Workforce 2006

What personal characteristics make the best hire. Until recently most employers would place their bets on competency, or the command of needed skills. As we enter 2006, though, employers are looking for candidates who can not only perform defined duties but also make a real bottom-line impact.

Enter the "A" player. The "A" stands for "attitude."

The change in emphasis comes at a time when many businesses are finding revenue increases elusive, as customers hold their wallets tight in the face of an uncertain future. Employers see the performance of the A player, along with improved technology, as a way to wring more productivity out of a stable work force.

"This economy is highly competitive and all indications are that the competition will get tougher," says Bradford D. Smart, president of the consulting firm Smart & Associates, Chicago, and author of Topgrading. "A players are high performers, and any company satisfied with lessthan-high performers is vulnerable to its competition."

Just how can the A players help fatten your bottom line. Largely through the way they interact with your current customers. "There are only three ways to increase business," says Mel Kleiman, president of the Westwood, Mass.-based consulting firm Humetrics and author of Hire Tough, Manage Easy. "Two of the methods, attracting new customers and raising prices, can be problematic. But A players can help with the third: selling more to current customers."

THE A TEAM If A players can help your business, how can you go about getting them? We ran this question by Kleiman, who came up with these five questions. Answering them should get your own hiring engine on the right track:

1. Can you identify the A player job applicant?

Do you know what an A player looks like? We're not talking physical attributes here, but personality traits. "Sufficient strength and intelligence to do the job are of course vital," says Kleiman. "But much more important is attitude. Start by identifying the attitude that marks an A player. Then you will know what to look for in applicants."

Attitude encompasses everything that the candidate feels about work. Does the person view a job as more than a place to put in eight hours and collect a paycheck. Enjoy going above and beyond assigned duties. Look for ways to enhance the customer experience?

Knowing the attitudes you want is one thing, cautions Kleiman, identifying them in a proposed hire is another. Develop questions in your interview process that will reveal the real attitude of the applicant toward work.

Indeed, most employers sell themselves short by investing too little in the hiring process. It doesn't pay to have a low cost-of-hire if the resulting employees under perform. Smart warns against relying on the round-robin competency based reviews of the past. Their lack of rigor can lead to failure. "Our research shows that companies typically are disappointed in the performance of 75 percent of the people they hire," warns Smart. "Use a chronological interview that covers every job indepth — every success, every failure, every key relationship. And require that the interviewee arrange reference calls with every boss in the past 10 years."

2. Have you created an efficient work environment?

A players need to be as enthused about your workplace as you are about them. And their enthusiasm will be fueled by a business environment that has been configured in a productive way. It's vital to keep working at redesigning your operations for the greatest efficiency, because anything less will cause your A players to leave.

"If you really want to find out what steps to take to improve your workplace efficiency, ask the people who work there," suggests Don Schackne, president of Personnel Management and Administration Associates, a consulting firm in Delaware, Ohio. Schackne favors employee-attitude surveys for ferreting out the often-hidden monkey wrenches in your daily operations. "Employers are constantly surprised at the great innovative ideas they get from surveys."

The typical survey reveals productive ideas for eliminating useless tasks, changing the way some tasks are done or who does them, or simple but effective reconfigurations of the physical workspaces. "It boils down to, 'work smarter, not harder,'" says Schackne. "Look at each operation as an individual activity and ask 'What can we do to make this job easier?'" The result will be an efficient work place that attracts A players and preserves the capital required to hire them.

3. Do you have a list of why A players should go to work for you?

What makes your business a great place to work? Have your answers ready for those applicants who fill the bill. "If you don't have a list of why top players should work for you, they certainly won't have one," says Kleiman, who adds that your reasons must be unique to your business. Do you offer many opportunities to grow? Do you offer new challenges to your best performers? Is the work more interesting than at other businesses?

Try to distill your unique benefits into a memorable slogan. Kleiman gives some examples: "Come grow with us." "Come for the job, stay for the career." "Work with the best managers in the country." "Be home when your kids are home." "We work with your schedule, you don't have to work with our schedule."

4. Do you have good supervisors?

"People join companies; they leave managers," says Kleiman, who recently tracked 1,000 workers who had left their positions for other jobs.

"Less than 15 percent of them actually ended up earning more money," he reports. " The reason they quit is that they were not getting paid enough to put up with their lousy supervisors."

Don't be the employer who loses A players to the competition for similar reasons, cautions Kleiman: "Top performers want to work for A players. A players don't have to play on C teams."

5. What will you do to retain the A player?

Once you've got 'em, you want to keep 'em. Encourage the A player to stay aboard by facilitating personal growth throughout the year. "Ask each of your employees a motivational question such as 'What do you want to achieve in the next three to six months.'" suggests Schackne. Avoid mandating your own goals for the employee. "The employee who gets involved takes ownership of the goal," he says. "Then they knock themselves out to succeed."

The questions in this article should get you on your way to hiring the A players that are critical for success in the changing economic machine. Says Kleiman: "The people you hire today will determine the success of your company tomorrow."

Get More Information

Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People, by Bradford D. Smart

Hire Tough: How to Find and Hire the Best Hourly Employees, by Mel Kleiman Humetrics Press

Hiring the Best: A Manager's Guide to Effective Interviewing, by Martin Yate Adams Media Corporation

The New Labor Market

Hiring gets more selective.

THE LATEST NUMBERS from the U.S. labor department describe an economy approaching a condition of full employment that seems an echo of the late 1990s. Does it follow that employers in general are hiring and paying more?

It seems not. While the recent unemployment levels have hovered around 5 percent — last August's 4.9 was the lowest since 2001 — businesses are not beefing up their labor forces as quickly as they did back in the late 1990s when unemployment dipped as low as 3.5 percent. One reason: There is greater caution about hiring because employers remember the pain of mass layoffs as the recession kicked in in 2000.

"Even though the economy is slowly improving, I think employer cautiousness will hold for at least two more years," says Don Schackne, president of Personnel Management and Administration Associates, a consulting firm in Delaware, Ohio. "The recession of 2001 had such an impact that employers are skittish about ramping up." Layoffs, says Schackne, are more than personally wrenching: They have a real effect on the willingness of new people to join your company. "Today people are more concerned about security of jobs than they have ever been," he says.

The current decline in the unemployment rate is due less to an employer hiring binge and more to the fact that many people have either settled for jobs for which they are overqualified or have dropped out of the job-seeking pool entirely. These factors, along with the fact that technology has allowed employers to wring more productivity from their current personnel, have kept overall salary levels virtually stable for the past five years. In the hiring game that remains, employers are becoming more selective, bolstering the bottom line without significant additional investment by choosing the candidates who can improve productivity.

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