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Organizational Psychology – Personnel Selection

Answers the Question

How can personnel selection ensure sustainable organizational effectiveness through the acquisition of human capital

How it Began

There has been over 100 years of research, and there is a great deal of psychological understanding regarding how to best identify KSAO requirements for jobs, the development of methods to assess KSAOs and using the scores from assessments to make appropriate selection and recruitment decisions.  But by itself, this research does not ensure that selection delivers sustainable organizational effectiveness.  In 1998 Schmidt and Hunter summarized the relationships between different selection predictors such as cognitive ability and conscientiousness with job performance, but ignored the consideration of sustainable organizational effectiveness.

Personnel Selection

In 1964 McNemar called for ‘social usefulness’ that is how individual differences such as intelligence contributed to real world outcomes.  In the 1970s research by Schmidt, Hunter and colleagues led to validity generalization and meta-analysis, which had a profound effect on personnel selection and practice.  Validity generalization ended the situational-specificity hypothesis to the point that professional guideliness sucha s SIOP Principles (2003) now explicitly recognize the role of meta-analysis as a validation strategy.

In the 1980s the conceptualization and measurement of job performance, and research addressing a number of fundamental selection issues were major contributions.   Followed into the 1990s by the reemergence of personality and the validity-diversity dilemma.  Today the focus is on the performance domain, such as counterproductive work behaviours, types of predictor methods and constructs.

Key Terminology

  • Personnel selection – the process used to hire or promote individuals.
  • Human Capital - the aggregate of individual knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics. (KSAOs)
  • Knowledge Worker - employees whose primary contribution is based on ideas and information
  • Predictive Validity - the extent to which a score on a scale or test predicts scores on some criterion measure.
  • Recruitment - attracting applicants through advertising, word-of-mouth or other methods; it can be used to include the pre-screening phase of selection;
  • Selection - employment decisions made by responsible members of an organization, usually choosing between multiple candidates, and using one or more methods of candidate assessment. It can include the decision of the candidate whether to accept or reject an offer of employment made by an organization.
  • Distributive justice - whether the outcome is seen to be fair and appropriate
  • Procedural justice - whether candidates perceive the process followed to reach the outcome to be fair and whether the selection process is viewed as being job-related.
  • Interpersonal justice - whether candidates perceive that they are dealt with professionally and sensitively during the selection process
  • Informational justice - whether candidates perceive that good quality information and timely feedback is given during and after the process

In Brief

Unlike other forms of capital, human capital cannot be owned by an organization.  Individual employees can, and do, choose to withhold effort, switch jobs or still ideas and take them to a competitor.  With the advent of cross functional working and project teams, jobs are more fluid than at any other time, and once a project is completed the team disband. There is also a recognition that globalization and technology, such as the internet, has transformed the workplace, making the world flat and meaning that human capital no longer has to be in the same geographical area, exposing people to diverse cultures and languages.

Societal changes, such as an aging workforce, more diverse workforce and a global economy has increased the importance of human capital, popularized by Mckinsey in 1997 with the publication of the ‘War for Talent’

Selection is a two-way process; organizations choose employees, but employees also choose an employer. If selection is to be effective then both of these processes must be working effectively. At a human level, Martin et al. (2005) explore some of the issues which arise during the selection process for applicants, which could be seen as being under the umbrella of ‘psychological factors’ including self-esteem and stress. Their research suggests that, for unsuccessful applicants stress levels were higher and self-esteem levels lower than for successful applicants.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

There is a danger that best practice selection methods can be viewed as a panacea, or a way of guaranteeing an effective workforce. This is not the case. No selection method is perfect. The very best personnel selection methods can promise is that we can make use information gathered to make some reasonably accurate predictions about future performance. In this sense, personnel selection might be viewed as a risk management procedure that helps organisations to avoid recruiting unsuitable applicants.

Care must be taken to manage candidates’ perceptions of the selection process because they impact upon candidates’ views of the organization and the likelihood of accepting job offers. If a selection process that identifies the best candidates discourages them from accepting the job offer, it is of little use.  This issue can be minimised through the proper design and execution of selection processes.

Work performance is shaped by a huge number of factors. Two equally able employees might perform differently because one has a very competent manager, while the other has an ineffective manager. Employees may receive different levels of exposure to learning and development opportunities. Some may work in a well functioning team, while others find themselves working with colleagues who are dysfunctional or ineffective. Changes in processes and systems might make the job easier for some employees but not others. Over time, the job that the successful candidate is required will also change, possibly changing to something that the candidate is not suited for.

It is clear that organizations have a wide variety of selection tools to choose from, and must consider multiple criteria (i.e. technical qualities and candidate perceptions) when devising a selection process. If a selection method has good predictive validity for a particular job role, in a particular organisation it might be that this validity does not transfer to other organisations or other job roles. Therefore in order to establish whether a selection tool works well across different situations, meta-analysis should be used to draw general conclusions about the effectiveness of a selection tool. This type of analysis also helps to identify the particular features of a selection tool that seem best, and provide guidance on how to make it work better and those features that might harm its effectiveness.

An effective workforce is not just the product of effective selection. Depending on the roles required, work performance will be determined by different OD intervention.  For example an organisation may require highly skilled engineers in a particular niche area. Given that this role requires a rare set of skills, it will be very difficult to recruit people who already have those skills. Therefore, learning and development will be more important to achieving the desired outcome. Selection might focus on identifying the people with the potential to develop such skills. It might also be that there are some engineering tasks that are so difficult that the majority of the working population are not able to complete them, even after training. This might indicate that equipment re-design or task re-design is required, and selection would focus on identifying those with the aptitude to work with the re-designed equipment or task.

From an Organizational Development perspective it is crucial that selection processes are not considered in isolation from the organisational context, and the constraints and opportunities it presents.

Recommended Reading

  • Cook, M. (2009). Personnel selection: Adding value through people. (5th Edition). London: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Robertson, I. T., & Smith, M. (2001). Personnel selection. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 441-472.
  • Sackett, P. R., and Lievens, F. (2008). Personnel selection. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 419-450.
  • Hough, L. M., Oswald, F. L. (2000). Personnel selection: Looking towards the future – remembering the past. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 631-664.