5 Reasons to Reconsider “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills”
Posted by Joseph T Sefcik, Jr., President, Employment Technologies Corporation on 4/16/2015

We’ve all heard the advice: “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills.” It’s been repeated, reprinted, and retweeted so many times that we almost accept it as universal truth. The clear implication of this adage is that attitude is more important than skills, and is even a prerequisite to skills, because character traits and attitude are assumed to remain constant over time and never change. It then follows that skills are less important and that they can be easily changed and trained.

While this all sounds perfectly reasonable, it doesn’t happen to be true. The Hire for Attitude theory doesn’t hold up in practice. In fact, when it comes to predicting job performance and success, empirical evidence consistently suggests the opposite:  Hiring for Skills dramatically increases your accuracy in selecting the right people. 

So to find and hire the best talent, there are 5 key reasons to reconsider Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills.

1.Work attitudes are hard to measure.

We all want conscientious, positive, honest, reliable employees. So, I’m not saying that attitude isn’t important. Attitude is critically important—it’s just very hard to accurately measure in an employment setting.  To screen for attitude, employers rely on a variety of tests designed to assess personal characteristics such as sociability, task orientation, integrity, etc. These tools typically consist of self-report questionnaires in which applicants choose the answer that most closely matches their perceived image of themselves. Regardless of the name, these tools are in fact personality tests and the results are based on the test taker’s own perceptions. This approach may be very effective in other settings; however, personality measures have proven to be very ineffective in predicting job success (Morgeson, et. al., 2007, Personnel Psychology). For the greatest accuracy, science instead points to objective skills and performance measures such as simulations, work samples, etc.

  1. Attitudes can be faked. 

The self-report aspect of personality tests creates the opportunity for applicants to put their best face forward—and the potential for “faking” is high. Most candidates are test savvy, so if the job is sales, customer service, accounting, etc., there’s a perceived payoff for applicants to provide answers that correspond to the image they believe fits the job. Faking is such a concern that developers of personality tests include extra questions in an effort to verify the honesty of other answers. In the testing industry, this is referred to as a “lie scale”—and for good reason.  Studies have shown that people consistently score higher in positive attributes when they think they’re applying for a job than when they are simply instructed to answer truthfully. Research also suggests that conscientiousness, one of the attitudes we value most, is also among the easiest to fake (McFarland and Ryan, 2000, Journal of Applied Psychology).

  1. Oops! You may be screening out the best people.      

Without a doubt, different people have different attitudes and character traits. And we typically associate some traits more with certain jobs than with others. A good example is the contrast between George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower—two successful generals yet very different people. If we were hiring Army generals based on a profile of attitudes and traits typically associated with that role, we likely would have screened out Dwight Eisenhower in the first round.  Ironically, it is Dwight Eisenhower who went on to become Supreme Commander and ultimately President of the United States.  Clearly, passing over Eisenhower would have been a big mistake.  And that brings us to a key point: people with different attitudes and personalities are often successful in the same job. That’s one reason hiring for attitude often falls short in identifying top performers; it causes you to overlook highly capable people who might not fit a specific hiring profile.

  1. Championship teams hire for skills.

When building a winning sports team, general managers seek out the most talented players. Ability is the first and single most important criterion in their decision process. While attitude and team chemistry are important, they serve a secondary role in selecting players. There are various levels of performance, and performance at the championship level is difficult to achieve. Sports teams want the shortest possible learning curve.  Selecting talented, highly-skilled performers shortens the time and investment necessary to achieve peak performance. 

Building a winning team is important for your organization too. With the ever-increasing pressure to achieve performance goals, hiring applicants at lower performance levels requires significant time and investment to raise their skills to the desired level.  Yes, skills can be trained—but it takes time and money.

  1. Training for skills is neither quick nor easy.    

If it were easy to train employees to consistently work at expected performance levels, then the training and coaching industry would be considerably smaller. Also, there is often confusion about the term “training” itself.  For clarification, procedural training is not the same as skills training. Training new employees in your organization’s procedures can be done quickly and efficiently. Procedures are easily written down and memorized, or prompted on a computer screen. The same cannot be said for skills. Problem solving, customer awareness, critical thinking, etc., can certainly be trained, but these skills take time and effort to develop.  Just like a championship sports team, if you want the shortest possible learning curve, evaluating applicants’ skill sets before you hire is critical.

If your organization is looking to boost performance levels, or if you find yourself spending too much time and effort helping employees reach standard performance goals, then it’s time to rethink Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills. By focusing on skills first, then attitude, you’ll create winning teams that hit the ground running—and will also be a good fit for your organization.

Categories: Employment & Staffing, Human Resources
Comments (1)
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Posted by Erika on 4/29/2017 9:07 AM:
Well, I just would like to say: congratulations for daring to question this famous quote.
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