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By Francis Wade

Thursday, June 13, 2013.

In a recent column, I gave some advice to employees who are asked to do the job of one or more people in addition to their own. Demands for this kind of surplus productivity cause headaches for employees, but they signal a greater problem for companies when they see no willingness to improve, or even worse, when some workers see the request as unfair: a clear sign that something important was missing when they were selected.

Given the high cost and effort of replacing low-performers this problem can be deadly.

It’s a real challenge for Jamaican companies. Many local firms are not competitive compared with their foreign counterparts, which can sometimes do the same work with fewer people at a lower total cost.

The first gambit some Jamaican firms take avoids the human resource issue. They blame high prices on the usual suspects: devaluation, security, the recession. These excuses last for a while – until competitors’ aggressive improvements catch up and overwhelm them. By delaying employee productivity improvements they are eventually forced to close.

The ultimate solution doesn’t involve lobbying, politicking or complaining that the government isn’t doing enough. The global forces of business improvement are much bigger than any of these, and they are ultimately inescapable. Also, history has shown that Jamaicans will do anything to pay the price we believe is fair – including importing products in suitcases. We take high prices personally, and we don’t use fancy words like“price-gouging” – we simply say “dem too t’ief.”

The fact is that providers of products and services need to find ways to drive employee costs down — and productivity up, not just sometimes but always. That means they have to find ways to ask workers to do more with less. Not just once, but every single day.

A great place to start is in the way new employees are selected from a pool of candidates. When it’s done well, this process is one way to separate the rare, self-motivated employee from his/her peers.

Going Beyond Interviews

The days of hiring based on an interview alone are quickly passing. Research shows that it’s simply too easy to be swayed by externals: nice diction without dropped (or misplaced) “h’s,” a lighter shade of brown skin and attendance at the right schools. Add to that a recognizable family name: these things used to be enough to create the comfort needed for a job offer.

However, today, the recession is producing job candidates who are willing to work harder than ever before, and employers would be foolish to continue using gut instinct to make important hiring decisions. A few admit this openly, and they have adopted a best practice that has been around for some time: “assessment centres.” But the phrase is misleading – it’s not a physical location. The phrase refers to a process.

The Solution: An Assessment Centre

This complicated phrase is built around a simple principle: the best way to evaluate someone’s aptitude is to evaluate his or her ability to do select tasks. For example, a mini assessment centre to hire a gardener would test candidates’ ability to cut the lawn, trim hedges and create a new bed for your tomatoes. The candidates would know that they are each being tested and compared against others, and the best performer would win the job. To conduct this simple assessment centre, you would have a clear set of criteria to use as a guide.

However, in practice, most businesses don’t use this method: it’s just easier and quicker to use gut instinct than it is to set up assessment centres. The fact is that they aren’t easy to craft.

Setting them up requires an in-depth knowledge of the essential parts of the job. In many workplaces, standard job descriptions are of little help, if they exist at all. Expertise hasn’t been captured, and when an employee departs, their knowledge of how to perform the role leaves along with them. It makes the task of determining the core elements of the job an uphill struggle.

It also requires some skill: translating the tasks required by the job into “assessment tests” takes creativity. I have seen everything e.g. video role plays, written tests, computer games and mini-projects. Together, they have a surprising quality, revealing spontaneous and breath-taking performances: both good and bad.

When centres are run properly, they effectively separate candidates from each other, and it becomes much easier to hire employees who are willing to do the job of two or more people, while playing the never-ending game of getting better all the time. Then, the candidates who are hired are the ones around whom a powerful future can be built.

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