It’s a trite mantra that every HR professional has heard at least a hundred times:
“Hire for attitude, train for skills.”
Most of those professionals have probably trotted it out themselves from time to time. But the real question is, does it really hold true all the time?
Is it truly the best advice for companies hiring to fill open positions in 2015?
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A Brief Summary of the Argument
It’s interesting how this debate has developed over the years.
Nearly every classified ad and online job posting includes some variation on the statement, “seeking experienced (whatever).” Why? It only makes sense from the company’s standpoint to locate applicants who can hit the ground running and have already been able to demonstrate a certain level of skill in the industry or job type they’re applying for.
However, many of those same ads reference “soft skills” that have little or nothing to do with experience, such as “must be a team player, willing to learn, dedicated” etc. Both the experience (technical skills) and the attitude (soft skills) are given high priority in the initial job opening ads.
The debate comes to life during the interview and hiring process.
Although the initial ads highlight soft skills and personality traits as an important part of the job applicant’s qualifications, the interview almost always focuses on technical skills and experience because it’s simply easier to discuss and judge. As a result, most applicants end up being hired based on their experience rather than their attitude, even though the HR professionals hiring them know perfectly well they’ve been told not to do so.
What Do the Numbers Show?
Studies regarding hiring methodologies and both short- and long-term new hire success have made a few facts very clear:
- Skilled and experienced employees with rotten attitudes fail quickly.
- Unskilled and inexperienced employees with excellent attitudes succeed in the long run.
These facts have proven true across industries, across social and economic boundaries, and in nearly every kind of position that requires contact with other human beings. In this kind of position – say, as a retail salesperson, a flight attendant, a customer service representative, or an accountant – the statistics are incredibly clear:
- 46 percent of new hires will fail within 18 months.
- Only 19 percent of new hires will succeed over the long term.
- Of those that don’t last, a full 89 percent lose their jobs due to something involving their attitude or personality (lack of coachability, poor emotional intelligence, poor motivation, or a bad temperament.)
- Only 11 percent of new hire failures lose their jobs due to technical incompetence.
So the moral of the story is this: if you’re hiring someone who is going to be interacting with other people on a routine basis – either internally or (especially) if they’re going to be dealing directly with your customers – you do want to follow that tried and true mantra and hire for attitude. If you find that gem of an individual whose personality and attitude meshes perfectly with your company culture and you can tell they’re going to put the very best face on your brand when working with your customers, you should hire them whether they have any idea what your company does or not.
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Case Study: Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines has enjoyed an unprecedented run as one of the most popular companies in the world to work for, and it has everything to do with the people they hire and the almost maniacal manner in which they prioritize customer service.
As you might expect, their interview process is out of the ordinary. For example, rather than a one-on-one formal discussion across a recruiter’s desk where questions like, “why do you want to work here?” making up the bulk of the festivities, an initial Southwest interview is usually a group affair where applicants are asked to develop a personal motto, or perhaps share experiences where their sense of humor helped them solve a problem.
Throughout the interview process, even once it does become more formal, the focus is quite obviously on determining an applicant’s “fit” with the fun company culture. One successful applicant described her interview experience this way:
“They do a really good job of making sure you’re comfortable so they can see the real you… a week later (after an initial interview) I got a call back and I was told I was right for Southwest, but not that particular position, so my recruiter asked if I would be interested in a different position that better suited my skills… Overall the entire experience was very laid back and friendly. Southwest doesn’t just hire for the position, they hire the person, and if they think you fit in with the culture, they will find a place for you.”
And the results?
Despite being created as a low-cost alternative to the more expensive national airlines, Southwest has grown into one of the industry leaders in domestic travel because they make the customer experience so fun and inviting, customers keep coming back for more. And that has everything to do with the kind of people they hire.
Always Hire for Attitude?
As noted earlier, the statistics are (possibly unfairly) skewed toward hiring positions that require human interaction. That’s simply because 99.9 percent of positions require some level of contact with coworkers, bosses, and/or customers. And in those cases, attitude has proven itself the more important factor in success.
But what about those admittedly rare circumstances where human interaction is only a very small part of the job? Perhaps even negligible?
For example, what about hiring freelancers to design websites, create content, or code for you? What if you only need them to be really, really good at what they do and able to get it done on time for the right price?
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The telecommuting, freelance-centric workforce is growing dramatically and communication technology is only making it easier and more economical to take advantage of this avenue for hiring as time goes on. Will the paradigm shift in favor of experience over attitude after all?
It’s possible. But this particular human being doesn’t think so.
Regardless, for now, attitude is where it’s at.