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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

how interviewers can screen out candidates who will have attendance problems

In response to a previous post from someone frustrated that her co-worker is chronically absent, one commenter asked:

If anyone has suggestions on how to screen for this issue of not-showing up for work, please let me know.

I work in a call center, most of the folks we hire know what that type of environment is. And yet we still end up terminating people on a regular basis for not showing up for work. Extremely frustrating!

As a side note, we do everything we can to make it a fun place to work and whenever we do hire we have people recommending their friends to apply so I like to think it's not the environment.

The fabulous Jamie responded:

If there is a way to screen for those who are internally rather than externally driven, I am sure AAM knows it (I certainly do not).

I do think most performance problems, including going AWOL, come down to how people approach their jobs far more than the job itself. I temped for quite a while when I was starting out - and some of those jobs were awful. But I showed up on time and did the best job I could because I wasn't doing it for them - I was doing it for me. I couldn't abide people thinking I was a slacker or incompetent, even though I would never see them again. Hire someone who will do a good job because of their own ego, and not as a favor to the company, and then at least there will be consistency.

For what it's worth, when I was on the market I would never apply to a place that claimed to be a fun place to work. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as being lax and not performance oriented - and I personally have to be in a performance oriented environment to find any job satisfaction. I'm not implying that your workplace is lax - just that the wording might be a red flag to those of us who love the days the metrics are published and loathe the birthday cakes and company picnics.

Here are my thoughts on this:

First, no hiring process is perfect. No matter how thorough your screening processes, you can't screen out attendance problems with 100% accuracy. However, there are a lot of things that you can do to minimize it:

1. Really probe for motivation in the interview. For instance, you can ask things like, "Tell me about the workplace you were most satisfied with. What made you so satisfied? What about the time you were the least satisfied?" You're looking for people who talk about getting satisfaction out of productivity and results and a feeling of accomplishment. Also, if you're really probing deeply into past work experiences (getting them to walk you through a past project in detail, with lots of questions), you're going to start getting a sense of what drives the person and how they think about work.

2. In the interview process, talk explicitly about your company's culture and values. Talk about having high standards, a strong work ethic, a commitment to results -- because some candidates will self-select out if they're not a good fit with that environment.

For instance, I'll sometimes say in phone interviews, "One thing to know about our culture is that we hold ourselves to high standards. We strive for excellence in everything we do and the work ethic here is higher than anywhere else I’ve worked -- you'll never see someone on Facebook during the day, or spending an afternoon goofing off in the kitchen. And we’re direct about addressing it when things aren’t working out. Some people absolutely love that, but it’s not for everyone."

Candidates who will fit in well with that culture become excited and more invested in the job prospect at this point, and candidates who aren’t good matches tend to reveal that through their responses or drop out on their own.

(This gets into Jamie's point about what you choose to emphasize -- candidates who respond to hearing that you have a "fun" culture may be different from candidates who respond to hearing that you have a "fast-paced, results-driven" culture.)

3. Reference checks can be extremely helpful at ferreting out this kind of thing. Aside from asking straightforward questions about attendance and reliability, find ways to make it "safe" for references to give you the truth about the candidate. For instance: "Some people are at a point in their careers where work is a top priority and they're really throwing themselves into it with enthusiasm. Other people are looking more for a 9-5 job that pays the bills, but it's not a passion for them. Both are entirely legitimate approaches. Where would you put Bob on that spectrum?"

* * * * *

Now, all that aside, addressing the call center environment question that the commenter brought up initially, I do think there are some jobs where the nature of the work means that there's just going to be a revolving door element to the staffing. Call centers are a prime example of this. You should still do the sort of screening above, and also be very transparent during the hiring process about what candidates can expect once working there, but to some extent, in call center and similar environments, this may be part of the package.

What do others think? Did you ever have an employer do an excellent job of communicating culture to you during the hiring process? How did they do it? Did you ever work in a traditionally high-turnover environment like a call center that found ways to have more staffing stability than its competitors?


Anonymous said...

Hello, OP of the comment that brought this topic up.

