The Disconnect between Actions and Words
(Judy Olian is Dean of Penn State's Smeal College of Business and a leading expert in strategic human resources management.)
One of the perennial challenges in business is the creation of organizational culture. How does a company evolve to become an Enron versus a Marriott, a Google compared to a Microsoft?
There's no doubt that leaders, symbols, and rewards play a dominant role in shaping the values and behaviors of the rest of the members of an organization. As long as a company is small, members' values and behaviors are affected through proximity to the leader. It becomes a challenge when a company grows significantly larger. One of the most important strategies to continue to reinforce a company's culture is through the hiring process, by selecting people who can perpetuate the founding traditions and core values. The caveat is that gatekeepers must zero in on the right characteristics, and select people who will fit well with the corporate values and style.
There's reason to be concerned. A study published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal in September 2003 demonstrates a disconnect between what the companies say they value, and how they hire. The lead author, Sara Rynes from the University of Iowa and her colleagues, note that even though recruiters say they aspire to hire well rounded graduates, the reality is different.
The vast majority of recruiters (78 percent) claimed that they preferred business graduates who—in addition to functional knowledge in areas like Finance and Information Systems—had behavioral training. Behavioral training covers leadership, negotiations, organizational change, consulting, or individual and team management. Recruiters asserted that the combination of the two areas of training was superior preparation for careers in their companies than functional expertise alone.
However, the study showed that when resumes were evaluated by recruiters, behavioral skills added nothing to recruiters' assessments of the graduates compared to resumes reflecting just functional expertise. Though employability ratings were conducted using constructed resumes, the point is still noteworthy. There is little connection between what recruiters say is important, and how they screen during the initial hiring process.
Business leaders also make pronouncements about the critical importance of ethics and corporate responsibility in their companies, and I believe them. However, few recruiters probe candidates about their ethical values, reactions to a variety of scenarios that pose ethical dilemmas, or expectations for contribution as corporate citizens. How, then, can these recruiters determine whether the candidate's values resonate with the corporate culture? How will they solidify the corporate ethos when the screening criteria miss critical attributes that form the culture?
Rynes and her co-authors lament recruiters' singular focus on analytical skills. They cite a popular interview guide published by Wet Feet Press. Wet Feet drills applicants in commonly asked interview questions that examine analytical capabilities like supply-demand analysis, cost-benefit analysis, and marginal-cost analysis. There is little room in the book devoted to questions about behavioral skills or ethical values because applicants are rarely questioned on these matters.
Enron's core values—announced on banners throughout the corporation—were communication, respect, integrity and excellence. As Bert Spector noted in a 2003 Organizational Dynamics article, despite these proclamations there is little evidence that they followed their own words. There was never mention of anything other than revenue generation in performance reviews, and recruiters followed suit. Hiring was mainly about assessing whether candidates demonstrated the potential to rake in the dollars.
If recruiters concentrate on candidates' analytical and quantitative skills, that's what they'll get—good number crunchers and potential rain makers. But the rest will be a crapshoot. When companies are willing to ignore social and community values, or ethics in their hiring processes, they are also sending a message to candidates and incumbents that these issues matter little, regardless of the words pasted on company billboards. And it may be a turn off for candidates who care about these values, and choose to avoid organizations that display indifference to these principles during the critical interview stage.
Building corporate culture begins at the entrance gate. Let's make sure the message reaches the gatekeepers.