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Web article: Selecting employees with competence

Getting recruitment wrong can have a huge impact in terms of costs to a firm. Bettina Alderton, an occupational psychologist at Longbridge International, explains why law firms might have been getting the recruitment method wrong and examines how the interview process can be better used to predict job performance.

2 December 2002

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The cost of a hire not only includes the recruitment fee paid to a recruitment agency, but also the salary paid to the employee, plus the additional costs of

re-recruiting the role, as well as the costs of any training and development that has been invested in the employee. With this in mind, can law firms, like other businesses, afford financially, culturally and legally to be making these mistakes, especially given the present downturn in the market? Law firms need to address their present recruitment strategies. They need to ask themselves, “What are we basing our selection decisions on?” “Are we selecting with competence, and if not, why not?”

The role of the interview

The interview is by far the most popular method of selecting individuals. Selection interviews can be conducted in many different ways, but one method that is prevalent in law firms is the unstructured interview: a general chat with the applicant and a personal judgement as to whether the individual has the necessary skills and will fit with the company and/or team. However, this is not enough information or a reliable and valid way of measuring this information. A valid assessment method has predictive validity; it has the ability to predict future job performance. Law firms need to ask themselves: “Why are we using a measure (the unstructured interview) that has been widely reported to have low predictive validity?” Surely future job performance knowledge is paramount in assessing an individual’s suitability to the role? An unstructured interview holds low predictive validity because it is used without reference to relevant job criteria and therefore lays itself open to the interviewer being able to ask the applicant questions and base their decisions on areas which are irrelevant to the job. Further the issues of bias and stereotypes have more opportunity to affect decision-making. A significant consequence of this is the increased probability of making inappropriate selection decisions and illegal direct and/or indirect discrimination under equal opportunities legislation. The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has also recently introduced new guidelines and regulations regarding recruitment practices, highlighting the urgency for professional services firms to rethink their recruitment strategies.

So what is the alternative?

Competency-based interviewing uses a structured series of questions aimed at eliciting behavioural information against specific job related competencies. According to Richard Boyatzis (1982) a competency is defined as “an underlying characteristic of an individual which is causally related to effective or superior performance”. In this instance, a competency refers to a job relevant type of behaviour. To identify relevant job behaviours a method called job analysis is used. This is a systematic and objective process of describing what a particular role or level of job involves, and what competencies are important for effective performance. A competency-based interview therefore overcomes the aforementioned problems associated with unstructured interviews: biases, unreliability and low predictive validity. With the questions being based on the objective analysis of the job, information can be gathered in the interview and then objectively rated against the competencies to give a reliable and valid measure of the applicant’s suitability for the role. Further by using the same competencies, evaluation of the assessment from the interview can be readily integrated with information from other sources, such as psychometric tests, personality questionnaires and assessment centre exercises.

Future Trends

Competencies allow organisations the opportunity to achieve a high level of consistency when recruiting staff and when also assessing performance. Whether for selection or appraisal, objectively defined competencies allow the organisation to know what good performance should look like and how to measure it. In performance management, competencies are most frequently used for reviewing performance. Competencies make significant contributions to each of the following purposes: establishing levels of performance; identifying needs for performance improvement; identifying development potential for succession. Law firms need to address, “On what basis are we making our decisions for partner selection?” Research has highlighted that less than 1% of law firms are using objective methods for this process (Longbridge/Performance Management Forum 2002). Therefore firms need to readdress not only the methods they are using to recruit but also those for succession planning and performance management.

Best Practice Law Firms

Often a critic’s view is to ask, “Why bother doing the process of job analysis?” It is clear to see that there is significant importance in using this process. The description of what a particular job role involves, and what competencies are important for effective performance, from the job analysis process is vital to the development of a best practice law firm. Not only are competencies key for structuring competency-based interviewing but they also can be used to inform a wide range of key Human Resource areas, including selection, appraisal, 360-degree feedback and development. Industry has identified the “war for talent” and the need to attract and retain top-performing individuals. However, without the use of the competencies how can law firms know what “talent” looks like, how to measure it and develop it, in today’s competitive market?

What are the costs of poor recruitment strategies to the firm?

Ifyou were to stop and consider the amount of the firm’s profit which is swallowed up through the use of poor recruitment practices, the total ‘bill’ would be significant and would make very shocking reading! For that reason, I will not be outlining this amount here, but it raises the question, “How much do you spend, as a firm on your recruitment and how much value do you get back from these methods?” If you were able to use a method which could, with much greater accuracy, predict how an individual is likely to perform within the firm, how can you not use it?

Bettina Alderton is an Occupational Psychologist at Longbridge International. She is also the Manager of the Recruitment Forum, Longbridge’s best practice group. This forum will be addressing these and other key issues in recruitment. Bettina Alderton can be contacted at

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