I wanted to clarify the 'fun' comment before that becomes a focus. Maybe I should have said 'positive' instead. We are not a balloons and cake everyday rah-rah environment. However, we do praise the positive work and do not let the negative element linger any longer than what is needed to move them out.

Call center's by their nature are somewhat of a revolving door I agree. Our current issue is a problem with chronic no-shows, to the point of 1 person, who had been in call center work for years, that we hired and she showed up for 11 days of work in the first 6 weeks.

I LOVE your interview suggestions and will definitely bring them to the table when we do our next hiring. I would also appreciate any other comments that anyone has.

Thank you!

Ask a Manager said...

OP, I wonder if you need a stricter attendance policy. When I hear someone only worked 11 days in her first six weeks, I wonder why she was still employed by week four! I hate strict attendance policies but when the work environment is one where people aren't being reliable on their own, you might need to revisit how quickly there are consequences for it. (And make it known to people at the start what that policy is.)

(You should, though, ensure that your policy won't penalize people who hit a patch of bad luck but aren't abusing the system.)

Anonymous said...

I wonder how you can screen for this in a government employment setting. Our hiring process is this: (1) a panel of peers screens written applications, (2) the top 5 or 6 are interviewed by a panel which is allowed to read 10 questions. The questions may not be restated, nor may answers be followed up on by the panel, (3) the top 2 or 3 are interviewed by prospective managers.

I ask because I'm perennially one of the peers or panel folks, and I struggle with trying to figure out who will succeed here and who will be less successful and happy.

MillenniMedia said...

OP - I am someone who loves a more results driven environment. I currently work in finance, but my first job out of college was in a call center. By allowing the person in your example to remain employed while blatantly abusing the attendance policy, you are sending two messages:

1) To the slackers, it's ok to continue to slack off, because this new guy is getting away with it and you will too.

2) To the hard workers, thanks for coming in every day! You're expected to pick up the slack for those who don't, so in order to keep up with call volume you may have to cut short your breaks or work extra hours.

The people in group #2 will not like being taken advantage of or having their customer service suffer, so they will leave. If you want to build a service center full of great people, you have to be willing to quickly weed out the low performers and recognize the best.

Make a list of the qualities that your top performers possess, and find ways to look for those during the interview process. Heck, *ask* some of your top performers what they feel they bring to the table that make them particularly skilled or efficient. They'll be flattered to know that you value their opinion, and may shed some light on attracting more people like themselves.

Justin said...

(Speaking as someone with no experience at this...)

Could you schedule interviews for a too-early time, like 7:30 am? (Or whatever passes for early in your industry.)

That could help weed out some of the undedicated candidates.

Anonymous said...

Along the issue of red flags: It doesn't excite me that a business allows people to bring their dogs to work. Indeed, that would keep me from applying at all.

Tell me, however, that you have a perfume-free, no birthdays environment (in addition to high objective documented expectations and a culture of achievement), and I am all yours.

Anonymous said...

OP here again.
The example is an extreme case. However we are hindered by only having 1 HR person, who is not very skilled or decisive and she is also in another state so she doesn't even see the impact first hand.

The person I used as an example was allowed to stay on the books for so long mostly because she was dealing with an unexpected health issue that had arisen. Until it stretched on and on without any resolution.

Trust me, I wish I could use some of the tips that I've read on this site to make the process faster in those instances where you know it's not a good fit.... but we don't have that option.

Jamie said...

MilenniMedia is right about the message and this applies to all jobs at all levels.

If for some reason slacking is tolerated then management had better make sure the workhorses are rewarded and their productivity acknowledged or you risk losing good people and ending up with nothing but dead weight.

It is one of the most frustrating things when the people who have to manage don't have the authority to hire and fire. This happens often to IT department heads (in a non-tech company) who are in charge of managing people as it relates to technology but as they aren't direct reports can't affect personnel decisions.

Jamie said...

There's an article from another site which deals with the issue of turnover

It's a very interesting read - and although it is written regarding IT it does apply globally to how tolerating poor performance hurts companies in the long run.

Ask a Manager said...

I am loving this topic!

