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Stuart Hearn

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Does employee attitude matter more than ability?


How should HR professionals distinguish between candidates - should experience outrank enthusiasm every time?

The skill vs. will debate, or the attitude vs. aptitude debate, is something often discussed in HR and recruitment circles.

It is important to us, for many reasons, that we make the right decision when it comes to hiring. After all, the process can be exhausting.

There are person specifications and job descriptions to compile, agencies to approach, and interviews to carry out. On top of this, you need to consider onboarding and getting new hires up to speed. So how do we ensure that we make the right decisions at this crucial stage?

In order to reduce turnover, certain issues need to be addressed, and perhaps the most pressing of which is whether or not we prioritise enthusiasm and passion over current skill level. 

Ability is undoubtedly an important aspect, but there are arguments to suggest that it shouldn’t be the determining factor. Consider that you have two employees, one of which is remarkably skilled with a great amount of experience; the other might not tick all your desired skills boxes, but they are enthusiastic, keen, and driven to succeed. Which one should you select?

According to an Oxford Economics report, replacing a single employee can cost, on average, £30,614. This cost takes into account the productivity loss incurred through the time taken to get a new hire up to speed.

According to the report, this takes an average of 28 weeks. On top of this cost comes advertising costs, agency fees, and the need to hire temporary staff before the new employee is selected.

Enthusiastic employees don’t need constant monitoring

Enthusiastic and eager employees won’t need someone looking over their shoulder to ensure that they are working, because work is something that they are engaged with and that they enjoy. These are the employees who are likely to get more involved with the company as a whole and who will have a vested interest in achieving success for both themselves and the organisation.

Given that they genuinely care about their work, they are also more likely to seek assistance and feedback if they are struggling or unsure about a task. In this respect, performance management software can be very helpful as it facilitates communication between employees and their managers.

Employees with a good attitude want to learn

Enthusiastic employees are driven and keen to learn more about their role, about the roles of others in the company, and about the company as a whole. These are the types of individuals who will ask about training prospects and advancement, and these are exactly the type of people you want on board. You might have a very skilled worker in a given position, but unless they show an interest in advancing and improving, they won’t prove to be much of an asset or an investment to your company.

Encourage this attitude with the introduction of Personal Development Plans (PDPs), which you and your employees can collaborate on together. This will show your employee that you are equally invested in them and their future, as well as their role within the organisation.

A good attitude can’t be taught

The skill vs will debate often boils down to the fact that skills are things that can be taught given time. Attitude, however, is a personality trait that is either there or not there. Business journalist Kevin Daum argues that the characteristics best suited for a dynamic and forward-thinking workplace are passion, flexibility, and accountability. Personality traits to avoid are a lack of motivation, irritability, and an inability to deal with open feedback.

81% of the time it is the wrong attitude, rather than the wrong skillset, that results in high turnover.

According to a three-year study carried out by Leadership IQ, which involved more than 5,000 hiring managers, an incredible 81% of new hires will ultimately fail, meaning that they were not suited to their role. On top of this, 46% of total hires will, according to the study, fail within the first 18 months. Only 19% go on to achieve success in their new role. This happens because HR executives and hiring managers are busy and focus on technical skills, which are obvious and easy to test.

But according to the study, most people are not let go due to lack of skill. 26% of employees are terminated due to a lack of coachability, 23% fail due to their diminished emotional intelligence, a further 17% are ultimately rejected on account of their lack of motivation, and 15% lose their jobs because of their temperamental behaviour. This means that 81% of the time it is the wrong attitude, rather than the wrong skillset, that results in high turnover.

How do you test for attitude in an interview?

As mentioned, it is far easier to test skill level than to assess attitude. After all, people are generally on their best behaviour during an interview. There are, however, certain questions you can ask to give you an indication of whether or not you are interviewing a determined employee, or one that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of ambition.

Enquire about their previous role and their reasons for leaving. A level-headed and reasonable employee will be diplomatic, or even positive, about their former employer. Ask them about how they respond to challenge, or tasks that they believe to be outside of their current capabilities. It is also useful to ask them about work challenges they have experienced in the past and how they overcame them. These situational questions will help you get an overall idea of the interviewee’s character and nature.

For future employees, keep the above points in mind and remember that attitude is probably our greatest current predictor of successful hires. Hopefully, you will be in the position of choosing between employees who are both skilled and enthusiastic. However, should there be a tipping factor, it’s best to go with attitude.

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