Mythbusting: in recruitment, eligibility does not mean suitability

Posted 05 April 2011 by

A frustrated client once talked to me about trying to retain candidates for key roles.

"Every single candidate on the shortlist for the position was eligible for the job," he complained. "They had the right qualifications and they were clever. It was very hard to differentiate one from the other. So we always hired based on their eligibility for the role.

"A few months down the line, though, many of them ran into trouble, or even left - because they weren't suitable for the job. They were able to perform all the elements of the job, but they were not able to achieve overall."

This is a common problem. An applicant may look like the perfect candidate on paper, and have all the right experience and qualifications - but once in the role they begin to have problems, or leave because the job isn't a good fit for them. They're eligible, but not suitable.

So how on earth do you distinguish between eligibility and suitability?

The answer is: personality.

Personality makes a huge difference to how two equally eligible people may perform in the same role. It provides insight into whether someone is going to be motivated to do a job, and not just whether they are capable of doing it.

Drilling down further into the concept, in most big studies covering many different job types, two broad personality facets - Extraversion and Conscientiousness - tend to come out as predicting general performance across a wide range of jobs. In similar studies including an ability or reasoning assessment, general ability tends to show even higher predictive power than personality.

Why should this be? Well, although there are many different types of intelligence, most of those that are required for success at work are highly correlated. Therefore, when you combine these studies, a single predictor – general intelligence – consistently shines through. Personality can be just as predictive. However unlike intelligence, there is no such thing as ‘general personality’ on which you can score ‘high’ or ‘low’.

Personality is a multidimensional construct, and so in order to really know whether an individual is suited to a particular job, a detailed assessment of the job as well as the person is required. Once you know the key tasks of the role itself, you can map these to the personality characteristics that will be needed to do the job well. You need to be very clear on this before you set about finding the 'perfect' candidate.

It won’t be enough to assume that Extraversion and Conscientiousness are the characteristics most important to all jobs. This is why job analysis is so important before recruiting. Once all this is in place, you’ll find that personality questionnaires can have very good predictive power.

In my client’s experience, ability was already very well assessed by his candidates’ success at their degrees and professional qualifications; he knew they were all highly capable. Without this knowledge, ability testing would have been crucial to tell these people apart. However, given a pool a applicants who were all sufficiently clever, personality became the key differentiator of his candidates' success in his organisation.

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