Anonymous 1:08: Ugh, government hiring. (And ugh, government management in general.) You wrote: "The top 5 or 6 are interviewed by a panel which is allowed to read 10 questions. The questions may not be restated, nor may answers be followed up on by the panel." This is absolutely ridiculous, and also absolutely typical of government hiring. They put the policy in place to try to prevent discrimination, but they ended up with a ham-fisted "solution" that just means their hiring process will suck.

MillenniMedia: "If you want to build a service center full of great people, you have to be willing to quickly weed out the low performers and recognize the best." Amen! I also fully endorse your idea about picking the brains of the hires who did turn out to be great.

OP: You need to do something about that HR person. Tell her the new standards of performance she needs to meet, and know that you'll need to replace her with someone better if she doesn't significantly improve. But you can't resign yourself to the problem just because she currently sucks; you've got to get someone in there who will do the job well. (I don't know if you have that power, of course, but whoever does have the authority needs to do that.)

Jamie: Totally agree. There's no real management without the ability to set consequences.

Anonymous said...

Re: slackers on the job

I used to work in a blue-collar customer service environment. We had our share of attendance issues.

How did I handle it? The worst offenders worked different shifts than I. I got paid much better than they did (40%-50% better, actually) plus I got paid time-and-a-half to cover for them when they were late. So I just laughed all the way to the bank. (And the next shift's co-workers didn't really suffer, 'cause my shift would work the overtime to help them out.)

Anonymous said...

Re: Government hiring

The government hiring process is so broken it's ridiculous. When I was on the job hunt a year-and-a-half ago, I considered some government jobs. How'd the government thing work out? It didn't.

For one, the private-sector jobs ask you to write a cover letter and resume. The government? I had to answer a bunch of ambiguous KSAO questions that were written poorly. Plus, the process moves so slowly, that by the time you are ready to make an offer, the better applicants have accepted an offer elsewhere. In fact, given the process is so broken, I'd be hesitant to accept a government job with the fear that my coworkers would be ones who the private sector rejected.

Joey said...

One HR person is a recipe for disaster in a call center. They're overworked, can't do a very thorough job of hiring, and will ultimately end up with a turnover rate above 100%. In that type of environment management usually determines that they can live with all of the problems in the name of lower salary costs. Of course they don't realize the costs associated with high turnover and all of the other problems that come with it.

Anonymous said...

Most govt hiring isn't broken it's just the bureaucratic process that slows it down. I've been in both private and govt HR and really the only differences are that you have to accept that way more approvals are needed before you hire, there's a process for everything and it's not easy changing a process.

Anonymous said...

OP again,

The HR person is best buddies with the CEO and COO, and has worked for the CEO for over 10 years.
They either don't know or don't care about her performance. Let's just say that their goals are not focused on the employees, but rather only on the money they can make.

Bottom line, we are truly stuck with 1 less than adequate HR rep.

Anonymous said...

Thank you to the person who _finally_ brought up wages re: call center turnover. You are ALWAYS going to have attendance and turnover issues when you're paying $7/hour. It's just a fact of life. People will not start respecting the job until low-paying service jobs start paying living wages.

Jamie said...

Turnover due to low wages, absolutely. I don't think you necessarily have to accept attendance issues though.

There is another way to go with the call center situation - use temps to start.

I've worked several places that use temp agencies for the lower skilled positions. The cost of the labor mark-up for the agency is off-set by the savings of having pre-screened applicants and the ease with which you can let someone go if it's not working out.

You don't have to fire anyone, you just call the agency and tell them you don't want so-and-so back and they will send you someone else.

It's not fool proof - but it's an option for the high turnover jobs. Some will be diligent while working through the temp agency and then slack once they get hired permanently - but you will be able to get a feel for people before offering them a slot.

Agencies will usually negotiate their fees (both labor and sign-on) if you have significant volume.

When I temped it was in admin/tech and not labor positions, but what I loved the job shopping aspect of it. I could try out a company for a week or two and was able to reject and accept offers based on more than a gut feeling from the interview. It works the same way for employees - it's nice to be able to browse before you commit.

Anna Smith said...

