Beyond “Paper” Qualifications

Mar 21, 1994

When it’s time to hire, most A/E and environmental consulting firms do a pretty good job defining their needs in terms of education, registrations, experience, and so forth. But they don’t do a good job defining the “other” requirements for the person they need to hire. No one bats a thousand, but many firms can improve their average if they approach recruitment and hiring from a different perspective. Here are some suggestions for reviewing job candidates that will increase your chances of picking a winner: Communications skills. If someone can’t even write a decent cover letter, how in the world will he or she be able to function effectively as a consulting engineer, architect, or environmental consultant? You’ve got to be able to write and speak well in this business to sell work, manage people, and put together a good deliverable. Appearance. The human resources people may have a fit about this one, but let’s face it— looks are important to success in this business. I recently had one of my clients ask me where he could find a mechanical engineer who wears $70 ties— he didn’t believe there were any! And appearance goes beyond dress— it goes to the quality of one’s briefcase, the condition of his or her car, and personal hygiene. Good grades. All factors being equal, I would hire the person who made better grades in school. This is especially true for people who haven’t been in the working world too long. What other indicator of their performance do you have? There are all kinds of exceptions, but generally speaking, the “A” students may be a little bit smarter, a little more disciplined, and a little more performance-oriented than the “B” or “C” students. No obvious failures. It would concern me if I had a job candidate who couldn’t pass the EIT exam, or someone who failed the P.E. test three times in a row, or worse, failed as marketing director in two separate companies. Why hire anyone who has a track record of failure if you can get someone who has been a success? Not too many jobs. It always concerns me when I see a candidate who has had five jobs in the last 12 years. There may be all kinds of explanations for it, but the inability to last on a job more than a year or two is a tip-off that something is wrong. Done it before. The probability of success in the job increases when the employee is a proven performer in a similar role. He or she will have more realistic expectations of the job, not to mention having learned something in the past that can be used in your firm. Not looking. When I conduct staff interviews for a management audit, I usually ask each person how he or she came to work at the company. It tells me something if everyone responded to a newspaper ad rather than being recruited away from their previous employers. People who are not looking are a lower risk than those who are either unemployed or desperate to make a change so they can escape their present job. Those not looking will only make a change when it is smart to do so— they’ve got a good job at risk. Family background. Again, this whole subject makes the H.R. people nervous, but I like to know what the family background is for anyone who will be functioning in a middle or upper level. I’ve found two types of people seem to be the most successful— those who come from a successful family where everyone is a high achiever, and those who come from a not-so-successful family that the candidate broke out of. When the person comes from a “success” background, he or she is more likely to live up to that expectation. When someone comes from a tough background, yet got through school and struggled to get ahead, hunger and fear of returning to his or her origins can be a strong motivator. Cultural fit. This is made up of a wide variety of factors— including personality, age, educational background, and where someone grew up. You can’t illegally discriminate and you don’t need everyone to be the same, but you can’t forget about how someone will fit in. I think back on one 55-year-old Texan who went to work for a predominantly Asian firm in a very liberal part of the country— he didn’t last. It reduces risk when you hire people from the local area. Strong work ethic. Give me someone who works 60 hours a week over someone who thinks they can do it in 40. That’s what one of my more successful clients calls “the extra hour advantage.” There really isn’t any substitute for hard work. And just because someone doesn’t have billable work to perform doesn’t mean there’s no need to work extra hours. That’s the time to develop standards, get organized, and sell work. Originally published 3/21/1994

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