In the United States, we have a long election cycle, which, I think, gives people a chance to vet the candidates who are vying for the job of representing them. We have access to tons of information if we want to make a smart decision on whom to vote for. In a sense voters collectively are making a hiring decision.
In many ways, some companies also try to get as much information about candidates before hiring them. One attribute that has shown to increase the odds of making a smart hire is vetting. Many companies still think of vetting as nothing more than standard reference checking, but as I found out talking to Suzanne Kelly, founder of Acquisition Intelligence, vetting is not reference checking. Vetting, if done by an expert, provides a valuable data point in helping companies make a smart hiring decision.
In this blog, I ask Suzanne five questions to get her insight on vetting since hiring today has become so strategic that companies simply can't afford to make a bad hiring decision. Before I present the questions, I want to give you two famous examples on vetting. See what would you have done with the information about these two people. Would you have hired them? They both got the job, with one working out, and the other one not working out.
Source: "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
One of the most famous examples of vetting of recent times was how John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate for the 2008 presidential election. Sarah Palin was a first-term governor of Alaska in 2008. She was not well known to those outside the Republican political circle and was considered a long shot for the VP position primarily because of her lack name recognition and experience.
John McCain's first choice for the VP position was Joe Lieberman, Senator from Connecticut; however, Lieberman had two major problems: One, he was a Democrat; second, he held a pro-choice position on abortion. The second one was simply unacceptable to the religious right in the Republican party, and they threatened to stage an open revolt at the Republican National Convention. McCain quickly realized that picking Lieberman was not worth the risk and decided to pick someone else. And he had to find a suitable candidate in one week.
The McCain campaign started looking for alternatives, but none on the short list generated much excitement or consensus. Someone then brought up the name Sarah Palin from the long list as a potential VP candidate. After looking at her resume and talking to Palin on the phone by McCain and his advisers, there was a mutual interest to pursue this further. McCain was leaning toward Palin as she checked all the boxes, including being a darling of the religious right in the Republican party. But the one attribute that McCain wanted more than anything was to pick someone who was going to be a game changer to compete with the star power of Barack Obama.
There were four players involved in this important decision to select the vice president nominee: John McCain, Steve Schmidt (campaign manager), Mark Salter (senior adviser) and A.B. Culvahouse (chief vetter).
McCain's closest advisers did not probe deep into her domestic and foreign policy experience. They were more interested in safeguarding McCain's brand; hence, the McCain advisers made a lot of assumptions about Palin being fit for the vice-president's job. Also, Palin's confidence assured them that she would be up to the task. Meanwhile, the vetters focused mainly on an ethics complaint referred to as "Troopergate" and the pregnancy of Palin’s daughter Bristol.
The report submitted by the vetters contained a disclaimer: "Given the haste in which it was prepared, the vetters might have missed something."
Lawyers who vetted Palin were impressed at how Palin handled herself during the vetting process. Since time was short and there was a momentum toward selecting Palin had formed such that the lawyers felt that the vetting was irrelevant. When Culvahouse called McCain and gave him his bottom line: "High risk, high reward." To which McCain said, “You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk-taker all of my life.”
The only question that mattered to John McCain was whether Sarah Palin could generate the same excitement for the Republicans as Obama had done for the Democrats. McCain felt he had no choice but to select Palin.
What would you have done if you were advising John McCain based on the vetting?
Now you understand what decision makers go through when making a hiring decision, let’s ask Suzanne five questions about vetting from someone who does this for corporations of all sizes.
Do you have to get involved early on to develop a strategy of hiring a candidate, so everyone who is part of the hiring team knows their roles, responsibilities, and expectations before the interview process even gets started?
Investing time on the front end of a project to openly communicate with all involved promotes a much more efficient collaboration. There are many things companies can consider about the vetting process right out of the gate, and I like to share as much of this as I can to help them on the front end. I use a strategic and proactive approach that looks deeper as to a candidate's engagement, culture, management, and personality fit, and requisite skills and achievements to provide long-term value. The value to clients is better-aligned talent, increased retention, and minimized hiring risk.
What type of success do companies see with candidates who are well vetted?
The common theme I found among most companies was they treated the diligence surrounding the vetting as a mere formality of the hiring process, commonly performed after the decision to hire had been made.
Some companies dismiss it altogether because they’re convinced it's a waste of time, or they don't have the time to manage it. However, when the process is well managed, it's well worth the investment. My methodology, including the timing, is one key component in the success of securing top tier talent. Having applied it for over 20 years, the long-term retention success of so many candidates I’ve placed is exemplary. For example, many of the candidates I worked with have been in the same companies and are still thriving, on or about 20 years later. That kind of longevity is extremely rare today in corporations. I attribute much of that success to my investment of time throughout the hiring process to ensure that the hiring will result in a mutual fit for a long time.
Who does most of the vetting in companies today, and do they have the adequate skill-set to do the job effectively?
Some hiring professionals do not have the requisite skill set and/or personality to drive the process in a way that will ultimately determine whether a prospective candidate is the most appropriate fit for the position and corporate culture. On the other hand, let's assume that all hiring professionals and recruiters do in fact have the requisite skill set to drive and manage this initiative effectively, the issue then becomes lack of capacity. Even a well-managed, healthy vetting process is extremely time-consuming, and most do not have the time to invest, hence the reason it typically gets minimized or dropped.
My methodology is quite customized and comprehensive and involves the design of interview questionnaires around all the variables that go into a successful hire. For example, culture fit, personality fit within the dynamics of a team, competencies, previous successes, and accomplishments, etc.
Looking at the big picture, interviewing the most relevant professionals from a prospective hire’s current and previous jobs brings a unique data point to the table that helps to establish whether this hire is an ideal match. This 360 feedback allows managers the validation to move forward with the hire or move on. Speaking with current and previous professionals to obtain this feedback is hugely beneficial as it gives you the opportunity to interpret tone, gauge enthusiasm, interject, and listen carefully to not only what they’re saying but the way they say it.
How do you overcome a gut instinct of a hiring manager or an executive even after you discover potential problems with a candidate through vetting?
I've never seen this as a problem. First, when hiring professionals are presented with authentic feedback from previous professionals who know the prospective hire best, it's quite validating. It brings an entirely different data point to the table which will either support their gut instincts or not. Most agree that past performance is one of the best predictors of future success, and when you find common themes among very specific feedback, from 7-8 individuals, it's very hard not to take it seriously.
Relying solely on gut instincts and skipping this is flirting with disaster yet most don't even consider it. Studies from The Harvard Business Review point out that as much as 80% of employee turnover is due to bad hiring decisions, and vetting is all about being proactive and exercising risk management.”
Based on your experience, who was responsible at certain companies if a candidate had to leave because of something that came up later that could have easily have been identified if the candidate had been adequately vetted?
It’s very hard to hold one person accountable when there’s a collaborative effort, plus I believe most decisions are made with the best of intentions. I am confident the solution for minimizing overall risk is a more thorough and proactive approach that involves due diligence. I take great pride in not only augmenting a hiring process with my expertise, proven hiring strategies and methodology, but also educating hiring professionals on what it is supposed to look like. This diligence is highly empowering and prevents hiring professionals from relying solely on gut instincts.”
Five Books Recommended by Suzanne Kelly
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Thou Shall Prosper by Daniel E. Lapin
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
The Fifteen Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman
If you would like to learn more about vetting and how it can help you make informed hiring decisions, please visit the Acquisition Intelligence website.