Hi anonymous,
"You are ALWAYS going to have attendance and turnover issues when you're paying $7/hour. It's just a fact of life." - It sounds so sad, but sadly, it's true. We were paying workers even less than that (fast food). Would you spend 6 hours at work to get paid less than $30 after taxes if your child/dog was very sick or you had car problems and needed to walk to work? I would, but I can also see that some people would not. Plus, if you get fired from a low paying job, it's usually not that difficult to find another one. I suggest building a core team of super loyal and productive employees that will stay with you *forever*. AAM's interview tips are awesome for that! They should help build a great team over time.

Liz said...

Anything along the lines of "We have a FUN culture..." is always a red flag to me. It's a job. I just want to do it. I usually end up liking all my coworkers, but demands that I do so just isn't the way to attract me.

Also, I've noticed a high correlation between places that advertise their "fun atmosphere..." and places that are trying to make up for lower-than-standard wages and working conditions.

Also, I've worked as a temp, and we won't tell on our coworkers, but a no-show usually means:

1) Mental health challenges.

2) Drug use.

3) Interviewing for a better job, or trying to juggle schedules with a second job.

I think the first two can be screened in the interview process (within legal bounds), but the third can only be addressed by paying more. If you can't do that, you're going to have a rotating workforce, and that's just the end of the story.

Anonymous said...

There's also the other side of the coin here. Could the problem be the attitudes at the top as much as the attitudes at the bottom?

OP says about the upper management: "They either don't know or don't care about [the HR person's] performance. Let's just say that their goals are not focused on the employees, but rather only on the money they can make."

Could that be the message the employees are getting? "Management either doesn't know or doesn't care about OUR performance. Their goals are not focused on us employees, but rather only on the money we can make for them."

If so, then "praising the positive work" may be at best seen as insincere. Does "praise" translate into higher pay, better hours, benefits, skill development, career advancement, or whatever matters to the employee? Or does someone who put in the effort to show up on time receive the same effective treatment as Mr. Chronicly Tardy Underperformer? (or worse, as MillenniaMedia outlines?)

Because then the attendance issue may not be a pre-existing problem visible during the interview. It could be a reaction to the work environment. A new employee sees "put in only as much effort to not get fired" and "the threshold for attendance-related firing is very low" (e.g. 11 days in 6 weeks), and draws the logical conclusion.

Kimberlee Stiens said...

I work at a fast food place, and compared to other places I've worked (mostly in food and retail), the place I work has stunningly low turnover (well, HAD, until new owners came. But that's another story).

Here's how they did it:

1. Good benefits (you could get health insurance even if you were a regular employee working 10 hours a week)
2. Regular reviews (every six months, and you got a raise if you got a good review, even if it was a pittance)
3. We almost never ran out of product, most people got regular schedules and got to mostly work the shifts they wanted to, and each shift was fully staffed.

It really is kind of simple. To me, its about building a workplace that functions the way its supposed to. Clearly, this is not the case in OP's case. The HR person doesn't do what they're supposed to do, and managers don't seem to manage well (setting attendance policies and making sure there are consequences, positive and negative).

People generally enjoyed working where I work until the new ordering system caused us to run out of things all the time, and the miserly labor requirements of the new owners cause every shift to be short at least one person that it needs. If the workplace works, it will attract and retain people who work within it. Sure, the losers will still drop, but you'll keep the winners, and that's what matters.

Anonymous said...

OP for one last time.

Thank you all very much for the tips and suggestions.
The higher ups are in another state but those of us in management here are doing everything we can to offset the uncaring attitude from the upper mgmt folks.

I'm not sure where the low wages came in to play, but we start at over $10/hour so while not stellar pay, it's not at the $7/hour level either.

Regardless, thank you all for your time and thoughts!

Dawn said...

Hiring temps is definitely a good way to go. It does cost a little more, but can save you money in the long run. If you hire a person, you have the expense of the background checks, etc. If the temp doesn't work out, you simply get another one. This is a great way to determine if the person can do the job, has attendance issues, etc. I work for a very small community bank and some of our best employees (past and present) have come from temp agencies.

Anonymous said...

People will not start respecting the job until low-paying service jobs start paying living wages.

