong person, by comparison, the test is pennies. The test is more of an investment--it's a tool to be sure you're making the right hiring decision."

Virginia Bates sums it up this way: "Effective hiring practices should begin with the agency evaluating each position and determining what kind of a person would fill that position best, and the kind of experience each of those people needs. If the agency does that, the interviewing is easy. The hard work is up front. The point is, too many agencies don't evaluate what they're looking for in an employee. They simply hire anyone who doesn't appear to be an unpleasant human being. And they get what they set out to get--which wasn't anything well defined.

"You have to know exactly what you want, and how to evaluate whether the candidate you're considering will be a good fit."

In Part 2 of this series, we'll delve into the process of creating concise job descriptions on which to base regular performance reviews. *

For more information:

Kolbe Corp
Web site:

The Omnia Group
Web site: