Hiring and Safety

Hiring and Safety

Now, I know that title, Hiring and Safety, probably sounds like this is going to be a work place safety post, but no, that is not what this is. I have been in twitter conversations with John Cutler (@johncuttlefish) about providing a psychologically safe place for employees. A place where the work can get done, exploration of alternatives is possible with as few adverse restrictions as possible to facilitate creativity. I have also had discussions with Tom Cagley on motivation and organization change, and those conversations both real and virtual, have generated this rumination.

Why would this be important? Modern work life and product development in particular has gotten increasingly complex and complicated. One way to meet this complexity is to unencumber your team and unleash their intellectual and creative capabilities.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. ~ Albert Einstein1 (1)

Organizations, are not people, however they do consist of people and from personal experience each organization has attributes and behaviors it prizes, along with those that it does not appreciate or a culture all its own. The organization’s culture places constraints on behavior, just as the culture and mores of your community influence your personal behavior outside of the organization.

Safety is a relative term, it is akin to risk in that way. Some people are risk averse, some are risk tolerant. The threshold of what is uncomfortable or intolerable varies from person to person. At least one thing to consider when bringing people into your company, is the degree of psychological safety they require as compared to the amount of psychological safety your company offers. In other words, it is not just about the talent, values, or psychological strength of the individual, it is about matching these attributes to the organization. Those hiring likely understand the connection between the talent of the individual and the organization’s talent needs. That attribute is relatively easy and has been part of organization development for decades, even during the scientific management era (2), those that hired needed to consider the talent of the individual juxtaposed to the work. As we understood organization culture and change, the focus shifts from one of raw skills or talents but structures and processes impact the employee (3) . You can find more on this topic here.

It is important to match the organization’s culture and how that impacts the individual. I have worked at companies that were heavily authoritarian. I found this to be uncomfortable and this had a small but influential impact on my decision to leave that company. The company culture did not match my preference or that in which I would have thrived. Conversely, I have worked at a company that was not overtly authoritarian, but was highly politically. This highly charged environment had serious consequences on speech and reporting. Rather than speak directly based upon measurements and evidence, words were couched, the meaning soften so discerning the severity of the situation was practically impossible.
Neither of these solutions were optimum for me, though I could and did work with each. From conversations I had with others, I am certain people within these companies found this less than perfect environment for thriving motivation. Rather, in both cases, there was a portion of the employees that adopted an approach of behaving in ways that conform to these rules. The desire or ability to directly address problems as presented was curtailed. In the face of obvious issues, a wait and see or wait until told became more engrained.

There are ways to avoid this situation. A company culture is not the sort of thing that is easily up rooted or replaced with a new version.

  • Interview technique
  • Interview questions
  • Use of contract staff

Interview Technique

As a manager, I would interview candidates, as all managers should. However, I did not end the interviewing process with my questions. Rather, we would have a mix of single point interviews and panel interviews. The panel interviews would be divided into some common theme. For example, I would have the most seasoned people to ask questions of the prospective employee and no just to gauge their level of understanding of the technical material or process. This group, in this instance, this group represented some of the most strongly opinionated and assertive of the people in the department. The next panel interview would include those that were more comfortable with the social aspects of the work environment. That is not to say this group was not technically competent, but their held in higher regard the social aspects of the work environment. This approach provided a modicum of perspective on the range of personality types a potential employee of the group would have to contend.

Interview Questions

This less reliable though should not be discounted entirely in my view. Questions during interview, especially those questions that are not so technical and trade-off in nature. In other words, there may be less a single correct answer, but a range of alternatives or approaches largely depending upon circumstances. Consider a candidate is asked how much current (I) is going through a loop of a given circuit. That has a tangible and specific answer. We all probably understand that the prospective candidate’s answers to some of the questions are likely influenced by a desire to show well and land the job, especially when the candidate is presently not gainfully employed. In this regard, you may think the psychology-centric questions are not so important. I would argue that is not the case, as we are starting the relationship with the prospective employee, and the hiring or accepting the position requires both parties to agree. Since the hiring is a mutual acceptance, it does not matter who pulls out of a potentially bad decision, that is, whether the potential candidate realizes they do not fit, or the hiring manager realizes the candidate does not fit, or if both do.
The point is, instead of focusing on technical questions solely, work to understand how the candidate would react given specific situations that are likely to happen at your organization. Present these questions in ways that do not provide any words that would direct the candidate to a specific answer.

Use of contract staff

I have worked at companies that have used contract engineering resources to augment their staff. This also had an upside for the organization, of allowing a trial run of perhaps many years via contract. I personally liked hiring contract staff, besides the fiscal adaptability, easier to reduce contract staff headcount than direct personnel in the times of economic down turns. In addition to this adaptability, it is also a way to have a trial run of the relationship with the potential employee. I have used this technique on numerous occasions moving a person from a contract spot to direct when I saw how they worked, work ethic, and how they fit culturally or psychologically within the company.


There is much more to consider than only the talent of the prospective employee. Ascertaining the technical capability of the prospective candidate may be easier than understanding the cultural fit and psychological strength, especially if your organization or the hiring personnel do not consider the importance of these dimensions in the hiring process. Work to understand the person as much as possible in entirety. I know this is much more difficult. However, the costs for not taking this approach may be far greater we spend money and time interviewing, and on boarding people that will either leave soon after we hire them, and have invested more in the time and training of the newly acquired talent.  That may be the best case scenario, the worst is the newly acquired talent falls into the one bad apple category, spoiling the other talent.


[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins121993.html

[2] http://www.netmba.com/mgmt/scientific/

[3] http://www.med.upenn.edu/hbhe4/part4-ch15-organizational-development-theory.shtml

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