That is a BS argument. Either you take pride in doing a good job, whatever the job is, whether it is parking lot attendant or lifeguard, where you have to clean the bathrooms, which is not something you signed on for but it is part of the job, or you don't. It all has to do with the attitude of the worker. When you accept the job, you agree to the pay and you agree to show up.

Anonymous said...

Class are a BS republican.

Ask a Manager said...

I agree with Class Factorum, and I don't think there's anything political about it. I've seen plenty of great people give it their all at low-paying jobs, simply because they have pride in their work. Attitude plays a huge role.

(That said, I do think it's true that if you pay low wages, you need to resign yourself to having high turnover and more performance problems. Good people will eventually find better options and leave.)

Joey said...

I disagree with class facto. Sure there are a few people who take pride in absolutely every job, even the crappy ones, but they are few and far between. But most people only take pride in the jobs they like. The crappy ones are just a paycheck and are treated as such. If the ops company only has 1 HR person that is a sign that they don't think it's worth it to hire more HR staff. So they probably have made a conscious decision to live with high turnover, a crappy hiring process, and crappy employees because they think the ROI is higher. It becomes more of a known and accepted revolving door. You probably just have to decide if you can live with it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Class Factotum, too. A person who will actually open their mouth and say, "I'd try harder to do my basic job if you paid me more" is not saying anything good.

If you're going to do a job, you should do it as well as you can for as long as you're doing it.

To say that CF's attitude is "Republican" is a slam on conscientious Libertarians and Democrats everywhere.

The biggest problem with low wages is, and should be, that the best people working low-paid jobs can and will find better-paying, more responsible jobs somewhere else. Which is as it should be.

Jamie said...

I agree - that is why there is, and should be, a huge turnover with lower skilled/wage jobs. Because for those who take them seriously they're a stepping stone for better opportunities.

Those who commit to a job and feel entitled to slack off because of the low wages will likely spend a lot of time hopping from on low paying job to the next.

Anonymous said...

"People will not start respecting the job until low-paying service jobs start paying living wages."

I agree, and I feel Class Factotum has the totally wrong approach. When people are denied a living wage, they are unable to take care of their families and basic needs, which is demoralizing. Living wages should be raised, so workers can better support themselves. (Additionally, enough of Republican b.s. with the "trickle-down theory", which doesn't help workers earn decent wages; it only helps the affluent!)

Jamie said...

Wages for all jobs are set at market value at the convergence of what an employer is willing to pay and what an employee is willing to accept.

I'm sure the definition of a living wage is different for everyone - but raising salaries for low wage positions across the board isn't the answer. Raise the salaries and companies will have to make due with smaller staff - this will raise unemployment.

Companies have a finite amount of money in their operating budgets. They should certainly be paying fair wages, and if they can pay above market they will probably be able to reduce turnover by attracting and keeping the best people.

But not every position adds value equally. No company should be forced to pay more in salary than a position adds to the company. That's not sustainable

How much money you make will be largely determined by three things: How scarce your skill set (how hard are you to replace), performance/results, and ability to negotiate. If you don't have the first two the third doesn't matter.

Ask a Manager said...

I have to, once again, echo Jamie on that. Businesses aren't going to pay more than the value a position is adding to their business. And ultimately, businesses that pay low wages are making a strategic decision that they're willing to accept high turnover and more performance problems. There are many cases where that's not the best decision, but there are others where it's not unreasonable, depending on the nature of what they need people to do.

Anonymous said...

"No company should be forced to pay more in salary than a position adds to the company."

This is the fundamental difference between viewpoints here - this statement above clearly indicates a desire to put corporations, CEOs, and profits first. Others choose to put workers first.

Jamie said...

I wasn't going to post again because I don't argue politics - but I have to make one point.

It's not about caring about profits over workers, at least for me. It's just basic economics that there is a finite amount of money for operations and if you raise salaries beyond the value the position adds to the company you will soon be operating at a loss.

As operating at a loss isn't sustainable they would need to pass the costs along to customers in order to stay in business.

