True or false: Slow people irritate you. you do things carefully so you don't make mistakes. You don't act polite when you don't want to. You can easily cheer up and forget a problem. Statements drawn from a self-help personality quiz? Far from it. They are excerpts from four different employment questionnaires developed by Unicru, an application-service provider that's based in Beaverton, Oregon. As part of a larger "Smart Assessment," a patent-pending artificial-intelligence program, Unicru's questionnaires screen for management, dependability, customer-service, and salesmanship potential among what may be the most valuable employee pool: hourly workers. Such companies as Bennigan's, Target, and Universal Studios use Unicru's personality-assessment tool to fill their ranks with hourly employees who are better qualified and more likely to stay with a company.
"Our system allows you to clone your best, most reliable people," says industrial psychologist David Scarborough, who helped develop the current set of assessment tests that Unicru administers for its clients. Taking one of the tests is simple: Sit down at a computer in a mall or retail store, spend half an hour typing in answers to questions about everything from your job experience to your hourly availability, respond to a few personality-related statements, hit "send," and then wait to hear from a hiring manager. Ten minutes (or less) after you've completed the application, the hiring manager receives a report (via email or fax) that gives you a green, yellow, or red light. In many cases, green gets you an automatic follow-up interview. Yellow offers discretion for the hiring manager and provides suggestions for particular areas of the application in which to probe further. Red is usually an automatic discard.
This automated process has helped Unicru's customers reduce their hiring cycle (the time from the initial job interview to a new employee's start date) by an average of 7 days — cutting it from 10 days to just 3. In the case of Blockbuster, chief operations officer Mike Roemer estimates even better results. "We've taken a two-week hiring process and brought it down to 72 hours," says Roemer. "Given that we hire, on average, one employee per store per month — and we have about 4,300 company-owned stores in the United States — this is a huge improvement."
As useful as the Unicru tool has been for Blockbuster's hiring process, Roemer prefers to think of the system as a vital investment for employee retention. "All retailers face a recurring dilemma: how to hire the best possible people while lowering retention problems," he says. "But with so many stores, Blockbuster faces that issue constantly. We not only need to hire people who like movies and who like to serve people's entertainment needs, but we also need to find hourly workers who will stay on as assistant managers and store managers."
Now that the holidays have passed, employers may think that hiring hourly employees is no longer an urgent need. In fact, based on last year's statistic, retail turnover for 2002 will average 130% to 150%. In light of this, Unicru's most impressive achievement is a 20% to 30% reduction in the turnover rate that the company secures for its first-year clients.
How do they do it? Here is the breakdown of the five ingredients for recruitment and retention success, Unicru style.
1. Walk in your employees' shoes on a regular basis.
The best thing about hourly employment is that we've all been there. Back in your hourly wage days, did you wish that your boss cared more about your opinions? Make feedback forms a key part of the job-review process. Were you often scrambling for cash? Make it easy for employees to take on extra shifts.
"Understanding the needs of the people whom you're hiring and how they will work with you in the future is vital," says Bob Gregg, Unicru's CEO. "This is so important that we put it on our business cards." He's not kidding: Right under "Chief Executive Officer" on Gregg's card is the statement "I used to run the corrugator in a box factory."
2. Job performance and tenure do not correlate.
According to Scarborough, the most important myth to debunk is that high performers are more-reliable, longer-term employees. "It's just not true," says Scarborough. "There are high and low performers at both ends of the tenure continuum." The reality is that an employee can be extremely capable of carrying out a job, and might even do it quickly and without making a lot of mistakes. But if that person is bored or doesn't like his coworkers, it will only be a matter of time before he's out the door.
When Macy's West rolled out the Unicru system throughout its stores, the VP of operations thought he'd give it a try by applying for a customer-service position on the retail floor. Within minutes, the program told him that there were no positions available for him. Outraged, the executive called Scarborough and demanded to have the system removed. "He wanted to know how it was possible that he wasn't qualified to be a clerk in his own store," recalls Gregg. Adds Scarborough: "The thing is, with the kind of money that he'd been making as an executive all those years, and with the job experience that he had, he wouldn't last a day on the floor. He would quit in an instant out of sheer boredom or frustration." A little sheepishly, the Macy's exec admitted that this was true — and he noted the value of distinguishing between being capable of doing a job and being well matched for one.
3. There is no such thing as a good or bad employee — just a good or bad fit.
The key, then, is to match skills with interests.
For example, a front-desk employee could be terrible at her job — being gruff with customers, barking orders at coworkers — but might not be motivated to leave the position. As a result, she might stay for years and continue to cause problems for both customers and the staff.