If this were all companies across the board this would mean all goods and services would be exponentially more expensive - so the higher wages won't buy as much and people will be in the same low income situation. It's the perfect recipe for inflation followed by a depression.

If companies can't turn a profit they will have to close. This puts everyone out of work - flooding the ranks of the unemployed isn't going to help lower skilled workers.

I, too, have compassion for people working hard for low wages. I just think the solution is for individuals to develop skills to qualify for better jobs rather than a charity increase which will have disastrous long term consequences.

I think good people of every political bent can share the goal of a living wage and quality of life - but attributing machiavellian intent to those who disagree about the methods of achieving that doesn't advance the cause.

Anonymous said...

Jamie, for the win.

I can never understand why people have it in for corporations. They're the source of JOBS. No jobs, no money, no taxes, no public services.

It's not politics: it's MATH.

Anonymous said...

Jamie, what you're arguing is that there essentially _has_ to be an oppressed lower class in order to keep goods and services cheap for the upper classes that can afford them. Contrary to your claim, that is indeed a political position.

Anonymous said...

Jamie isn't saying there has to be a lower class of employee he's saying that there will always be one.

Which is true.

Jamie said...

That is what I'm saying - that there will always be positions in companies which individually add little value so those will always be lower wage jobs.

I don't consider them lower class workers though. I know exactly how you meant it and I agree with the point you are making - but I wanted to be clear on the semantics. Any talk of class can be misinterpreted.

Ideally if you're in a lower paying position you will gain the skills needed to add more value and then earn a higher wage - making room in the low skilled/entry level positions for those new to the work force.

We all have to pay our dues. I'm making more than I was five years ago and hopefully less than I will be making in another five years.

And while I really appreciate the support from Anonymous - just to clarify I am a she, not a he. :)

Anonymous said...

Your philosophy would be fine if, say, people were assigned low-paying jobs based on age, as you imply. You start low, earn little when you don't really need much, and as your education and experience grow, you move up to living wages. I don't think anyone would have a problem with this. Trouble is, this isn't how it works; assignment to low-paying jobs isn't based on age or experience, but largely race, ethnicity, and gender, conditions that people don't "move up" from.

Anonymous said...

The last commenter said, "Your philosophy would be fine if, say, people were assigned low-paying jobs based on age, as you imply."

But that's just it: no one is *assigned* a job. We're not communists. You EARN a job, with your qualifications and background and then you KEEP the job with your good performance.

If we take the most menial jobs and require that the incumbents start at what you call a 'living wage,' that's going to make the entire system unsupportable.

No, I can't support a family working part-time at McDonald's. That's why I worked at McDonald's while I went to school and got an education so I could EARN a better-paying job. And then I kept enhancing my skills so I could get even better jobs and keep them.

No one 'assigned' me to any job, and to say otherwise is a direct slam on the time and effort required to achieve what I have.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't using "assigned" to mean "given", but more to imply "likely to end up in". Your scenario where you worked for cheap when you had less experience, then moved up to something better, is exactly the fair utopia I was outlining. But, my point was, many people in low-paying jobs do not have the opportunity to move on to better things. The whole "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philsophy only works for an individual if those above them are willing to give them a chance to move up, to acknowlege their experience, and allow them to grow. And that recognition is applied unequally in our society.

Anonymous said...

I wish call center wages were better, absolutely. I've applied to call centers paying 13.00 an hour and ones that pay 8.00. All things equal, I can almost always get the lower paying job, even though I easily meet the requirements for the better paid one (go figure, who knows what the heck they want?)

the thing is, if we harp on better pay too much, the call centers are just going to pack up their toys and--instead of going home--go to India.

I worked in a small (less than 10 people) call center for the Colorado Ballet. Base pay was 8.00 an hour but with bonuses averaged 11.00-13.00 an hour. We go on hiatus every year after the season until June. this year, I found out that the board of directors was sick of paying bonuses and outsourced our jobs to--you guessed it--India.

Makes no sense. We weren't demanding more money, and with the economy as crappy as it is, I'd have gladly given up the bonuses just to stay employed.

As much as I dislike it, I'm going to start lowballing myself when applying to call centers. Maybe I can find work again if I do.