Traditionally, such an employee would be considered bad for the company, and management would fire her or encourage her to leave on her own. Scarborough suggests a different approach. "You have to ask why this woman is behaving this way," he says. "Maybe she's scared of strangers, and that's why she's unfriendly to customers. That doesn't mean that she's a bad employee. It means that she's a bad customer-service agent. Give her a different job."
With the Unicru system, such an employee would be asked to answer a number of true-or-false questions in order to determine her suitability for a position in customer service. ("You are good at understanding how people feel." "You spend your spare time by yourself.") If the employee's responses reveal a poor fit, a red light on the application flags the problem for her manager. "But have that same woman answer some different questions," Scarborough says. "Is she organized? Does she enjoy working on her own? Does she like the product that is sold by the company that she's applying to? If those are all true, then put her in the stockroom. That same terrible front-desk employee could be the best stockroom manager the company ever saw."
4. Always save your data.
According to Scarborough, the single most important element in Unicru's success at speeding up the hiring process and predicting employee longevity is the company's efficiency at capturing data — resulting in a very large sample size. Any company can build a substantial sample of its own if its staff remembers to store and save employee data from the hiring, review, and exit-interview processes.
Laurie Saylor, director of employee relations and staffing at the Sports Authority, estimates that the automation of her company's application process has saved hundreds of employee hours in clerical work. "We receive approximately 100,000 applications per year through the Unicru system, which allows applicants to complete the tests on their own," she says. "Without the system, our managers would be required to spend approximately 35 to 40 minutes with each applicant to administer the application prior to interviewing." The Unicru system weeds out unqualified applicants — saving the Sports Authority nearly 20,000 hours of extra interviewing and data-entry time each year.
Once the Unicru system collects and saves the data, the program then hunts for patterns and correlating factors among the responses — what Scarborough calls "criterion validation" — to provide clients with statistically significant predictions on which applicants would be good for which jobs. For instance, according to Unicru's analysis, the old belief that only gregarious extroverts make good salespeople simply isn't true. On the contrary, Scarborough says, "even very quiet people can be successful in sales positions. We've found a higher correlation between passion for a product or business and sales success than we have between being outgoing and being a good salesperson. It makes sense, doesn't it? A love for what you're selling will do so much more than just talking a lot."
5. Use interviews to probe, not to screen.
After you've automated phase one of the application process, adding automated parameters for the first-level screening of applicants isn't that difficult. For example, if you know that people who can't work weekends won't be accepted for a job, simply have the system screen for scheduling conflicts. This way, rather than serving as an extensive, time-consuming first-look screening effort, the interview becomes a forum for discussing substantive issues that may have an impact on job performance.
Added-value assessments like these have dramatically changed the game for retail managers like Dennis Hannah, a Blockbuster store manager in Portland, Oregon. "Having a guide for the interview phase takes away one-third of the time that I have to spend preparing for an interview," Hannah says. "With Unicru, we know that all of the necessary data is already in the system, or the application never would have landed on our desks."
Alison Overholt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company staff writer based in San Francisco.
Sidebar: True or False: I Was Meant to Work at Blockbuster
Last fall, I saw my own employment future: I was destined to be an assistant manager at the largest Blockbuster store in Portland, Oregon. To win the job, however, I first had to take a Unicru assessment test. After completing it, I sat down with store manager Dennis Hannah to talk about the results — and to find out whether or not I was Blockbuster material.
Navigating the computer's menu screens and answering the application questions took me about 25 minutes. Identifying my free hours and providing references were easy. So was typing in my job history. My only real twinge of uncertainty came during the personality segment. Should I really have admitted that I'm more competitive than I am polite?
Five minutes later, a computer-generated fax of the application and its assessment arrived on Hannah's desk, and we sat down to go over it. The system had automatically transferred my biographical data, job history, references, and possible WOTC (Work Opportunity Tax Credit) eligibilities into a neat, easy-to-read chart. When we started to read the application assessment, the results were eerily accurate. But I got a green light to move on to the interview phase because the test revealed that I was "more likely to act cheerful, polite, and friendly; cooperate on a team; effectively solve customer problems; and take the lead to help."
The test also suggested a number of follow-up questions. One suggestion was for Hannah to ask me about "the biggest conflict or clash that you've had lately. I don't mean a fistfight, necessarily, but an argument, disagreement, or misunderstanding." It then advised, "Listen for: stays tactful, solicits others' concerns, controls anger, tries to solve differences." I guess I answered "True" for a lot of statements such as "Slow people irritate you" and "A lot of people do annoying things." Perhaps I'm more cut out to write for a business magazine.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.